The anonymous Web often gets a bad rap: Ask.fm has long been a haven for teenage bullies, 4chan is the source of some of the Internet’s grimmest shenanigans, and — just this week — the secret-sharing app Whisper became the new hunting ground of Internet deviants out trawling for nudes.
And yet, of all the anonymous apps and Web sites promising safe spaces for users to spill their souls, perhaps none has proved so consistently problematic — so apparently irredeemable — as Yik Yak, the scourge of campuses from California to Concord, N.H.
In the past week alone, more than a dozen high schools and universities have had high-profile incidents with the app. A college in New Jersey is pursuing disciplinary action against students who spread a sex tape via Yik Yak without the subject’s permission. Two students at the University of Southern Mississippi were charged with felonies over posts made to Yik Yak in late September. In Atlanta, the city where Yik Yak is headquartered, Emory University’s student government just passed a resolution denouncing the app as “a platform for hate speech or harassment.”
Meanwhile, just an hour north of D.C., an 18-year-old freshman at Towson University was arrested and charged for promising a “Virginia Tech Part 2” on Oct. 4 in an anonymous Yik Yak post. University police have found no evidence that the student planned to carry out his threat, but he’ll still face two charges of threatening to commit a violent crime and willfully disturbing school activities, a misdemeanor. An administrative review board will also determine his enrollment status at the school; while still technically a student, he isn’t allowed on campus.
“It seems to have been posted in a moment of anger and frustration,” said Ray Feldmann, Towson’s director of communications. “But we’re in an environment now, a post-Virginia Tech world, where you just can’t make threats like that. There’s no such thing as a hoax or a prank.”
This was not, incidentally, Towson’s first run-in with the app since it began gaining national traction in January of this year. Last spring, the university was also forced to convene meetings with representatives from campus Greek organizations and the Office of Student Affairs over a spate of nasty, bullying messages on the app.
That coincides with similar incidents in Chicago, where abuse on the app became so severe that Yik Yak decided to suspend operations in the area. Or Concord, N.H., where a group of students became so horrified with the contents of the app that they taped uplifting anonymous messages to hundreds of student lockers, a kind of anti-Yik Yak meant to “react to negativity.”
Just this morning, a college in eastern Pennsylvania alerted students that a credible Yik Yak threat had been made at the school; an 18-year-old student was later arrested for posting that he was going to shoot the people who “bully me every single day.”
What, exactly, do users see in this seething slimepit? More to the point, what do investors see in it? Yik Yak is just shy of a year old — the app launched quietly last November, before exploding among students early this year — and it’s already raised more than $10 million in funding, much of it from the Chinese social giant Renren.
The theoretical appeal of Yik Yak is in two things: total anonymity and close proximity. Unlike most other anonymous-sharing apps, Yik Yak asks for virtually no personal information on sign-up. (Case in point: When Towson investigated its campus threat, it could only get the poster’s phone number from Yik Yak — campus police had to contact his cellphone provider to get an actual name.) The app also only displays messages sent within a 1.5-mile radius, which guarantees that whatever “secrets” (or jokes or spurious gossip) you’re reading happened at your school. The vast majority of posts are one-line witticisms on typically collegiate things: a bad midterm, a bad roommate, a bad hangover.
“Many people at UB use Yik Yak to express their thoughts and feelings,” one student gushed to the University at Buffalo’s campus paper this week. “Yik Yak shows us when other people [are experiencing] or feeling the same way that we do, which is pretty cool.”
The problem, of course, is when Yik Yak shows other things, which it does with astounding frequency: Hurtful gossip or slander about specific students, a la the departed JuicyCampus; threats of violence, some of them credible; outright cries for help. These types of posts have become so common, in fact, that the fresh-faced, class-of-’13 founders behind it have drastically scaled back their original strategy: initially launching nationwide, then restricting the app just to college campuses, and finally promising a “geofence” — or block — to any school that asks for it. Oddly, the one thing Yik Yak has not done is moderate proactively: Users can “flag” yaks as inappropriate, but it’s unclear what happens to those flags and how quickly they’re addressed.
None of this bodes well for Yik Yak’s grand ambition, which is to become a kind of hyperlocal news and community network — think the coffee shop cork board for the digital age. The problem with that analogy, of course, is that some barista presumably watches the IRL cork board for rude and/or offensive fliers. And people thumbtacking a notice in a public space are still obligated to follow certain social norms. And few people — to my knowledge, at least? — casually take to the community bulletin board when they’re lonely or angry or vengeful or drunk or otherwise predisposed to writing something terrible.
“We didn’t hear about Yik Yak much until last week,” Towson’s Feldmann said, with a slight sigh. “You know how these apps go: They pop up, they cool off.”
Here’s hoping this one cools.