You Never Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone…

How Yik Yak has betrayed college students across the country and what this means for Student Affairs and Higher Education
Trigger warnings: discussion on rape culture, racism, power, privilege, and mental health issues.

EDIT:  After 17 days of posting this article, Yik Yak has had a mea culpa and has reverted many of the changes discussed in this article back to the way they were.  This article is still important because it discusses the value of doing so.

Yik Yak.  You hate it.  You love it.  Maybe you don’t care.  You do, however, need to be aware the role it played (and is playing) for our students and what the most recent change has had on how students navigate Yik Yak.

To start, this article sums up nicely what has happened over the summer to Yik Yak from a student’s perspective; The “Death of the Colleges Favorite App”

For us in student affairs, we mostly associate Yik Yak with the dreaded NASPA experience in 2015 in New Orleans.  If you missed this, check out this article from the Chronicle of Higher education: NASPAs conference was going well, and then Yik Yak Showed Up

In Higher Education we tend to prioritize authenticity in the work we do.  We want to be our authentic selves and we want our students to do the same.  In many ways, Yik Yak started out providing just that; authenticity.  It achieved this goal by being completely anonymous.  A user could say whatever they wanted without consequence.  Like “Juicycampus” before, the freedom of Yik Yak was very attractive to students who felt they had no place to be authentic.

In our field, we mostly associate this idea of anonymous posting with negative concepts; misogyny, racism, homophobia.  Yik Yak is an easy place for people to express their hatred without fear of consequence.

But when we, as higher education professionals discuss the concept of authenticity, what gets lost is how the dynamics of power and privilege play out.

It is relatively easy for me, as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, married with five daughters, to be authentic online.  I can post on facebook pictures of my authentic life, and get lots of likes, lots of smiles, and lots of encouragement for my “true” self.

For friends and colleagues who may not have the privileged identities I do, there are much deeper questions and barriers to authenticity online that need to be navigated.

For example; if a colleague is gay, but worked at an institution in which they could be fired for being gay, could they truly be “authentic” online?  What does that look like or mean?

If a colleague struggled with depression or mental health issues, or thoughts of suicide, could they be authentic online without fear of getting fired, or not getting hired in the future?

Social media is great, but we don’t often talk about that it supports current societal notions of power and oppression.  “That post wasn’t professional” is something I don’t have to navigate often because of many privileged identities I possess, unless I actually CHOOSE to take a risk.

Enter Yik Yak.  In these anonymous spaces online, people can share whatever they want. Without consequence (well, without many consequences because Yik Yak has never been truly anonymous – but that’s another post for another time).  If I am struggling with depression or mental health issues, I could post on Yik Yak (or a different anonymous app) without fear it may impact a future job prospects.  If I am exploring my sexual identity, I can throw it out into the world without fear of “real life” consequences, because I can shut off the application, switch to a new one, etc.  If I want to explore being a different gender, I can do that.  Yik Yak can be VERY liberating for people who have to put on masks all day to navigate our field and the world.  Many colleagues from marginalized identities struggle daily with having to be “inauthentic” in order to succeed in our supposedly “inclusive” field.  Yik Yak gave them that space.

In higher education we focus on a lot of the negative. Racist posts.  Blatant misogyny. Rape culture.  But what anonymity gives, it gives to EVERYONE.  The hard truth is, on our campuses, these racist, misogynist students exist. This negative culture exists. But within this world of anonymous posts and content, the positives are there amid the negativity.  I’d like to share a few stories with you to highlight these points:

Imagine a male student struggling with being sexually assaulted.  He can’t talk to his friends.  He feels ashamed because of what he has been taught about men, rape, and the hyper masculinity and homophobia that exists in his world. He believes he cannot go into the campus counseling center for fear someone might find out.  Imagine he posts on Yik Yak what happened.  Then a staff member who follows Yik Yak reads it and encourages him and responds with “well, I think there is a counseling center on campus you could talk to that’s totally anonymous.”  And that is the inspiration or the little push he needs to go in and talk to someone.  Because of anonymity, he gets the help he needs.

Imagine a student being abused by their significant other.  Imagine asking “is this behavior normal?” on Yik Yak and the 15-20 responses of “that is not normal! Go get help!”

Imagine a student posting “I think I might be gay”on Yik Yak, and people responding with “you’re ok, there are people around if you’d like to talk about it.”

You may be thinking to yourself “but that wouldn’t happen on my campus!”  And herein is the REAL issue.  Yik Yak isn’t the real problem.

What really worries us as higher ed folks is that Yik Yak provides an assessment tool on the campus climate for your marginalized students.  If negative, racist, and misogynist posts are quickly downvoted and disappeared, or even lead to positive discussions, that would be a positive thing, right?  Sit there for a minute. We aren’t a fan of Yik Yak because we as a profession are concerned that the racists, misogynists, purveyors of rape culture will overpower those fighting against it.  Just sit with that and see if it rings true.

Yik Yak isn’t the problem.  Anonymity isn’t the problem.  The problem is some of our campuses aren’t truly inclusive and we have a LOT of work to do.  We can make it appear they are inclusive by putting together a really cool web page, brochure, social media campaign, or viral video…but if you had an inclusive campus, anonymity wouldn’t be such a concern.

But all of this changed this summer.  True anonymity was replaced with requiring posters to have a profile.  When someone posts on Yik Yak, their profile name goes with it.  You might ask “why is this a problem, you can create an anonymous profile?”  Well, before, each post was compartmentalized.  It existed outside of an identity.  With a profile, you now have no option to disconnect a thought with an identity.  Every thought or post you make contributes to your identity in the app.  Think about it, in essence a profile is a creation of an identity that logs every post and comment ever made by you. This isn’t anonymity.  And it doesn’t provide a place to experiment and explore one’s identities and values without consequence.  Once again, Yik Yak belongs to those who have power and privilege, because societal norms are reinforced.  Because students can no longer post without being connected to a profile, those are are trying to explore various aspects of their identity aren’t able to experiment without it impacting their yik yak profile.  Those who are more comfortable (i.e. those from privileged groups) won’t worry about what they say because ultimately it plays into their power and privilege and seeks to keep those from marginalized identities from gaining power.

Add to this the announcement recently that vine is shutting down.  A great article posted how these apps that shut down impact those shut out from mainstream media:

“Most important, the engines of this creativity were groups poorly served by, and often shut out from, mainstream cultural creation and consumption. Vine wasn’t just dominated by teenagers — it was dominated by teenagers of color. Especially black teens, who created a disproportionate number of popular Vines and used the social network to demonstrate wit, intelligence, creativity, and comic timing that was rarely given a spotlight elsewhere. That included dance trends like the yeet.”

But our students are versatile.  They possess grit.  They will find a way to fill the gap.  Jodel is one up and coming app that is very much like the original Yik Yak (this is not an endorsement of said app).  Students started posting about Jodel on Yik Yak, and Yik Yak was deleting these posts.  Yik Yak now has programs that scour Yik Yak for mentions of Jodel to delete those posts.  So the students adapted again.  Using alternative spelling like J0d3l.  They are truly innovative.  I am NOT advocating for Jodel, but I am merely pointing out that our students will look for these avenues if we aren’t creating them ourselves.

In the Apple app store, when Yik Yak made the change, the reaction from users was swift and angry.  Many people posted thoughts similar to this one:

capture

 

What is the value of anonymity and how does it allow students to explore authenticity? Something to chew on as our students are engaged in this academic year!

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