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Abigail Worden
UC 240: Science and Technology
Dr. Clymer
18 November 2014
Yik Yak: Examining the Sword and Shield of Anonymity
With its innocent cartoonish logo and soothing teal and white color scheme,
the mobile application Yik Yak seems utterly harmless in its appearance and
concept: a location-based mobile bulletin board for users to raise awareness about
local events, ask questions, and start conversations. However, the app epitomizes
the frighteningly destructive potential of anonymity in the hands of todays high
school and college age students.
Acting as something of a combination of Twitter and popular website Reddit,
Yik Yak is an entirely anonymous social media program that consists of posts, or
Yaks, restricted to 200 words in length. These Yaks appear on a dashboard of all
local postings arranged by order of popularity dictated by upvotes and
downvotes, a system that involves readers pressing an up arrow or down arrow on
a post in order to increase or decrease its popularity and its resulting visibility. While
the application has its users agree to a Terms of Service that requires them to be at
least 18 years old, refrain from posting abuse, defamation, offensive language, or
inciting violence, Yik Yak has been used for extensive cyberbullying campaigns on
both high school and college campuses, as well as death and bomb threats. As a
piece of technology, Yik Yak speaks to the interests and attitude of the current
student population, as well as the generative nature of internet and application

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programs, which have the potential to develop into something far removed from its
original purpose or design. To evaluate Yik Yak, I will examine the pros and cons of
the following criteria: whether or not it fosters connections in to the local
community, the system of upvoting and downvoting, the nature of its anonymity,
and determine whether it has a useful purpose or is merely a mashup of existing
social media programs.
It is appropriate to begin with discussing Yik Yaks location services, since that
attribute defines much of its purpose as an app. What I aim to examine is whether
or not people who use the app are bettered by its ability to track their location and
feed them posts within their local area, and if those benefits outweigh the costs. By
reading the location tracking services that are installed into all of todays
smartphones, Yik Yak allows users to anonymously post messages to a local
bulletin board, which is visible to anyone within a 1.5 mile radius of the sender
(Kedmey). According to Yik Yaks Terms of Service, within a five mile radius, the
poster can choose to share with the closest 100, 250, or 500 Yik Yak users. For $.99,
users can share with 1,000 people, 2,500 for $1.99, and 10,000 for $5. This
defining characteristic made Yik Yak immediately popular with college students after
its release, since this radius covered the average college campus and surrounding
area, where students would live.
This comes as no surprise, given that the startup was launched by two
Furman University students aiming to connect people through anonymous,
location-based posts (Crook). By three months into its release, Yik Yak had been
launched on five major southern campuses, and since then has been expanded to
dedicated sections for more than a hundred college campuses (Koenig). While it is
available for download and use anywhere, these major campuses receive special

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focus, and can be peeked at by any other user anywhere in the world. The Peek
function, which began as other users being able to look at the most recent and most
popular feeds of a select few universities, has evolved into Peek Anywhere and
Featured Peek. The first function allows users to save the location of a place they
visit in their Peek feed so that they can Peek it at any time, and Featured Peek
creates theme threads that users can submit relevant posts to, from Christmas
Wishlist and 90s TV to topics as serious as Ferguson. However, outside of the
Featured function, users cannot post to any thread other than their immediate local
area. The exponential growth of Yik Yak from its original launching to this more
complex location-based message board is a reflection of how suddenly and
powerfully popular it became.
When the app was created, its location-based services were designed with a
benevolent purpose in mind: helping college students get acclimated to campus
and just generally sharing with each other what was going on and where (Kerkez).
Like a constant campus news cycle, Yik Yak was built for announcements of parties
and events, requests for meet-ups and hangouts, and on-the-ground breaking news
stories. Initially, the majority of Yakking was about upcoming tests, sex, and food.
This created a humorous, generative mobile environment for college students, and
an excellent platform for advertising campus organizations and groups. Regarding
the opportunities for bullying, offensive, and other harmful abuses of the app, the
founders responded, On the college front the longer a community is around the
more mature and constructive it becomes (Crook). There is some validity to that
statement. Paging through the local Yik Yak on my own device and Peeking at other
colleges, the top ranked posts are about getting through finals, supporting sports
teams, and how bad the campus food is. While the latter can be termed offensive in

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its own way, the number of upvotes and high ranking show that it is an issue that
many students share sympathy with, and therefore that it builds a sense of
community and connection. For example, When you share [something funny] on
Yik Yak only the closest 500 people will see it so there is a high likelihood they will
get the joke much more than someone that lives 1000 miles away (Wojdylo). There
will be different trends, attitudes, and themes in Yak threads based on location,
allowing the app to develop in a way to best represent and suit the nearby area and
the person using it.
To provide an example to examine, one Capital University post with twenty
upvotes reads, First track meet of the year tomorrow in the Cap Center! Field
events start at 3:30 and running events start at 4:45! Come out and support your
capfam!!, an informative and supporting post liked by many. However, the reply
posted to it is, Or nah, with a laughing emoticon, implying that the thought that
anyone is interested in attending is ridiculous. This post is a perfect example of the
pros and cons of the location services of Yik Yak. While there is benefit to the local
community, it also comes at the cost of knowing that every demeaning, insulting
anonymous post comes not from a distant internet troll, but someone who could be
two doors down the hall, or next to you in the library. A student at the University of
New Mexico was targeted by derogatory and malicious posts, and stopped attending
classes for the week, saying, I didnt know who created the posts; who read them;
or what people thought about me now; all she knew was that they came from
people who had seen and new her personally enough for their opinions to be
legitimately formed (Kerkez). While Yik Yak does have potential applications for
encouraging community awareness and involvement, it is murky as to whether or

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not those applications outweigh the pain students encounter as a result of knowing
that their anonymous attackers are somewhere within the apps five mile radius.
When Herbert Spencer proposed his idea of the social struggle for existence
known as Social Darwinism, I doubt he expected the concept would come to
influence the social media interactions of middle, high school, and college students.
Yet it is precisely the science of survival of the fittest that dictates the popularity
or inevitable disappearance of Yaks in Yik Yak. While the main feed of Yik Yak is the
newest posts ordered by the time of their posting, the next tab is Hot, which
shows the highest to lowest ranked posts based on the upvotes and downvotes a
Yak receives: If a post becomes popular it will receive multiple more upvotes than
downvotes and display a positive number next to it. If a post isnt popular amongst
the local audience it can receive up to 5 downvotes (indicated by a negative
number) before it becomes deleted permanently (Wojdylo). This allows the
community to collectively police their own local thread. Anyone using the Peek
function does not have the ability to post, vote, or reply, leaving the visibility or
disappearance of a post in the hands of those viewing the Yak on their own feed. A
style of ranking is also in place for users, called Yakarma. Yakarma are points that
build up based on the frequency and popularity of your activity on the app:
Yakarma can be accumulated by getting upvotes on original Yaks or replies in the
form of comments What some users may not realize is that you can build your
Yakarma by simply upvoting or downvoting other Yaks. If you sat all day and just up
and downvoted you would be able to accumulate a respectable score (Wojdylo).
The score is only visible to you, however, and doesnt seem to serve any other
purpose than measuring your own success.

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The benefit of upvoting and downvoting is that it allows the environment of
the app to be altered for every local environment. A major sports university will
have many highly visible Yaks about breaking football news or an exciting basketball
play, whereas a private, Lutheran college like Capital will upvote many Yaks
discussing spirituality and thankfulness to God. Since no outsiders using the Peek
function can up or downvote, only those using the app in the five mile radius have
the power to police and rank their areas Yaks. The other benefit is, according to the
founders, that users encourage themselves to be kinder and reject bullying by
downvoting an insulting or rude post out of existence. While this is true in many
respectsjust a quick glance through the Capital feed shows a nearly-erased Yak
that calls a professor a crude name and a post with many upvotes from a freshman
thanking everyone at Capital for making their first semester greatI dont feel that
it outweighs the dangerous system that upvoting, downvoting, and Yakarma
creates.
People who use the app more frequently have much more control on the Yak
environment than people who dont, and whatever this limited group deems
humorous, significant or insignificant will gain more visibility. There is also the fact
that despite the best wishes of the founders, cruel Yaks are not always erased, but
upvoted, which can make a hurtful post even worse. The University of New Mexico
student who experienced bullying on Yik Yak said, Every upvote made it feel more
real. When you see people upvoting the posts it cuts you deeper (Kerkez). Not only
that, but sarcastic, ruthless Yaks and replies have been shown to become more
popular quickly, earning more Yakarma: One of the most successful ways to get
more upvotes on Yik Yak and earn Yakarma faster is to reply with a sarcastic
commentRemember that Yik Yak is an application that is policed by users that are

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very snarky and want to laugh (Wojdylo). In other words, users are encouraged to
insult, demean, and sarcastically tear down other posters to earn points that signify
nothing. Worse still, Jesse Wojdylos article on earning Yakarma is founded on
months of experience using the app and noticing these trends not in theory, but in
action. The system Yik Yak has generated is one that steadily encourages insincerity
and nastiness in order to experience feelings of popularity. While this can be
unhealthy in a college setting, Yik Yaks prolonged use can be even more damaging
at the high school and middle school levels on more impressionable minds.
Finally, one of Yik Yaks most defining and controversial traits is its complete
anonymity. On Yik Yak, there is no logging in with a username and password, no
photos or IDs, only text. The founders explained their decision to make the app
anonymous by saying, Making all comments anonymous is critical to maintaining
users' privacy, encourages less-inhibited commentary, and allows the best posts to
rise to the top. It allows you to talk about certain topics you can't talk about on
Facebook. Your mom or teacher is on Twitter or Facebook. This is a more open
discussion (Koenig). Yik Yak allows for open dialogue in many ways. With no fear
that words will be traced back to their posters, users speak freely. Unlike Facebook
or Twitter, there is no consideration of a future employer finding content posted to
Yik Yak that reflects badly on the posters eligibility for a job. Not only that, but any
social or class status in the real world does not carry over into Yik Yak, allowing
posts to become visible and popular by only the merit of their content. At the
moment of their posting, no one users Yak is more qualified to be read or believed
than any other. It allows for free speech with local visibility and immediate
feedback: Are you sick and tired of your roommate snoring? Post it to Yik YakDo
you have a dirty joke that most of your conservative friends will not like? Yak that

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thing and get some Yakarma (Wojdylo). With Yik Yaks anonymity, a user can Yak
their most controversial opinions and share their darkest or most uncomfortable
secrets and see if people in their local area share their mindset and sympathize with
the click of a button.
However, it is precisely that simplicityposting or ranking anything
anonymously at the click of a buttonthat makes Yik Yak an incredibly dangerous
application. The same function that allows for free speech without fear of judgment
allows for racist, sexist, and other harmful posts without penalty. Dr. Philip Zimbardo
noted in reference to his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1969, If others
cant identify you or single you out, they cant evaluate, criticize, judge or punish
you (Zimbardo 255). Psychological research into anonymity has proven, absence
of accountability predicts increased antisocial behaviorsanonymity bolsters the
aggressors sense of self-efficacy via their beliefs in being able to aggress
successfully without retaliation (Runions 761). In other words, the anonymity and
effortless nature of the app has proven to have a psychological effect on a users
empathy. This relates especially to the apps notorious use in instances of
cyberbulling. One school in Westport, Connecticut was shut down midway through
the school day as cyber-aggression on Yik Yak became too virulent for classes to
safely operate: Kids were called slut and fag. One person wrote, How long do we
think before [redacted] kills herself? U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a
request for Britons to boycott the app after it was connected to four teen suicides
(Wagstaff). While these are two instances from high schools, that is not to say that
the situation at the collegiate level is any betterone could even argue that its
worse. Female students at Kenyon University isolated themselves in their room,
many too scared to go to class, after one sororitys Take Back the Night

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philanthropy campaign aiming to educate students about rape culture and
objectification of women inspired a Yak: Whos pumped for rape back the night?,
that featured tens of aggressive replies (Mach). Anonymity in combination with
location-based services makes cyberbullying all the more distressing, as the victim
is acutely aware that their aggressors are always nearby.
The threats dont end there, however. While cyberbullying is an act of
aggression with tragic effects on its victims, even more horrific are threats of mass
violence. Not far from my home in Cincinnati, New Richmond High School
underwent a lockdown procedure after a parent informed the school that their child
had seen a message on Yik Yak that said, Watch out New Richmond I am about
shoot up the school 2morro. The principal immediately called the police, who ran
searches and bag checks on all students. Now, New Richmond has banned
cellphone use within the school and Yik Yak is banned throughout the district via its
Wifi network and Yik Yak has put up a block on cell towers within 1.5 miles of the
high school (Tweet! Yik Yak, In Your Face(book): Schools try to filter social noise).
This is not the first time Yik Yak has been used to threaten school violence, and due
to the widespread bullying and harassment committed through Yik Yak, many
schools and school districts have taken action to ban the app (Mach). Even if one
refuses to acknowledge the argument that these abusive actions are motivated by
Yik Yaks anonymity, it cannot be denied that the anonymity helps them to be
carried out with greater damage in their wake. Threats of violence posted to
Facebook and Twitter trace back to an individual and, while still frightening, threats
of violence posted to anonymous web forums can still be found to come from
somewhere thousands of miles away. These posts to Yik Yak, however, can only
come from someone who knows the layout and structure of the school intimately

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enough to cause real damage, and their posters are much harder to trace. Yik Yaks
founders have put significant effort into trying to moderate high and middle school
students on the app, their primary method of getting Yaks removed is that posts
are deleted when two or more users mark the content as inappropriate, or if
someone screenshots offensive content and emails it to Yik Yak (Crook). However,
this method requires people to see the Yak in order for it to be taken down. All it
takes is one college student to see a violent threat and take it to Twitter and panic
can ensue. All it takes is one middle school girl to see a Yak telling her to kill herself
that a young life is changed or lost forever.

It cannot be denied that Yik Yaks founders have put forth every effort to help
schools that dont want their students to have access to the app. Theyve offered a
geofencing service to middle and high schools across the country that blocks the
apps use within a certain boundary, displaying the message, It looks like youre
trying to use Yik Yak on a middle school or high school grounds. Yik Yak is intended
for people college-aged and above. The app is disabled in this area (Yik Yak). The
founders have said, We're proactively trying to keep high schoolers off the app,"
and have also added an age warning to the app, advising users age 16 and below
to stick to the old-fashioned methods of spreading gossip (Kedmey). However, they
still want it to remain anonymous, so true prevention of the apps use by underage
students is impossible. While I do believe that the founders are sincerely trying to
turn the app into something better than what I have seen it become, I feel that
there is only one solution, one that many colleges have already begun to encourage
and follow: banning the app altogether. University leaders have taken a stand
against Yik Yak, The president of Norwich University, Richard W. Schneider, blocked

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access to Yik Yak on the campus network, and students themselves at Emory
University in Georgia are pushing a petition to have the app banned on campus
(Koenig). The movement to have Yik Yak removed from Americas schools entirely is
gaining speed, with support from university officials as well as groups of students.
Here, I have addressed the potential benefits of the applocation services,
the adaptive environment of upvoting and downvoting, and the free speech of
anonymityand how they are outweighed by the significant dangers to mental
health, and even the risk of physical health. At the end of the day, however, I can
make no better argument against Yik Yak than this: it is by no definition, or any
stretch of the word, unique in any way. Want local students to see info on an
upcoming charity bake sale? Make a Facebook event. Want the freedom to
anonymously complain about your roommates? Start an online blog. Want to post a
really short message about how much you enjoy your school? Post it to Twitter,
maybe the schools account will even see it and retweet it, giving you instant
feelings of gratification and recognition where a Yak could be sarcastically replied to
or downvoted out of existence for not being funny enough. At schools across the
country, teachers and students alike are recognizing that the app serves no
benevolent purpose that cannot be achieved through the use of other social media,
though of course not all want to see the app banned. Many, like the founders,
believe that peoplestudents in particularneed an outlet for things they cant say
to anyones face. However, there is a quote by Rich Berlew, a comic author, that
puts their argument to rest: As a rule of thumb, if you find yourself defending your
inalienable right to make someone else feel like garbage, youre on the wrong side
of the argument. Having spent the past month scrolling through Yik Yak to gather
personal research, I can argue with perspective that the majority of posts are about

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graphic sex, demeaning and objectifying women, and sarcastic comments to almost
anything that attempts to be reflective or encouraging. I see no reason to defend
the right of others to post this sort of material anonymously, where they act
aggressively without empathy. Furthermore, I see no reason to have the app taking
up data on my phone any longer. Hopefully, feelings against the app will continue to
grow until the app disappears from the country entirely. I believe this is the only
solution to the damage caused, and fit to be caused, by Yik Yak. As a piece of
technology, it is not groundbreaking, innovative, or inspiring growth. Like its
Yakarma, it serves no legitimate purpose.

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Works Cited
Crook, Jordan. Yik Yak Is An Anonymous Messaging App Aimed at College
Campuses. TechCrunch, AOL
Inc. 19 Feb. 2014. Web.
Kedmey, Dan. "Yik Yak, The Hyperlocal Gossip App, Raises $10M And Unsettling
Questions." Time.Com (2014): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Nov.
2014.
Kerkez, Mara. The procs and cons of Yik Yak: The anonymity of the app frees some
users to shelve
normally acceptable social filters. UNM Newsroom, The University of New
Mexico. 24 Oct.
2014. Web.
Koenig, Rebecca. "New Campus Messaging App Is Called Yik Yak. Some Call It
Dangerous." Chronicle Of Higher Education 61.6 (2014): A11. Academic
Search Complete.
Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Mach, Ryan Chapin. Why Your College Campus Should Ban Yik Yak. Huffington
Post,
TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc. 10 March 2014. Web.

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Runions, Kevin. "Toward A Conceptual Model Of Motive And Self-Control In CyberAggression: Rage,
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(2013): 751
771. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
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Zimbardo, P. The human choice: Individuation, reason and order vs.
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NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.