Don’t Ban Yik Yak

Feminists and civil rights groups are trying to get universities to block the very app that gives marginalized students a voice on campus. 

yik yak blocked.
On college campuses, Yik Yak has been used for good as well as evil.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock.

Last week, a coalition of 72 feminist and civil rights groups—including the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Organization for Women—asked the Department of Education to crack down on Yik Yak. Civil rights laws require schools to address campus harassment against marginalized student groups, and in 2010, the DOE reminded schools that they’re responsible for student harassment that’s communicated online, too. Now, the coalition wants the DOE to update its recommendations again and “promptly issue guidelines to universities and colleges” on how to “protect students from harassment and threats based on sex, race, color, or national origin carried out via Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications.”

Harassment through Yik Yak has been highly publicized—read all about the racist Yaks of Colgate University, the homophobic Yaks of Drake University, and the sexist Yaks of the University of Mary Washington—and it’s a real problem. Because the threats and abuse are posted to Yik Yak anonymously, many campus administrators (not to mention local cops) have determined that they have no ability, interest, or responsibility to investigate them. (In its letter, the coalition cited my own experiences dealing with dismissive cops who don’t understand the real-world effects of “virtual” harassment and see anonymity as an excuse for dropping an investigation.) The coalition is urging schools to overhaul their policies around anonymous abuse and start “investigating reports of online harassment,” “monitoring social media applications to ensure immediate response to online harassment and intimidation,” “providing counseling and appropriate accommodations for targets of online harassment,” and “conducting mandatory training or intervention programs for students, faculty, and staff” on the issue.

But the coalition also gives schools an easy out: Just ban Yik Yak entirely. The letter gives schools the go-ahead to deal with harassment by “geofencing” anonymous apps and “barring the use of campus wi-fi to view or post” to them. That’s a shame. Bigots may use Yik Yak, but they don’t rule it. The app is massively and broadly popular among American college students, including female students, LGBTQ students, and students of color. When feminist and civil rights groups recommend that colleges ban Yik Yak, they remind me of the wrong-headed commentators and Luddite cops who tell victims of harassment to just shut their laptops or log offline if they don’t want to be threatened. If we banned every network where harassment and abuse occurs, we’d have to get rid of Twitter, Facebook, and email, too—not to mention city streets, private homes, churches, and college campuses themselves.

Yik Yak may not seem like an important resource to adults who have never used it, but it’s evolved into an essential outlet for many college students who are adjusting to a new community and exploring their own identities for the first time. Most Yaks are banal musings—at the University of Mary Washington this morning, students are Yakking about hot chocolate, petting cats at the local pet store, and the heroic “girl wearing pajama pants and slippers around campus”—that nevertheless help build a sense of camaraderie on campus. And in many cases, students have actually leveraged the app to boost marginalized voices that might not otherwise be heard. Students routinely use Yik Yak to discuss experiences with mental illness or same-sex attraction or other intimate subjects they don’t feel comfortable announcing on the quad. This April, an anonymous Michigan student expressed suicidal thoughts on Yik Yak, and the campus responded with a flood of supportive messages like “Stay alive for the amazing person you’re becoming” and “I attempted suicide in October, but never told anybody. It makes me feel better seeing everybody support people in the same boat as me.” Within hours, Yik Yak users had organized an impromptu campus rally to express support and extend resources to students on campus struggling with depression. And in May, students at several southern universities took to Yik Yak to spread news about a troubling incident that had occurred at a popular spring break destination: Two men had reportedly been ejected from a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, nightclub for kissing. Then, a group of Duke students used Yik Yak to rally support for a “kiss-in” demonstration staged inside the club.

The coalition’s letter tosses Yik Yak into the same category as other anonymous apps like BurnBook, but not all anonymous networks are created equal. BurnBook is named to evoke the nasty rumor book featured prominently in Mean Girls. Meanwhile, no social network has been more aggressive about stemming harassment and encouraging community than Yik Yak has. In the Apple store, Yik Yak flags itself as for adults only, which allows parents to easily use Apple’s parental restriction settings to block minor children from downloading it onto their devices. When the app caught on among teenagers anyway—some of whom used it to bully each other—Yik Yak built geofences around middle and high schools that blocked kids from using the app on campus. What other social media company has attempted to physically block teenagers from using its product?

From there, Yik Yak instituted “a number of safeguards” to curb harassment and threats on the network, including “filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, moderation, and suspensions,” Yik Yak director of communications Hilary McQuaide told me this week. The app is currently working on “incorporating natural language processing and machine learning techniques” to better recognize problematic Yaks the moment they’re posted, McQuaide says. (Reminder: It took Twitter nearly 10 years to even acknowledge that the platform had a harassment problem—in an internal email leaked to the press.)

Yik Yak has also worked directly with college administrators to help build positive campus communities around the app. This spring, the University of Florida’s journalism school partnered with Yik Yak to create a Yik Yak local news feed called Swamp Juice. The University of Michigan’s social media team has partnered with Yik Yak to serve up its own feed, Hail! Mail, which populates the app with sunny and socially relevant micro-updates about campus life. “Yik Yak enables everyone to have a voice without fear or embarrassment,” the University of Michigan social media team wrote of Yik Yak’s promise in April. “It is the anonymity that Yik Yak offers that allows users to speak out and gain such life-changing support from their peers.”