Yik Yak, a mobile application where users can post anonymous 160-character messages for anyone in a specific geographic radius to see, has arrived at the College and exploded in popularity. While Yik Yak provides an attractive platform for humor and more fraught conversation topics, such as politics and sex, it has also enabled people to attack fellow students and spread insidious rumors because of the app’s anonymity.
The tenor of the College’s Yik Yak’s feed changes by the day. While sometimes Yik Yak’s useful side shows through, the feed often resembles a battlefield between people posting offensive “Yaks” (shorthand for posts on the app) and users down-voting such Yaks – five down votes prompts the Yaks’ erasure – or reporting them for inappropriate content. Other times the feed is dominated by opinions students feel they cannot voice, among what they perceive to be an intensely liberal, politically correct student body.
The role Yik Yak has played in cyber bullying cases at high schools around the country has prompted its creators to block the app at many schools via geo-located virtual “fences.” At the College, a number of students and administrators have been the victims of virulent criticism by “Yakkers” (Yik Yak users) that, by the book, could be labeled as bullying cases. Among others, Director of Campus Safety and Security David Boyer and President Falk have been targeted. Though most students seem to take any and all moments of Yik Yak infamy in stride, others have raised concerns with Dean Bolton. The app’s anonymity, however, makes obtaining redress nearly impossible, especially given that many Yaks related to individual students have a relatively short lifespan.
Bolton pointed out that while the app is a well-established outlet for bullying, after checking with the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) about the College’s responsibility for pursuing complaints related to Yik Yak, “the police correctly reminded us that a wide variety of speech is protected, so a set of things they could investigate to the extent that they had to track it down through a telephone
company or something is actually quite narrow,” she said. Dean Bolton stated that the College could and would only act on reports that Yaks were posing an immediate threat to an individual’s personal safety, such as if a bomb threat were posted.
The app’s creators, Brooks Buffington and Tylor Droll, both 23 years old, argue that since the app is meant for college students and downloading it is voluntary, Yik Yak’s community-forming potential outweighs its risks. The legal section on the Yik Yak website clearly outlines the ethos, if you will, of Yik Yak: “You agree to use the Yik Yak service at your own risk and that Yik Yak shall have no liability to you for content that you may find objectionable, obscene or in poor taste.” Though the app has ostensible internal safeguards, Yaks at the College have included character assassinations and even sexual assault accusations.
This echo chamber effect is certainly one of the most troubling aspects of the app, especially on such a small campus. A quick “peek” at the Yik Yak feeds of large state schools like the University of Virginia (the app lets you view a sample of the Yaks at a number of universities) reveals less discussion of individual students; most of the aggression surrounds impersonal disparagement between rival fraternities. At the College, however, scandal and controversy quickly consume the feed – in the hours after a student was arrested outside Sawyer Library on Friday night, multiple Yaks named the student and speculated on the reason for arrest. And on Tuesday when students in Paresky protested Michael R. Bloomberg’s selection as Commencement speaker, the app became inundated with accounts of a brawl that did not occur.
Yik Yak has also put on display for all to see numerous rifts (both real and imagined) between students at the College. While a rugby v. football beef that has reared its head on Yik Yak seems more manufactured than anything else, the app has illuminated tensions between athletes and non-athletes, liberals and conservatives and, perhaps most indicative of current campus tensions, between students who fall on different sides of race-related issues. No matter the trending topic of conversation, at any point in time one is likely to find a number of Yaks poking fun at the concept of microaggressions, or deriding concerns such as “white privilege” at the College. Yik Yak has become a battleground over issues that at one time may have merely been voiced privately and left alone; in this sense the app might actually reflect the Williams social milieu. But lest anyone hope that Yik Yak furor will ever cause administrative action (i.e. to bring Waka Flocka Flame as commencement speaker, among other facetious demands), Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass gave his assurance that “[The administration] is not monitoring it.” And according to Bolton the administration has no plans to intervene with students’ use of Yik Yak at the College, adding that the College “[does not] monitor social media as a whole,” and it probably couldn’t if it tried.