The first few times I was publicly degraded on Yik Yak, the anonymous online message board popular among college students, I tried to take it in stride.
The first post, shared with all users within five miles of campus, read: “if your name is irene” — I am the only Williams student with that name — “you have the most amazing ass i have ever seen. god bless the men you reject.” The post concluded with an emoji face shedding a tear. Someone else felt compelled to reply: “She has an amazing rack too.”
I joked to my friends about the post and tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter. But really, I was pissed. Why did some anonymous person — a man, I assumed — think that he could discuss my body in a public forum of my peers? Why did he weep electronic tears for the men who could not claim me? And why did someone else think that it was OK to pile on?
As my digital catcallers made more posts about me in the weeks that followed, I kept telling myself to forget about it. But a recent post made my stomach flip. It read: “is irene dating someone or is she just keeping her goods to herself??”
I could no longer pretend that I didn’t care. Someone thought that he had the right to 1) speculate publicly about my personal life 2) describe my body as “goods” and 3) imply that, if I chose to be single, I was selfishly depriving men of that to which they were entitled. The anonymous poster regarded me as an object and clearly gloried in being able to say so with impunity.
Anonymity is the defining feature of Yik Yak, which provides a platform for young people, mostly college students, to share their thoughts with others in a five-mile radius. Hiding behind their screens, posters can avoid social consequences for the things they say. Some people use this anonymity to air the ugly thoughts that they otherwise would never voice in public.
Originally launched in 2013 and revived last year, Yik Yak officially forbids harassment, bigotry, and referring to individuals by name. In practice, however, it’s difficult to remove a post: for a post to disappear, a net five people must “downvote” it, or someone must report it and a moderator must decide it violates the app’s rules. Hours or days may pass before that happens. Often, by the time a cruel post is removed, hundreds of people have seen it, and the damage is done.
Most posts on the app are harmless — jokes about the lack of forks in the dining halls, squabbles about COVID restrictions, complaints about being lonely or horny or cold or some combination of the three. But some posts are not harmless. I have seen students described by name as “toxic” and “creepy.” I have seen someone I know get bullied on the app day after day for weeks. And I have been harassed multiple times.
It saddens me to see this happen at a school I love, but I believe that we can do better.
Students, it is on us to end the cruelty on Yik Yak. We can stop writing posts that attack or objectify people. When we see an offensive post, we can condemn it in the replies, and we can downvote and report the post to the moderators. Instead of using anonymity as an excuse to be vicious, let’s show each other the same respect online that we would show in person.
And to those who anonymously posted about me: I hope that you will reckon with the fact that you hurt someone, and I hope that you will learn not to do it again.
That is my hope, but it is not my expectation. Because nothing can stop you, secure in your anonymity, from opening Yik Yak and posting about my body once more. Nothing can stop you from belittling me for daring to write this op-ed. Nothing can stop you from portraying me — a person with thoughts that matter and feelings that can get hurt — as an object that does not own itself.
Except for, perhaps, your conscience.
Irene Loewenson ’22 is a history major from New York, N.Y. She is a former editor-in-chief of the Record.