Hayes: Yik Yak unveils social problems


Bob Hayes, Columnist

Last Monday, I finally decided to succumb to the Yik Yak craze and download the app to my phone. My friends had shown me a number of humorous posts, and after realizing how prevalent Yik Yak is on Northwestern’s campus, I thought it would be cool to be a part of the trend. I downloaded the app while eating lunch. It was gone by dinner and will never return.

Yik Yak gained popularity in early 2014 as an anonymous message board application. Initially a fad at Southern universities, the app has quickly become ubiquitous across the country. The simplicity of the app and accessibility of posts add to its success. Anyone with the app can see brief, anonymous posts that have been written by users within 1.5 miles. Users are then able to respond to a post or simply vote posts up or down.

A couple months ago, Yik Yak blew up at the high school from which I graduated, nearby New Trier High School. Following reports of bullying and in-class disturbances, Yik Yak disabled the app on the school’s campus. New Trier said in a statement, “While we know we cannot eliminate all of these apps and social networks that offer anonymity to our students, we can work together to help them understand how the digital footprint they leave now may affect them and others for years to come.”

Far worse, Massachusetts police charged a Marblehead High School student with a bomb threat after anonymously posting via the app during a school assembly. Similar controversies have led Yik Yak “to take the unusual step of blocking its own app at 130,000 middle and high schools across the country after receiving complaints. So far, Yik Yak has disabled the app at about 85 percent of schools and is in the process of blocking the rest,” according to The Boston Globe’s Bella English.

You would think NU’s intelligent and cultured student body would use the app in a more mature way. Evidently not. While I have heard no semblance of bomb threats or other highly illegal posts, a quick look at the app on NU’s campus provides a vivid slice of the abrasive, racist and just plain dumb statements coming from NU students.

Although I firmly believe that young people are increasingly oversensitive to many forms of negative or controversial comments, that belief does not justify the overt racism, sexism and everything-ism spewing out of Yik Yak.

NU students have recently discussed microaggressions, a term that refers to subconscious discriminatory statements or actions, which serve as non-physical forms of aggression. A substantial number of Yik Yak posts debate whether another post counts as a microaggression.

Often, from what I have seen, posts do not count as microaggressions because they are, simply, macroaggressions. Clear statements making fun of people for being Asian, Jewish or even not affiliated with Greek life are far from subconscious forms of nonviolent aggression.

Why do these offensive posts persist on Yik Yak? Anonymity. People hide behind their phones or computer screens because of the lack of potential repercussions to their words. Many websites — The Daily included — have changed their comments systems from previously allowing anonymous posters to now forcing people to connect via Facebook in order to comment. The reduced number of abrasive comments has been staggering.

I anticipate that nearly everyone will brush my argument away and continue refreshing their Yik Yaks every thirty seconds — but that’s just another problem. The app provides another massive distraction in a technological world that already contains too many. At times I have been appalled by the frequency of Yik Yak users during valuable class and study time.

I do not mean to position myself as firmly above the humor and fun of Yik Yak. Some of the posts are extremely funny and specific to NU’s happenings. I understand the appeal of Yik Yak. It’s funny. Users can say whatever they want.

Yet, in my limited time as a Yik Yak user, I found myself embarrassed that I go to school with people who target their own classmates and do it because they can get away with it. My friends can waste their time boosting their Yakarma all they want. Me? I want no part of it.

Even when the app’s popularity inevitably crumbles, the issues do not vanish. The problem is not Yik Yak; the problem is the bigotry that Yik Yak has unveiled.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].