The Daily Northwestern

Matney: Yik Yak offers genuine discourse, however ugly it can be

Lucas Matney, Columnist

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Every year a new startup rattles the cages of the Internet world, amasses millions in venture capital investments, then turns into an empire or, more often, fizzles out. The social media startups that have captured our imaginations and productivity feed our obsessions to present our lives in the most manicured, positive way possible. This trend is what makes the rise of Yik Yak over the past year such an improbable, yet noble, story. Through the location-based anonymous posting app, there are opportunities to find the genuine beliefs and general feelings of an area — such as Northwestern’s campus — and give us an opportunity to accurately address issues.

For anyone who has interacted with Yik Yak, it’s strange to think of the app as something that should be admired. The rampant racist, sexist and otherwise profane messages in the app’s feed tend to be the ones that attract attention. At NU, the posts that garner less attention are the cries for help, descriptions of social anxieties and explanations of major shortcomings in our campus culture.

Dial into Yik Yak during midterms and you’ll see student stress manifests itself there — much more prevalent than the Spring Break #tbt photos and statuses about Netflix temptations seen on Facebook. People’s reputations aren’t at stake on Yik Yak and, as a result, people are inevitably more willing to say something stupid. However, this anonymity also means users are more likely to say something painfully true.

Most of Yik Yak’s home feed consists of raunchy thoughts most NU students are too self-aware to say out loud. However, some of it is genuinely offensive and hurtful. What’s even more disappointing is when upsetting yaks are up-voted by campus users and show up high in the app’s “top yaks” section.

Despite the constant barrage of negative press, Yik Yak is still one of the few apps that manages to accomplish a scary, often repressed, goal. The app gives users the opportunity to be themselves and say what they’re really thinking. Some use this opportunity to spew hate, some to share their darkest feelings and others to try to get the most upvotes to increase what the app calls “yakarma.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember what Yik Yak is. It’s a geographic location’s comment board. It’s the Wild West of Internet message boards, before many of them began to tie your online posting activity to your actual identity. Is this kind of anonymity on the Internet a good thing? Anonymity springs truth and ugliness, but the importance of maintaining the mediums that allow it to exist in some form shouldn’t be forgotten.

It may be increasingly clear that any “anonymous” activity on the web is ultimately traceable by someone somewhere. But with trends that glorify public shaming on the Internet and its fairly consistent, “one-strike-you’re-out” policy of justice, it’s clear the web is not evolving to become more open to free discourse. Yik Yak gives students like us, who are currently engaging with these thoughts, a platform to discuss these concepts. But it also gives us a place to say something stupid about partying on the weekends, or something repulsive about a situation we don’t understand or something we just don’t feel safe saying otherwise.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at lucasmatney2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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