September 26, 2014
By Rebecca Koenig
[full article here.]
Anonymous posts on a smartphone application called Yik Yak are facilitating conversations on college campuses, but the dialogue is not always fit for the classroom. Discussions on the app sometimes dredge up racist, sexist, and other degrading content, and students at multiple colleges have been arrested for using Yik Yak to post threats to campus safety.
The app, released last November, is a kind of virtual bulletin board on which users can post short snippets of text anonymously, and other users nearby can see them. The service also has dedicated sections for more than a hundred college campuses.
Many posts are edgy observations about campus life. “I haven’t had sex in so long I think my virginity is coming back,” wrote one user on the American University section. “College got me like ‘RIP My Hopes and Dreams,’” said another. But plenty of comments take a darker turn, recalling JuicyCampus, a gossip website, popular from 2007 to 2009, that earned notoriety for its offensive material.
Yik Yak’s founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, graduated from Furman University, in South Carolina, in 2013. They had a seemingly benign motivation for creating the app. They envisioned it, they said, as a tool for observational campus comedy.
Mr. Buffington argues that making all comments anonymous is critical to maintaining users’ privacy, encourages less-inhibited commentary, and allows the best posts to rise to the top.
“It allows you to talk about certain topics you can’t talk about on Facebook,” Mr. Buffington said. “Your mom or teacher is on Twitter or Facebook. This is a more open discussion.”
But that discussion sometimes veers into dangerous territory. Yik Yak has caused headaches for college administrators across the country. The trouble falls into three main categories:
Threats of Violence
Students have used Yik Yak to post anonymous threats to public safety on several campuses. In some cases, the threats have led officials to close buildings or put the campus on high alert. As the Indiana Statesmanreported, a sophomore was arrested at Indiana State University on September 19 in connection with a post about a possible campus shooting. A student at the County College of Morris, in New Jersey, was arrested on Wednesday on a terrorist-threat charge stemming from a Yik Yak post, according to The Record. And a student at the University of Southern Mississippi was arrested for a threat made on Monday, reported Gulflive.com.
Threats of violence can be personal, too. After speaking last week at Duke University about her new book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Danielle Keats Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Law, discussed Yik Yak posts with students. One young woman showed Ms. Citron a disturbing post she had seen that referenced a lecture by a different speaker.
“It said, ‘If this woman doesn’t stop talking, I’m going to rape her,’” Ms. Citron recounted. “As these threads popped up, once these rape conversations started, it got worse. It got more graphic.”
Mr. Droll said that Yik Yak uses filters to block offensive posts, but it also relies on users to report them. He acknowledged that threats of violence had been a problem.
“We take them very seriously, we cooperate with any law-enforcement authorities,” he said. “In a couple cases, we’ve helped identify the poster.”