Amid Racial Tensions, the Role of Yik Yak Is Complicated (CHE)

NOVEMBER 13, 2015

On Wednesday morning the University of Missouri police arrested Hunter M. Park for posting threatening messages on Yik Yak. They found him in Rolla, Mo., more than 90 miles away from the campus.

Later that day a second student was arrested. Police officers suspected that Connor B. Stottlemyre, a freshman at Northwest Missouri State University, had posted a similar threat on his college’s Yik Yak. “I’m gonna shoot any black people tomorrow, so be ready,” it said. Both suspects are white men.

Yik Yak is a social-media app, like Twitter, with two big differences. It’s location-specific; at any particular location, users can post to the local feed of the app only if they’re in the area. And all posts are anonymous — unless someone poses a serious threat. Then Yik Yak works with law enforcement to track the poster’s location.

But such threats on Yik Yak are rare. More often, students use the app to broadcast their unfiltered thoughts and opinions. Typical posts are funny or offensive or mundane. They have become an important presence on college campuses.

When a post on Yik Yak is hostile but not threatening, college administrators are not always sure what to do.

‘It creates a whole new job responsibility or challenge on campus in terms of managing these really challenging cultural-climate issues.’

“It creates a whole new job responsibility or challenge on campus in terms of managing these really challenging cultural-climate issues,” said Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

“You can’t write a letter to the community every day,” he said. “Yet institutional leaders have to speak out against injustice when they see it.”

Last month 72 women’s and civil-rights groups sent a letter to the U.S. Education Department, asking for regulations that would require colleges to protect students from anonymous online harassment. Colleges cite “vague First Amendment concerns,” the letter said, and fail to respond appropriately to threats.

Debra Katz, a lawyer involved in that campaign, on Wednesday wrote to two venture capitalists, James Goetz and Timothy Draper, who have invested nearly $72 million in Yik Yak. She asked to meet with them to discuss the harassment concerns.

Kory Hayward, a graduate student in public affairs at Missouri, said he started looking at Yik Yak about a year ago. He uses it to help him understand his colleagues’ perspectives.

“Some of my peers posted things that were extremely vitriolic in nature,” he said in an email.

On Tuesday, Mr. Hayward heard rumors that there were white supremacists on the campus. The rumors were posted to Yik Yak, as well as to Twitter and Facebook. He doesn’t know if they were true, but he thinks that students who read them felt threatened.

“I’m not a student of color and can, therefore, never know how it felt to be forced to choose between going to class and feeling safe,” he said. “It pained me to see my fellow students make that choice.”

‘A Pretty Useful Tool’

But does Yik Yak facilitate a hostile environment, or does it expose hostility that already exists?

Opponents think that the app’s anonymity encourages harassment, and that harassers feel more comfortable if they can’t be identified. Others argue that Yik Yak is a just a platform, a reflection of what’s already there.

“It’s a snapshot, and I think it’s the best snapshot of campus culture that we have,” said Rey Junco, an associate professor of education and human/computer interaction at Iowa State University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

He doesn’t think that Yik Yak is a perfect representation of a campus — certain demographics don’t use it, or may use it differently — but that it’s the best we have. It’s better than picking up the campus newspaper, he said, and better than a campus-culture assessment. Posts on Yik Yak feel raw and are a much better mirror than those media are.

“Yik Yak can actually be a pretty useful tool if we want to have an insight into campus culture,” said Sara West, a doctoral student in English at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “I think that some of the fear from Yik Yak comes from us learning more about our campus culture than we wanted to learn.”

‘Yik Yak can actually be a pretty useful tool if we want to have an insight into campus culture.’

For about a month, Ms. West checked Yik Yak regularly, collecting screenshots to use as research for her dissertation. In the past few days, she’s been checking the Yik Yak feed at Missouri.

“Their Yik Yak reflects something that media coverage has not reflected,” she said. Most news coverage has followed the stories of the protesters, she said, but most of the students on the university’s Yik Yak are in other groups.

“They seem to be the students in the periphery,” she said. “I think that we’re able to see a more full picture of what that entire campus is going through.”

Earlier in the week, Ms. West said, students used Yik Yak to debate the controversy playing out on the campus. They argued about the protests, the racial tensions, and the system president’s decision to resign.

By Thursday evening the university’s Yik Yak was a mix of messages related to the protests and unrelated comments on campus life. In many of the posts, students expressed exasperation with the situation.

“White people don’t hate black people. Like it feels SO blown out of proportion. Just chill …,” one said.

Another wrote, “Everything that can be said has been said lets just move on.”

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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