Courtesy of Crunchbase
At a recent Senate assembly on Tuesday, March 22, Student Body President Ally Swartzberg spent a portion of the meeting decrying cyberbullying on the social media app “YikYak.” Swartzberg’s comments focused on the scrutiny that student government leaders faced during the elections this past week, with Swartzberg feeling the comments made on YikYak to be unwarranted, to say the least. This has led to a larger conversation of the effects that YikYak is having on campuses like Wake Forest.
YikYak was originally founded in 2013 as a message forum for people to communicate within a specific geographical location. It was found to be quite popular among college students as they were able to discuss various issues and concerns happening on their campus. However, the app proved to be unsustainable as there was increased concern of cyberbullying taking place due to the anonymous nature of the app.
After several attempts to fix these problems, YikYak shut down in 2017 after a period of decreasing usership and concerns from parents and school administrators.
As most of us know, YikYak returned in 2021 and immediately found a resurgence of its success. College students jumped on, accepted the terms and conditions and began “yakking” about all the goings of campus life. Wake Forest has been no stranger to this, with the app being a major part of the protests that happened last Fall. This protest saw hundreds of students express their right to gather and demand action from the university in the wake of perceived failures in addressing sexual assault on campus.
YikYak has continued to be used since, with many students using it to connect with the campus and assess its climate. If you opened YikYak this past week, you would see students’ thoughts on President Wente’s inauguration, the latest fraternity party themes and — of course — the recent election debacle.
A lot of these events have provoked mixed responses from students, with some expressing frustration by saying names, expelling hateful remarks and posing rhetorical questions in the form of jokes about the ineptitude of the administration. The anonymous nature of YikYak certainly makes it a favorite place for “internet trolls” who wish to create division, as well as people who may be uncomfortable with publicly expressing their resentment over the perceived failures of university officials. A lot of research has been conducted on whether YikYak is in fact beneficial to college campuses — with a study by Kathryn Northcut at the Missouri University of Science & Technology finding praise in its ability to connect students and disseminate information to the public.
The issue with these studies is that they are looking at YikYak as a more localized Twitter, and not as a centralized and anonymous social media app. YikYak suffers from the same problems that Twitter has, only expounded due to it feeling more “real.” If someone makes a racist remark on Twitter, you may be able to rationalize it as coming from someone who is only “virtually real”. On YikYak, there is a chance that the person who made that remark is your suitemate.
Twitter also utilizes a censorship algorithm that can more easily remove what it perceives as hurtful comments. YikYak — on the other hand — relies on users to downvote Yaks out of existence, which can be hard to do if a Yak finds early popularity.
Take — for example — a Yak about sorority women and the way they dress. This could be perceived as negative, hurtful and sexist, but if it is seen by a majority of like-minded men when it is first posted, it will get upvoted. The more upvoted something is, then, the less likely it is to receive downvotes, a phenomenon corroborated by observations on Reddit — which utilizes similar upvote-downvote engagement methods.
This fosters increased toxicity on YikYak that compounds the issues on all social media outlets — negative posts and comments get the most engagement and, in turn, get the most attention. It’s a known principle that someone can see a hundred positive comments and instead focus on the one negative. YikYak’s anonymous features and localized forum then create an environment where people are A) not afraid to say what is controversial and B) feel more connected, and, in turn, more “attacked” when they see something they disagree with.
We need to be mindful of how YikYak is affecting our campus climate and we have to see it as a localized example of the broader impacts of social media. We have learned how to be social, communal animals, but only in the “real” world. The virtual world is a new terrain where human beings sometimes revert to primordial instincts unfit for our civilized, productive and communicative world.