How Yik Yak is different from other social media

By Anne Collier

Based on news reports and conversations with educators about troubles with Yik Yak, the location-based anonymous texting app, at schools in many parts of the US, three scenarios leap to mind….

  • Remember that kid at school (or maybe that frat house) who felt the need or the pressure to set off the fire alarm to see what would happen, test the system, get attention or whatever social capital?
  • Remember “slam books,” with cruel anonymous comments about peers on actual paper, or the nasty comments scratched into metal bathroom stalls?
  • Remember sometimes there was a really angry, troubled kid who’d take it out on others either with threats of hurting them (physically or socially) or their reputations (including teachers’ or administrators’)?

The behaviors aren’t any different now, in apps. They turned up online before there was a Web, just as they did in physical spaces and on older media, then in Web sites (remember the services that allowed anyone to create a Web site for free?), then they were in blogs, then social network sites and now on the mobile platform. Wherever there’s social interaction, there’s anti-social behavior. Only sometimes is it bullying or cyberbullying.

What’s different with social media

What’s different, now, with connected media, is how fast the effects spread and escalate, so that the behaviors can end up hurting more people, including the initiator more quickly (see this about a potentially life-changing blow-up from one student’s very bad decision). It’s important for parents and policymakers to be very clear that – according to study after study and contrary to what we hear too much in the news media – this is not common behavior among young people.

No matter how much it turns up in the news, 1) social cruelty is not the norm or an “epidemic,” 2) young people are not more mean and cruel than we or previous generations were and so 3) social media isn’t making them so. If we can get clearer about what’s really going on and stop paying attention to false or fearful claims about youth and the media they love to use, we can get better at finding solutions faster. And we do know that what helps is improving school climate in ways that involve the whole community and providing social-emotional learning to all community members (see this at the Cyberbullying Research Center).

What’s even more different about Yik Yak

So back to Yik Yak. It has also been described as a mobile “chatroom” with a 5-mile radius and a 500-participant limit. That’s a very large, location-specific chatroom that can quickly become very problematic for any location. Some of the texts or “yaks” in YikYak are trivial and neutral, others are abusive, destructive and even threats that schools in different parts of the country had to take seriously (see CNN).

Designed for college students by college students (at Furman University in South Carolina, according to TechCrunch), it came to be used at middle and high schools all over the US, the Huffington Post reported. There’s no way of knowing how much of the interaction in Yik Yak is cruel (anyone who depends on news coverage for the full story would believe that virtually all of it is), but even the creators confirmed that their app is mostly used to gripe about things, Techcrunch reported. The app’s rules say no bullying or otherwise meanly targeting other users, but that does little when determined meanies can target people elsewhere or – if they actually do obey the rules – talk about people who aren’t on Yik Yak virtually behind their backs, which creates an incentive for people to get the app in self-defense.

Potential false sense of security

And Yik Yak’s creators are now blocking use at all US middle and high schools, TechCrunch reports. Shutting it down on school campuses can help a little because meanness (or any other kind of communication) can’t happen in real time at school – in that particular app, anyway. That doesn’t spell a whole lot of relief in a media environment where there are tens of thousands of social apps and where two college students (or high school students or non-students, for that matter) can create a new one any day of the week. Shutting down the problem app of the moment can also give adults a false sense of security if they think that stops meanness or resolves relational issues.

The anonymity challenge

Anonymity protects good actors as well as bad actors, whether they’re young or old. As a society, we are all, from parents to policymakers,  just beginning to work through how to deal with a blend of bad actors, anonymity and social media (see this at All that schools, juvenile judges and other authorities have been able to suggest so far is for parents to get specific apps deleted from kids’ phones – a stopgap that’ll only really work until another app hits school communities and headlines.

Parents are also advised by experts to make sure their children know they can’t be guaranteed anonymity online (see the Huffington Post). That’s completely true and important to know, but more about dealing with appearances and reputations than with the underlying behavior. Changing the underlying behavior, whether we’re talking about kids or adults, is a tall order and takes time and effort but is where real resolution lies – and is less and less avoidable in a world of ever increasing transparency. Think about it: Are reporters and policymakers reacting to more of a certain behavior or just more exposure of it?

What needs to happen and actually is happening – but is taking more time than we’d like it to – is the development of positive, protective social norms in and with social media. It’s happening in digital spaces as much as it always has happened in physical ones. Moving our thousands of years of social norms development into this new social space needs to be a conscious, collective effort at home, school and everywhere else. Meanwhile, when a new app shows up on “everybody’s” phones, we can focus on the behavior instead of the technology, notice that we actually know some things about dealing with behavioral issues, take inventory on who knows what and get all stakeholders, including young people, working on a solution for the community that takes the whole community.

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