As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The anonymous social media app Yik Yak has taken a firm hold of the University of Nevada, Reno campus since its launch in 2013. The app’s goal is to serve as an online bulletin board for a given area; more specifically, the creators of the app have been targeting college campuses as central hubs for growth. When opening the app, a user receives a feed of short, Twitter-style messages from other unnamed users within a mile-and-a-half radius.
There has been a major spike in controversy this fall as students have discovered ways to abuse the app for cyberbullying and emotional outbursts. Last week, major concerns were raised about how the university might address this growing problem in an email sent out to all students. The email claimed that Yik Yak does not align with the university’s values and that new rules are being drafted to limit the use of the app moving forward.
Recently, Yik Yak has been used to stage classroom walkouts, coordinate alcohol exchanges for underage people and express racist, sexist and homophobic ideas. It is likely that a majority of the yaks come from freshmen students, as most posts discuss topics related to living in the residence halls and disrupting 100-level classes.
Many of these young people are experiencing freedom for the first time, and for that reason they use Yik Yak to discuss topics they may have avoided under closer supervision. Yik Yak users will inevitably find blatant prejudice, discussion of substance abuse and a general dissatisfaction with the university.
The app’s popularity has grown significantly on campus and was even publicly supported by some university entities. In a critical oversight, the Joe Crowley Student Union sent out a handful of tweets showing support for Yik Yak and its mascot, much to the dismay of many students who have witnessed the app’s misuse.
One student expressed her concern by tweeting at the Joe’s account, asking why the student union would support such negativity. Her tweet was met with impressive support, receiving nearly 40 retweets and 100 favorites. The Joe later apologized on its Twitter account, but still, this was an error on the part of a campus establishment, which should not take sides on such divisive issues.
Stories like these are only a few of many as the app spreads across the United States. Yik Yak’s reputation for cyberbullying has catapulted it into the spotlight, receiving major local and national media attention. This mainstream coverage has been coupled with the creators’ efforts to expand the app. As many UNR students saw last week, Yik Yak promoters travel to different colleges throughout the year to organize photo ops, events and other attention-grabbing activities. As a result of these efforts, Yik Yak’s on-campus presence grew from 200 campuses in the spring to over 1,000 now, according to its founders Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll.
As UNR Provost Kevin Carman’s email showed, the administration acted quickly. In the email, Carman implored students to stop using the app to disrupt classes, lest they be punished with serious consequences. While Carman’s attempt to discourage the misuse of the app was a good idea, it had its drawbacks. Ultimately it served as nothing more than a scare tactic with no real outlined punishment. Despite the threat of new, and currently unforeseen, regulations, the email only added fuel to the users’ fire.
This email brought and will continue to bring more attention to Yik Yak. However, if the university follows through in elevating the punishment for offenders, it will be a strong symbolic step in combating cyberbullying.
The faculty and administration have a responsibility to minimize harm to students when they can. Granted, it may be impossible to fully eradicate cyberbullying. However, it is the duty of faculty and administration to punish, to the fullest extent of their power, students that use Yik Yak. Carman’s email laid the foundation for action against cyberbullying, but faculty must follow through in adhering to these expectations.
Professors should not hesitate to remove disruptive and malicious students using Yik Yak from their classrooms, either for the day or semester. Students are paying to receive an education, and they should pursue that education free from distractions and cyberbullying.
We cannot forget that it must be a collaborative effort by professors and students alike to take a stance against Yik Yak. If the threat of punishment from professors fails to stop the problem, it is the responsibility of students to oppose Yik Yak in class, at a party or even on social media. Show other students that you will take a stance against hate language whenever you get the chance. In college, students often look to their peers for advice, support and insight on life. Students have the power to lead and redirect social trends as long as they have the bravery to stand against the grain.
The thing that many people forget is that this app is supposed to be used for fundamentally good purposes. However, many of its current users are being careless with an app that has significant potential to hurt others. An app that was intended to be an online bulletin board, with possibly a higher local coverage ceiling than Twitter, is being reduced to little more than an aggressive forum that encourages underage drinking, drug consumption, racism, sexism and homophobia.
Anonymity in Yik Yak is giving power to those that are using it for vicious purposes. While the app could be doing useful things, it is only as useful as the ones who are controlling it. Even if the university administration finds a way to stop people from misusing the app it is only a matter of time until another app is created to take its place; that is why we must constantly work to set a precedent of intolerance for apps like these. It is important to recognize that the issue is not with the app itself, but with the people who are using it.
The Nevada Sagebrush editorial staff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.