Fame and bullying on Yik Yak – and how to deal with it

Look what everybody is yakking about. wavebreakmedia/www.shutterstock.com

A social media platform called Yik Yak that has taken universities by storm is also raising concerns over anonymous cyberbullying of students and academics. Yik Yak, which lets users comment anonymously on events and issues in their local area, has been at the centre of allegations of bullying and other forms of abuse.

In one case at the University of Bristol in November, an economics lecturer walked out after discovering offensive posts – known as “yaks” – about her on the platform. The app has been at the heart of rows at US colleges too and, in late November, Western Washington University cancelled classes over threats made on the app to ethnic minority students.

In two years, Yik Yak has grown to an estimated 3.6m monthly users. Unlike many other forms of social media, where accounts are verified by a valid email, Yik Yak requires no personal or contact information from its users.

Users of Yik Yak can share their thoughts and subject them to judgement through an audience voting system. User engagement is encouraged through “Yakarma”, which rewards contribution through points for posts, replies and votes – and for audience engagement, such as “up-votes” of posts and the number of replies received. A “down-vote” system – where users can note their approval of posts – is an important feature that theoretically puts users in control of offensive content. Any post receiving five down votes is automatically removed.

Famous on Yik Yak. shawncalhoun/flickr, CC BY-NC

The Yik Yak experience

The platform has become the latest host for conversations that transgress or stretch socially accepted norms, following in the footsteps of Facebook and Snapchat. Themes talked about on Yik Yak are common in the university world: the cost of education, jokes about facilities, or “banter” targeting rival universities.

Anonymity encourages users to disclose personal information, such as visible declarations of misery, loneliness and often kindness. But it also sparks abuse.

In the school environment, pupils and parents are often reminded of the perils of cyberbullying and encouraged to recognise it as a community issue. But Yik Yak brings the additional challenge of anonymity.

Posts can be tracked down using the IP address and user-agent string which identifies the browser of the device used matched with the exact date, time and GPS co-ordinates of the post. But without consent of the user, the threat of immediate harm or a properly issued warrant, providing this information to third parties is prohibited under US law, which is where Yik Yak is based.

Learning from companies

We propose a new approach for universities when it comes to apps such as Yik Yak. From the experience of companies which have dealt with issues over social media, we have learnt that suppression is not always the right approach. Instead, the best approach is to trust users to use their best judgement, but provide them with appropriate training.

Looking at a range of cases, it appears to be those teaching large classes of first-year students who are more prone to being the target of offensive “yaks”. Universities could learn from the online retailer Zappos.com, which trains new employees to “be real and use your best judgement” on social media. In the same way, it now seems imperative to talk to freshers about the perils of getting carried away with “banter”, how to handle anonymity and the value of expressing empathy.

Universities’ social media policies often highlight the “dos and don’ts” of how academics should best exploit social media to disseminate their own research. It is also time to include advice to faculty members who become “yak famous” on how to avoid and combat the associated risks. It only takes five supportive colleagues to remove offensive content. A combination of clear policy and evidence of authority presence in a network are most effective in managing boundary-breaking behaviour.

Universities and their academics and students should also try to create more positive discussion on such platforms. A recent study of the twitter discourse around Channel 4’s Benefits Street series provides encouragement to recognise that abuse and discrimination on social media can be countered with alternative narratives. As well as up and down voting, the structure of Yik Yak gives the right of reply – enabling focused rebuttal of abuse.

While Yik Yak has at times been a vehicle for abuse, the platform’s design means victims are not without power. Like society as a whole, online communities are subject to the same powers to develop norms and maturity. The nature of discussion can also be influenced by the presence of different audiences, such as authority figures, family members or even brands. Through understanding how the platform works, the nature of the discourse can be influenced.

This is already happening. In April, one group of students at High Point University in North Carolina staged a Yik Yak takeover – block posting and upvoting positive messages – to counteract negativity on the platform. And college professors have got in on the act too, flooding the platform with happy thoughts. Perhaps more academics should embrace Yik Yak in this way in order not to become its target.

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