Education

Is Yik Yak the Most Vile Social Media App of All?

Cyberbullying has hit a new low with this anonymous messaging service.

Photo Credit: Trueffelpix / Shutterstock

A new social media app that works like a localized and anonymous version of Twitter is rapidly gaining popularity on college campuses nationwide, but some educators and cyberbullying experts fear it's being used by middle- and high-school students to issue threats and bully classmates.

Yik Yak has received quite a bit of notoriety from the media in recent months. A “hyper-local” smartphone app, it allows users to communicate with others within a 1.5 mile radius. It's believed that users are drawn to Yik Yak because their anonymous messages supposedly leave no trail. Users believe they can post whatever they want without fear of being identified and possibly have their words or actions used against them.

“I don't see much value in an application like this, especially in use among adolescents,” says Justin W. Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “I certainly think Yik Yak creates more cause for concern than any positivity.”

Perusing through the messages in most regional areas, you may find gossip, misogynistic remarks, off-color messages, taunts, and even threats of physical violence. While most of the posts appear to be made by bottom feeders, occasionally there is a serious message to be found. In fact, when reading the feeds at colleges (the intended target for the app), you may find students interacting with each other in a more civil manner and asking for assistance with school work or travel arrangements.

Cyberbullying and racial and sexist slurs aren't the only anti-social activities on Yik Yak. Back in March, two bomb threats were sent via the app from a Massachusetts high school. The town's police, working with Yik Yak, were able to identify and arrest a student who sent one of the messages. The second threat is still under investigation.

“The truth is that none of these apps are really anonymous,” says Patchin. “Any user can still be tracked through the IP address on their phone.”

Founded by two recent college graduates, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, Yik Yak was released late last year to serve as a message board system for college campuses. But a funny thing happened soon after Yik Yak rolled out—it became popular with middle- and high-school kids, looking for an online environment where they could interact outside the prying eyes of parents. And without any parental oversight, things quickly spiraled out of control. Yik Yak quickly became a hotbed of anonymous cyberbullying.

The bullying is now such a disruptive force that Yik Yak’s creators — using GPS technology — have worked with school districts to “geofence” the app. It is now shut off at 85% of American middle- and high-school campuses, and the company says it is in the process of blocking the rest. Yik Yak even geofenced off the entire city of Chicago after numerous disruptions within the city.

Patchin credits the creators of Yik Yak for being proactive and responding to the concerns of educators. But, he cautions, “while the whole idea of 'fencing' off these schools is fine, that only works to the extent that kids cannot use the app while on campus. But once they're off campus, the app can then be used for all the terrible things it can be used for.”

Patchin says Yik Yak is nothing new, that there have been anonymous social channels available on the Internet for years. The difference seems to be the convenience that a smartphone and hyper-local targeting bring. Patchin also cautions that we shouldn't get too worked up over Yik Yak as of yet.

“It is important that we keep some perspective,” he writes in his blog. “First, Yik Yak’s reach is still extremely small with only a couple hundred thousand users (compared to over 30 million on another popular and fear-inducing app: Snapchat). Second, we know from more than a decade’s worth of research that most teens are not misusing technology or mistreating others while online.”

Snapchat received notoriety when it launched in 2011. It was widely dismissed as a “sexting” app because the images are erased after being viewed. “The vast majority of teens use Snapchat to send goofy, yet mostly harmless, selfie pictures to their friends and even though some will misuse it, they are in the minority,” says Patchin.

And while Yik Yak still doesn't have the popularity of many other social media apps, it appears that the concept is resonating with social media developers. “There are already replacements and competitors available,” says Patchin. Another app, UMentioned, which is very similar to Yik Yak, recently launched and is starting to catch on.

Patchin says we may be missing the point by pointing the fingers at the technology. Instead, we should be looking at fixing the social issues behind cyberbullying.

“Cell phone apps and online environments are constantly changing,” he writes. “The odds are stacked against you. The target always shifts.” Instead, Patchin argues that parents and educators should work with children so that they choose not to use online forums in ways that cause harm. 

Cliff Weathers is a former AlterNet senior editor who writes on the environment and consumer issues. He was previously a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy and Raw Story among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers.