Education Prof Writes in Defense of Yik Yak and Online Anonymity

March 17, 2015

The popular phone app Yik Yak, which allows users to anonymously share comments with nearby app users, has been attacked by college administrators and student governments alike who argue that it plays host to too much hateful or offensive commentary. In light of recent moves to block university network access to the app, Iowa State University professor Rey Junco writes for Wired today in defense of the application and of online anonymity.

Junco acknowledges that negative comments and even harassment do sometimes show up on the app, as students are often willing to say things online that social pressure would dissuade them from saying in person. But this phenomenon swings both ways: Students may also be emboldened by anonymity to defend targets of teasing or harassment, even if they would be hesitant to side with an unpopular student in front of their peers. Junco writes:

There was an incident at a particular Midwestern university where one or perhaps a couple of Yakkers were making fun of a “guy who wears a pink hat”—the community then came to the rescue supporting the “pink hat guy” and made him a bit of a campus celebrity. Of particular note was the fact that bystanders used their anonymity for good and in order to shape the conversation more positively. Indeed, recent research has shown that anonymous online bystanders are more likely to intervene when they witness bullying. Bullying will unfortunately always happen offline and online, however, being able to remain anonymous helps motivate people to aid victims of harassment. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for bystanders to remain anonymous in offline spaces; thereby making it less likely bystanders will intervene when they see someone being bullied.

Like other online spaces, Yik Yak can also allow more timid students to explore their own identities and new ideas and be reassured that they are not alone:

For instance, a student who is exploring a gay identity often feels more comfortable exploring the coming out process anonymously in online spaces because of an increased feeling of safety.

Junco also urges administrators and professors to use Yik Yak to their advantage:

Instead of being afraid of Yik Yak, campus professionals should embrace it as not only a way for young people to explore creativity and develop their identities, but also as a way for professionals to learn more about the campus environment through students’ eyes. … With Yik Yak, campus administrators and student affairs professionals have a unique ability to understand, at least in part, the campus sentiment about a wide range of issues.

Some criticism of professors, administrators, or university issues may come across as harsh, but universities can better address problems when they are discussed openly—even if anonymously.

Staff can also use Yik Yak for good in a more direct way. In December, Inside Higher Ed applauded Colgate University professors for taking to Yik Yak to boost the campus community’s mood with positive messages for students. Users’ experiences may vary, but Junco argues that positivity and neutrality are more pervasive on Yik Yak than the sort of negativity that critics often emphasize.

As FIRE often argues, the best solution to speech that one finds disagreeable is more speech. Whether that means prompting open discussions about issues that come to light via Yik Yak, or providing positive messages to counter negative ones, campus communities should take advantage of what Yik Yak and other open forums for speech have to offer rather than shutting down discussion based on comments from a minority of malicious actors.

Check out the rest of Junco’s piece in Wired.

Schools:  Colgate University