Last fall I was at a PR education conference and somebody asked me about a mobile app called Yik Yak that had become the scourge of their K-12 school district. I had heard bits and pieces about this app before, but this was the first time I’d talked with an educator about specific problems. Well, now it has hit home. Yik Yak officially is a problem for educators. Not a day goes by without seeing some new story about teens bullying one another.

For those who don’t know about Yik Yak, you likely will soon if you either work on a campus or you have teenagers. Yik Yak is an anonymous social posting app that lets you post what you want without any identification attached to it. It’s similar to the Juicy Campus, Collegiate ACB, or those random Twitter/Facebook “confession” accounts that have come to most college campuses. There is one difference – with Yik Yak, mobile is embedded in the posting and viewing interface. What that means is the process of posting and viewing is contained solely to a mobile app, with post reach and ability to view based on where you are at the moment.

This structure for posting and viewing makes Yik Yak a rather dull app for local communities. From my house, for example, my viewing radius contains a large and fairly diverse group of people whom I don’t know. Our only connection is that we live near one another. Random observations or rants from local people without any context is just another place for crazy people to post on the Internet, or at least it feels that way. On campuses it’s a bigger problem, though, because you’re dealing with closed communities in which people generally know one another, so the potential for doing something damaging to a person or institution that most people know is much higher.

One way to think about Yik Yak is it’s like Twitter with no identifying handles attached to posts. This distinction is crucial in understanding why it can be harmless in local civic community but tremendously dangerous in smaller, tight-knit worlds where people generally know the contexts of posts and the targets. Given that Yik Yak’s target market is college students, you can see how quickly these anonymous postings might devolve into something that is offensive or hurtful to people in that community.

I downloaded the app in late December to keep an eye on it locally after first hearing about it. It had mild usage in January, but by late February it was starting to take off a bit. After Lehigh’s students returned from spring break a few weeks ago, it exploded. My guess is some of our students went home and heard about the app from their younger siblings, and that was all it took.

What’s happened here at Lehigh is similar to what’s happened at other campuses – insults, name-calling, homophobia, racism, Greek life wars and so forth. It’s a particular problem for college administrators because there is almost nothing that can be done. A school could block Yik Yak on its local network, but 3G networks on phones and tablets make that a non-issue. Lehigh can’t realistically find and punish students for hateful postings due to the anonymous setup, and Yik Yak won’t turn that data over unless compelled by law enforcement – and there are extremely narrow situations in which that might even be legal. So the most the university can do, really, is speak out against it. I’ll get to that in a second.

Social networks and the paradox of contributions vs. contributors

Social science can tell us some things about what is going on and demystify it a bit. Social media research has identified four general areas of usage when we’re talking about social media services. I call them creation, conversation, amplification and lurking. Creation involves doing actual posting, or making content. Conversation involves replying to someone else. Amplification is using your power as a reader to spread the message; on Twitter that’s retweeting, on Facebook it’s liking, and on Yik Yak you can upvote or downvote a post to give it more presence. Finally, lurking is merely reading without participating in any other way.

Here’s what we know. Lurking is by far the most common activity in social media, and Creation is the least common. In fact, those four areas could be viewed as places along a spectrum of engagement with a social product, with lurking at the lowest level. It makes some sense, too. Reading requires the least of us, it’s just a case of downloading the app and refreshing. Upvotes, responses and posting requires action on our part, that we be moved by the content itself enough to do something. Lurkers have complex motivations for using as well. Some like the material, of course, but others are motived by the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO, as the kids call it) and not knowing if things are being said about them. There are a lot of reasons why people lurk (check out my friend Hans Meyer’s excellent work on the subject) and it’s fair to say that few of them are doing it because they approve of the material.

The power curve of participation, best illustrated in Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody.” One thing we know about social media is that the vast majority of content is generated by a handful of users in a given network. And these are just contributors; the vast majority of people are lurkers.

The reason I mention this is that it’s important to remember these actions in the context of a network. The picture at right is based on the Power Curve of Participation that Clay Shirky expounds upon in his book “Here Comes Everybody.” In social networks, on wikis, on blogs, etc., we have found a pattern – the vast (and I mean vast) majority of the content is created by a few users. A good rule of thumb seems to have converged around a 90/5 principle – 90 percent of the content is created by less than 5 percent of active users. Think about Wikipedia is an example. Most of us have never contributed to an article on that site in our lives, but we use it all the time. A few of us may have suggested an edit. The content, the meat of any article on the site, is written wholesale by just a few users who care deeply about that topic.

Because of this pattern we’ve consistently observed with products driven by user-generated content, it’s hard to know exactly who is participating on Yik Yak here at Lehigh and to what extent this activity represents Lehigh’s community as a whole. Even if all 5,000 Lehigh undergrads were on Yik Yak, the 90/5 rule suggests that at most we’re talking at most 250 students who are doing all of this posting. I think it’s fair to say that number is a lot less given adoption rates. We’re probably talking 15-20 students actively posting most of the content – remember that the 5 percent is a ceiling, and the universe is active users and not occasional ones.

It’s important to remember this because you log into Yik Yak and see all these posts and the nature of the feed makes it feel like there is a mob of people posting awful things out there. And the hard truth is that these anonymous interfaces, likely by design, deceive our eyes into thinking that we’re viewing mass participation whereas the vast majority merely are lurking. So while I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Yik Yak represents the true Lehigh student (as a social scientist I do allow for that possibility), data and theory would suggest caution.

How do we respond?

And that gets back to the response from Lehigh. Or really, any other educational institution.

What we’re dealing with is an anonymous network of unknown size. Based on what we know about these types of networks, we probably can assume that it’s just a handful of troublemakers although we can’t be sure without hard data.  They can’t be shamed into silence because anonymity means there are no social consequences for their actions. What is the appropriate response?

Lehigh’s Council for Equity and Community chose to respond by putting out a statement repudiating what’s going on on Yik Yak. I think that’s the appropriate response if you are focused on responding right away against injustice, but it has unintended consequences. There likely are hundreds more Lehigh students on Yik Yak now because they’ve been made aware of it via a campus response. It’s going to enlarge the raw total that comes with that 5% of active posters because the pool is larger, create more lurkers, and thus cause more damage creators and more victims.

Statements repudiating this activity, in my view, can have limited benefits. I think we need to actively talk about responses that will be effective in stopping this activity. Outrage isn’t going to cut it.

In Yik Yak’s own twisted marketplace of ideas, there is no market incentive for these hateful postings to stop. In fact, with a bigger audience one would argue it increased the incentive to post. In a typical real-world community, speech has social consequences. If I walk into a public place, or a classroom, or sit with friends at lunch and start saying some of the thing said on Yik Yak, I would pay a social price. My name and reputation are attached to the speech. A common real-world model for thinking about this is a politician who makes offensive comments about race or women, something we saw a lot of in the 2012 Senate cycle (see Akin, Todd). Thus in a real-world setting, public outrage is effective because public shaming is possible.

Yik Yak doesn’t work that way because anonymity decouples consequences from speech, at least in theory, and so we have to consider the question of internet trolls. Internet trolls are people who post offensive, hateful, or threatening messages online that are directed at specific targets in order to get a response. Research shows that trolls live for that response. They want to feel your outrage, fear, or hatred. It only makes them want to post more, and with limited ways of identifying them a response ironically encourages them to troll more, not less.

So it’s a common aphorism on Twitter, but it bears repeating: Don’t feed the trolls.

What’s happening on Yik Yak is classic troll behavior. Attention is their oxygen. Calling them out, criticizing them publicly, or downvoting their posts is attention. They crave it. Doing these things will only make them post more. Given that Lehigh has very few tools for stopping this kind of behavior, it seems unwise to respond merely with statements of outrage.

The easiest solution (and in my view best solution, even if unrealistic) is for the campus to disavow the app and delete it from their phones. If everyone did this, it would turn into Yik Yak into an echo chamber – same few people posting, but no likes or comments. No oxygen, no network. It’s the same as everything else. If you starve the beast, it dies. Of course this is easier said than done, but my idealistic side believes that if we’re serious about making change we have to acknowledge it starts with us. FOMO might bring you to the network, but it’s time to recognize that FOMO is as much a phenomenon as it can be a destructive behavior. Delete the app.

Think back to my earlier local civic example. Yik Yak makes no sense if you don’t know the embedded community that is reading it. At Lehigh, posters know that if the app is popular, it’s being read by peers they know. The context of local community is the very reason this app is taking off. Because it’s known as popular and that people are reading, it gives posters reasons to keep posting hateful things. To take liberties with the phrase: we have met the problem – and it is us the consumer.

But maybe we need trust. So if we can’t just delete, ignore and move on then I’d say a better movement than a sternly worded letter is a movement response. Organize in campus groups a response that disavows the app. Clubs, Greek organizations, whole athletic teams, etc. – sign the pledge to not feed the trolls. Swear off Collegiate ACB, Yik Yak, and the like. Say you’ll delete the app and ignore it. Whereas some might not feel motivated to do it alone, they might if they got the sense others were with them. Don’t just make statements about what you’re upset about, because there isn’t really a legal avenue for Lehigh to solve this problem. It starts with us.

What a group response does is bring social consequences back to the foreground. We still can’t stop anonymous posting, but we certainly can provide some real-world social consequences for using the app at all. If a club has signed the pledge, members caught using it are suspended. We need to reinfuse trust back into our dealings with one another, and that means that some of those real-world consequences attached to regular speech need to be applied to anonymous posting products. Yeah it’s hard and might make people think we’re jerks, but justice sometimes demands it. For example, I often unfriend people who post hate on Facebook, and I tell them why. It doesn’t mean we can’t be civil, but we can let people know where the boundaries are.

Those are my ideas – don’t feed the trolls and empower each other to keep each other accountable. I’m sure there are others good ideas out there. The worst thing we can do, though, is sit back and expect Lehigh to solve it. Lehigh never solved Juicy Campus and the like (and by the way, neither did any other campus). There are few, if any, legal avenues to do so, and in my view it’s a cop-out to expect the administration to fix a problem that starts within each of us.

It’s time to realize that while this probably is the work of just a few trolls, the power to stop it starts with us taking responsibility for what we consume. We have to fix that before we try to fix others.

I want to stress this post comes from a social science perspective, embedded my particular belief in free speech absolutism. There are some weaknesses to this approach. Social science is good at classifying things and telling us stories about data, but it doesn’t do much for ethics or social justice. We need the humanities to help us with that and a conversation that integrates the humanities and social sciences can give us a more complete perspective on what’s going on and how to deal with it. This is why we have the liberal arts.

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Yik Yak and the Lehigh culture: The paradox of sharing
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2 thoughts on “Yik Yak and the Lehigh culture: The paradox of sharing

  • March 25, 2014 at 7:10 am
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    Why does everyone always feel like there needs to be some sweeping social change in response to non-issues like these? We have a few trolls post obvious troll material, and suddenly large articles are being written advocating the deletion of the entire forum. You need some thicker skin.

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  • March 26, 2014 at 12:07 am
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    While I agree that the only way to stop troll behavior is to ignore it I have to agree with Tim, this is an unnecessary response. The overwhelming push by people to get rid of Yik Yak is poorly thought out at best. I feel that at this point in our lives we shouldn’t feel the need to go tell the teacher we were made fun of and cry out for justice. People take offense to everything they hear or read too easily and believe that anything that could be considered offensive to them was done with malevolence. As a minority I could have taken offense to some of the posts made on Yik Yak but instead I laughed at them, because I can see the humor in it, and then I moved on with my life. While I agree that bigots and racists do still exist, I strongly believe that the vast majority of people in this generation really don’t give any real credit to racist or demeaning beliefs. The fact of the matter is, that by choosing to feel victimized instead of seeing it as simple humor, people create their own world of feeling bullied and put down. By doing this a problem or culture that could have died out is suddenly given new life and brought back into existence. The issue then is that the “victims” can either continue to blindly believe and take offense to everything that could possibly be deemed offensive, or (less likely) realize that the culture is largely non-existent and let the issue go. It is exactly this type of culture that has come over Lehigh’s campus and its infuriating to watch as it continues to be exacerbated. The actual number of “bad” people on this campus are in reality so small that this witch hunt to find them and persecute them won’t yield any results, and ultimately create more problems then there were when we started.

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