The Yik Yak effect: students weigh in

Makers work to limit potential for online bullying


“God is a wahoo: he gives snow days when we win and he cries with us when we lose.”

Nobody will ever know who said this after the Cavaliers were eliminated from March Madness — thanks to Yik Yak, an app which has surged in popularity around Grounds in recent months.

“It’s a whole new form of cyber bullying,” first year Nursing student Maggie Rossberg said in response to a survey.

“No login, no password, no traces; simply anonymous.”

This is the motto of Yik Yak, which has drawn 5,000 users in Charlottesville and more than 100,000 users nationwide. The app allows students to post anonymous messages that will be seen by anybody using the app in the surrounding area. It acts as a virtual bulletin board, and has been compared to writing in the bathroom stall.

The creators of Yik Yak are Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, fraternity brothers and graduates of Furman University. After experimenting with app development as upperclassmen, the duo put their career plans on hold to work full time on Dicho, a social polling app. As a side project, they created Yik Yak and tested it out on their campus.

“We saw a problem in that the social media voice [on campus] was held in the hands of a few people […] and we wanted to give the voice back to the little guy, give everyone a voice,” Buffington said. “No matter who you are on campus you can relay information or tell that funny story, whatever it may be.”

Soon enough, Yik Yak began to spread nationwide and became Droll’s and Buffington’s sole focus.

“Of course, as all of these things do, Yik Yak was the one that ended up taking off,” Buffington said. “On Christmas Day, we were in two colleges and now we’re at well over 100 of the largest colleges and universities in the states.”

Anonymity presents a significant draw to Yik Yak, but has also been the source of controversy. Though Droll and Buffington intended for Yik Yak to be used by an adult audience, it quickly spread to high schools and even middle schools. Many parents and students labeled the app as a tool to facilitate bullying, as students were targeted and harassed by name.

At one high school in San Clemente, California a bomb threat on Yik Yak led to a school-wide lockdown.

To address the problem, the creators used Maponics, a geographic data company, to create virtual boundaries around high schools and middle schools.

“Those communities weren’t taking the turn towards being constructive and positive like colleges were and we made the choice to block them out,” Buffington said. “As of a month ago about 85 percent of American high schools and middle schools are blocked.”

Droll and Buffington argue the app serves a constructive purpose on college campuses, where users are mature enough to use Yik Yak appropriately. However, many University users disagree with this assessment.

“Although mildly amusing, Yik Yak ultimately divides the U.Va. community,” first-year College student Erik Hames said in response to a survey about the application. “Whether it be furthering stereotypes regarding ethnicity, fraternal organizations or race, Yik Yak seems to only serve as a medium for snide remarks and complaints.”

“It’s a whole new form of cyber bullying,” first-year Nursing student Maggie Rossberg said in her survey response.

First-year College student Emily Trojan said, no matter the intention of any given “yak,” it serves a negative purpose in the University community.

“I think that most recognize a majority of the Yaks as jokes,” Trojan said in response to a survey. “However, almost all Yik Yaks are negative, discriminatory, or crude.”

According to fourth-year social psychology doctoral student Kelly Hoffman, whose research focuses on prejudice and discrimination, the anonymity and proximity features of Yik Yak make it highly likely to be used to bully and discriminate.

“We’ve seen far too many heartbreaking stories of individuals whose lives are destroyed as a result of bullying,” Hoffman said in an email. “The characteristics of this app seem to provide fertile ground for these types of negative behaviors to take place. In addition, rather than promoting community and shared identity among the users, this app likely creates divisions — pitting sub-groups against one another as the malicious posts volley back and forth.”

Hoffman said college students are just as likely as younger students to exhibit bullying behavior on the app.

“We know from decades and decades of social psychological research that situations can be extremely powerful, regardless of the characteristics of the individuals within that situation,” she said. “[Yik Yak provides] a situation in which there are loose social norms and a loss of individual identity and thus accountability.”

A typical University Yik Yak feed is filled with “yaks” about fraternities, sororities, life on Grounds and other jokes. Many students cite community building, entertainment, breaking news and procrastination as positive aspects of the app.

“It gives everyone a way to laugh at themselves.” second-year College student Erik Morlock said in a survey response.

“It shows that a lot of struggles we have individually are echoed by our peers,” said third-year Engineering student Jonah Zaleznick in response to a survey. “It also shows community support when there are negative Yaks that get ‘downvoted to oblivion.’ And of course it’s great because some of them are hilarious.”

First-year College student Abraham Axler, chair of Council’s representative body, said he uses the app to monitor student concerns and brings up notable posts at meetings.

The creators hope Yik Yak will outgrow its label as a bullying tool with time. Buffington used Snapchat as an example of how new apps can break through labels.

“All anybody could talk about forever was how [Snapchat] was just a sexting app,” he said. “Now everybody realizes what it’s used for and how great it can be and nobody talks about that.”

When a group of protesters promoted hate speech in the Amphitheatre this spring, students used Yik Yak to express discontent at their actions. Buffington said this incident shows how the app can act as a unifying force. He also referenced a student suffering from blood cancer at Vanderbilt University, whose fraternity brother used Yik Yak to get hundreds of students to get their mouths swabbed to see if they could donate blood to the student.

“If this guy would have tried tweeting that out or Facebooking that out […] it’s in a closed network so it would stay within his followers and his friends,” Buffington said. “If he puts it out on Yik Yak it goes out to people he doesn’t know and then those people tell other people.”

Droll and Buffington recently secured $1.5 million dollars in funding from various investors and released a “Peek” feature, which allows users to look at yaks in other areas. Buffington said the Yik Yak team is excited about the potential of this feature to connect social experiences.

“Right now it’s just peeking into other schools, but you can imagine during football season peeking into some of these stadiums,” he said. “It’s like you’re in the stadium with these kids. Peek into the Ukraine where protests are happening. We think it has a lot of potential in the future to give you the feet on the ground to view somebody else’s life.”

Buffington said the team is considering requests for direct messaging and the ability to create groups, but no decisions have been made at this point.

The creators are looking to the fall semester as an opportunity to reestablish the app on campuses where it is already popular, and promote it on new campuses where it has yet to gain steam.

Buffington said his goal is to “take over every American college and university by next spring.” The coming year will be crucial as they work to spread the application and ensure it’s used for its intended purposes.

“Everyone’s got to get in on the wonder that is Yik Yak,” Buffington said.

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