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The Folly of Banning Yik Yak on School Campuses

It's the auditorium of the undergraduate id—and that's precisely why we need it.
Beware the Yak. (Photo: Vdovichenko Denis/Shutterstock)

Beware the Yak. (Photo: Vdovichenko Denis/Shutterstock)

Somewhere in the office complex known as Atlanta Tech Village, the technicians at Yik Yak are teaching computers to recognize bigotry. The good news: their app can now sometimes identify a bomb threat. The bad news: as any commenter on Fox Nation will tell you, there are a million ways to dupe the bots: misspelling a racial epithet is perhaps the simplest.

Yik Yak allows users to post anonymously within a given geographic area between one and 10 miles in ambit, depending on your settings. While offering certain adult functionality (it could be useful at major conferences, maybe film festivals), the app is ideal for high school and college students who wish to mouth off without any attendant responsibility, a pursuit in which most teenagers shine already.

“These posts make clear the extent of racism on this campus, but when Yakkers condemn and downvote a bigoted post, it also reminds me how I’m surrounded by thousands of smart, moral people. It helps put things in perspective if we want to work toward tolerance.”

By its nature the app invites demagoguery, and as residual racism and sexism continue to drive the American cycle, miniature versions of the national drama play out between history and soccer practice. It’s not all race-baiting, of course—the vast majority of posts are genial ephemera: harmless, sociable, offhand in the semi-studied informality of Web-speak. Then there’s the in-between material: This last semester, on the campus closest to me, we saw black-market entrepreneurism (a 19-year-old banked $20,000 selling pot to move to Spain); weekend heartbreak (“I swallowed your cum, the least you could do is text me back”); and adventures in lost innocence (“finally found out what a blumpkin was :)”).

But when citizens across the country began protesting the deaths of Eric Garner, then Michael Brown, then Tamir Rice, Yik Yak found itself host to an aggressive counter-protest, including targeted threats and general race-hate; several posts actually included the phrase “jungle-bunnies,” which is almost more shocking for its datedness than for its spite. This past year also saw the beginnings of a real engagement with campus rape, and Yik Yak saw lots of weird misogyny in response—even before Sabrina Erdely published a now-notorious Rolling Stone cover story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. The rhetoric in each case was perhaps predictable, but uglier now, on review, than I had remembered. So use your imagination or download the free app and eavesdrop on a nearby campus—I’m not going to quote these guys further.

With the Yik Yak servers still dripping in bile, university administrators are fighting over how to use it most responsibly—or at least how to limit the school’s legal liability in the case of stalking or bomb threats. (Yik Yak and its investors are immune from any such liability, thanks to the Communications Decency Act.)

Using campus Wi-Fi to block the app is next to meaningless: The majority of users have access to a data network, and for many, it’s their primary mode of connectivity. Since the app is GPS-based, geofencing works better than Wi-Fi blockage, but geofencing requires the cooperation of the programmers in Atlanta Tech Village, and the company has no obligation to black-out any area where users are at least 18 years old. (Yik Yak is rated “17-plus” in app stores.) Not that the company couldn’t geofence every campus in America, if it wanted. Last year, with the help of data-provider Maponics, Yik Yak licensed GPS intel for 100,599 public schools across the country, and almost 30,000 private schools. As co-founder Brooks Buffington tells TechCrunch:

[Maponics] have 85 percent of the GPS coordinates for American high schools and middle schools. The message [to students where the app is blocked] is something along the lines of, “it looks like you’re trying to use Yik Yak on a middle school or high school grounds. Yik Yak is intended for people college-aged and above. The app is disabled in this area.”

University officers are now locked in a panicky debate over how to deal with this new technological scourge. I’m not entirely certain that these administrators realize the value of this admittedly volatile phenomenon. Yik Yak offers faculty and executives alike a new, scary, but undeniably real glimpse into various elements of the undergraduate psyche. Professors can learn about certain patterns of holdover bigotry that inflect campus life in ways otherwise invisible to the adults in the room. We begin to get a sense for the fault-lines in the moral landscape of our school, the flags under which march the regressive forces of prejudice and doomed privilege.

Yes, it involves a certain degree of “who’s getting marginalized this week,” but that question is one we should be considering already. Last year—2014—brought numberless wrenches and fissures on my own campus, and a twisted element of consolation was the opportunity to hear the most reactionary elements lashing out in fear of self-wrought obsoletion. On a calm day, a platform such as Yik Yak provides a glimpse of the workaday stresses in undergraduate life; on the worst days, the platform is like an X-ray that lets us study the cancers of the campus, the malignant growths we thought had gone into remission. My undergrad students have acknowledged an analogous use among themselves; as one student puts it, “These posts make clear the extent of racism on this campus, but when Yakkers condemn and downvote a bigoted post, it also reminds me how I’m surrounded by thousands of smart, moral people. It helps put things in perspective if we want to work toward tolerance.”

At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the app was downvoted not by administrators but by the student government. In its brief, the UMD resolution charges:

Yik-Yak has become a venue for anonymous hate speech, sexual harassment, and other impermissible forms of discrimination and Yik-Yak users on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus and surrounding areas have begun targeting specific groups based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, appearance, religion, and culture.

But universities that wish to ban Yik Yak are forgetting the immutable law of Internet displacement, whereby highly charged speech moves wherever it can find a home. On December 12, Colgate University began a different approach, with professors responding to the political heat of the fall semester with what they called a “Yak Back”: A push by professors to inundate the local Yik Yak feed with expressions of solidarity and general sunniness. Psychology professor Geoff Holm helped organize the effort, which saw instructors praising students for hard work and offering salutary advice for exam season. Finding myself within a mile of Colgate this December, I scrolled through the feed to see professors making sly jokes at their own expense or emphasizing the importance of food and rest during exams, while students (many self-identifying as black and female) gave thanks for this adult intervention in the cultural mêlée: “Thank you to all the profs for overwhelming this space, which has the potential to be so negative, with so much positivity, support, and love! We appreciate you! Thanks for making my day.”

As Yik Yak lumbers along in popularity—it is already a mainstay at 1,500-plus universities across the country—the company is seeking new ways to allow users to moderate hateful or offensive content while also using filters to automate the moderation.

“Throughout this hate-speech thing I have been thinking about privilege, and yes I used to call ‘bullshit’ but now it looks like the greatest privilege is not having to acknowledge your privilege.”

“The filters are running to look for race hot-words, racist or homophobic slurs or general inappropriate content,” lead developer Cam Mullen has said; “we find that if a post contains a number of these things that we are looking for it is usually the indication of a bad post.” Indeed. But will the bots scan for references to watermelon and fried chicken? Or orthographic variants on racial epithets? Not so far, is the answer. Students at Notre Dame threatened to transfer after the fried-chicken comments, and a handful of student-protestors at Colgate have not yet returned for spring classes. But many students (especially women) of color at these and other schools have gone online—bypassing Yik Yak in favor of Facebook and even letters to the dean—to thank the faculty for interceding, for reading, for caring, for having their back. As one Notre Dame student said after reading a faculty letter of solidarity: “It made me really proud. Sometimes I feel like I don't have a place here, but the letter made me feel welcome.”

Other students will laugh at such statements—a sense of entitlement and a membership in the racial majority have never caused them to question whether or not they are “welcome” on campus; the campus is theirs, ipso facto. For our unit on political journalism, students of various political persuasions use Yik Yak for reporting and general temperature-taking. In the midst of one such unit, a white student from a blue-collar background approached me to say: “Throughout this hate-speech thing I have been thinking about privilege, and yes I used to call ‘bullshit’ but now it looks like the greatest privilege is not having to acknowledge your privilege.”

It was in this moment that I considered tendering my resignation and explaining to the English department that my work here was evidently done.

The American university has survived typewriters, the desktop computer, the current era of digitization;, JuicyCampus, and IvyGate; it has survived even the wordy corrosions of high theory. The university likewise will survive the political cesspool of Yik Yak geo-broadcasting, and will be stronger for having done so.

We cannot engage reactionaries and bigots, far less reform them, if we do not know the shape and extent of their bigotry. Yik Yak may encourage demagoguery, but misogyny and race-hate were not born on social media. With Yik Yak, we can survey campus culture—by turns obscene, hateful, criminal; beautiful, loving, wise, and childish—and engage with the day’s political and social outrage with measured comment, something to remind those on the margins that in fact they have a home. (The loudest exponents of spite draw license from their own perceived marginalization, one strong reason why the angriest and whitest voices on a campus feel justified in lashing out anonymously.)

The short answer is that we can’t ban Yik Yak from campus in any meaningful way. And that’s fine—best to use Yik Yak as a barometer for bigotry, and then to go about the business of educating.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.