Yik Yak app creates community, controversy

Oliver Lazarus | Contributing Reporter

Two weeks ago, posts on the social media app Yik Yak rumored that Sigma Chi fraternity had lost its charter. The rumors, all believed to have been sparked by one post, quickly escalated and spread around campus.

David Stetter, a coordinator of Student Involvement and Leadership who oversees Greek life on campus, was in Cincinnati when he began to receive calls from chapter presidents about the posts.

“The reasonings why the fraternity was closed just got more and more ridiculous as the day went on,” Stetter said.

According to Stetter, the rumors had no basis: Sigma Chi had done nothing to warrant the removal of its charter or even suggestions of it. However, the question remains as to where the rumors began.

Though the fraternity remains intact, the Sigma Chi incident demonstrates the potential problems posed by the app on college campuses, where issues of cyber bullying and freedom of speech are present and often interact through anonymous services like Yik Yak.

Yik Yak allows users to create and view posts within a 10-mile radius of their location without having to register a username. The app is catered to college campuses, where its popularity has skyrocketed in the last year. Within six months of its release in November 2013, the app was the 20th-most-downloaded social media app in the United States.

Upon the start of fall semester, word of the app spread quickly at Washington University, with students telling one another to download it.

Since then, Yik Yak has become the place to check on the latest happenings on campus, which is why senior Emma Tyler, Student Union president, decided to download the app.

“The app is really active with a lot of students, so I think it’s important that I’m aware of what people are talking about on it,” Tyler said. “It’s become a platform where students express concerns or talk about things that they’re excited about on campus.”

With its widespread use, the app has provided a virtual bulletin board for the Danforth campus.

“It has certainly created community around certain events and activities,” Tyler said.

However, the app has caused problems. Malicious posts directed toward individuals, groups of people and organizations have led to some backlash against the app, leading campus leaders to note its negative impacts.

Stetter has seen firsthand the challenges that Yik Yak raises. He said he sees little positive in the app, with “a number of posts rooted in racism, sexism and homophobia.” Many of these more ill-intentioned posts are directed toward Greek organizations.

“I have chapter presidents coming to me all the time, asking me, what can I do?” Stetter said.

Other universities have also struggled with how to deal with the app. At Colgate University, racist remarks made on the app sparked 300 students to hold a three-day sit-in at the school’s admissions office. Some universities, like Norwich University in Vermont, have banned the app on the school’s network—a largely symbolic act, as students can gain access outside the school’s computer system. Other incidents around the country have led to arrests of individuals who have made threats on the app.

Jill Friedman, vice chancellor of public affairs, has dealt with issues of social media before. Last year, she contributed to the decision to block the website aWILDnight, which allowed students to list five people that they wanted to get to “know more intimately” on the night of WILD. The decision to block the site, Friedman noted, was made because it directly put students in harm’s way.

Friedman, who has checked Yik Yak before but does not regularly use it, does not foresee a similar future for the app.

“Our goal is to create an environment of dialogue—not censorship. This is a college campus. We grow through the sharing of ideas,” Friedman said.

While Friedman said the University has no plans to directly police Yik Yak, it has commissioned a social media subgroup as part of the Mosaic Project. Led by both students and administrators, this subgroup will release a set of social media guidelines in mid-October. While it is unclear what the guidelines will consist of, they are intended to create expectations for student activity online.

Sharon Stahl, the vice chancellor of students, believes that these guidelines will be particularly important in the wake of a number of controversial incidents in the past two years, such as an incident in Bear’s Den in February 2013, where a fraternity pledge recited a rap containing the N-word, and a Halloween photo posted on Facebook last fall that showed a group of students seemingly portraying American soldiers pointing fake guns at Osama bin Laden.

“These social media tools can be such a positive thing,” Stahl said, “but there also needs to be certain expectations within a community and an understanding of how what you do online impacts others.”

Because these guidelines will most likely not include any sort of enforceable policy, Stahl and Friedman stress that it will be up to the students to act responsibly.

From a student’s perspective, Tyler generally agrees with the idea that it is the students’ responsibility to self-monitor, an idea that is already built into Yik Yak. After a certain number of “down votes,” a post will be erased.

“I don’t think the University needs to play an active role,” Tyler said. “Although [Yik Yak] does have some detrimental effects, like things that are hurtful or untrue, I think it’s up to the students themselves to monitor it.”

Sophomore Jeremy Berger, who does not have the Yik Yak app, said that on the occasion he has read the posts on his friend’s phone, he has not seen any posts that stood out.

“I think cyber bullying can happen on a lot of platforms, Yik Yak included. It’s a hard problem to solve,” Berger said.

Many anonymous sites, forums and apps that preceded Yik Yak have ultimately fizzled out. JuicyCampus, a college gossip website built on the same principles of anonymity as Yik Yak, was on over 500 campuses in 2008. After considerable media attention and backlash, the website went out of business the next year.

Stetter believes that winter break, when students leave campus and can no longer access University-related Yik Yak posts through GPS location settings, may test the app’s endurance.

“I think it’s a habit,” Stetter said. “You know, check every morning what’s hot on Yik Yak. The question is whether or not that will die when students come back after not being able to check it.

For now, though, the app remains as popular as ever, with posts coming in every minute.

The president of Sigma Chi declined comment for this report.

With additional reporting by Manvitha Marni.

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