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Yik Yak is back.
The social media app founded in 2013, which allows users to create anonymous, localized posts, shut down in April 2017 following a series of campus controversies involving bullying and racist threats. When the app moved to limit anonymous postings, users lost interest.
Unnamed new owners purchased the app from Square Inc., a mobile payments company that partnered with Snapchat, in February 2021, Forbes reported. In August, they announced they were relaunching it with some changes, including new “community guardrails” to prohibit “bullying messages,” threats and sharing private information. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify the relationship between Square Inc. and Snapchat.)
“If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak,” the website states. “One strike and you’re out.”
The app still works by allowing users, mostly college students, to make anonymous posts—known as “yaks”—that can be seen by other users within a five-mile radius. The posts are then voted up or down, and nearby “yakkers” can comment on them. Users earn reputation points, known as “yakarma,” based on the up votes they receive.
Now a whole new generation of college students is discovering the app. Some have no idea of its past history of cyberbullying and threats; in 2015, for example, two students in Missouri were arrested for using Yik Yak to issue death threats against Black people, and racist comments on the app at Colby College prompted a rally that drew 500 community members.
Other students are already seeing the dangers.
Jackie Thomas, a sophomore at Villanova University and co-opinion editor of the student paper The Villanovan, said it’s easy for students to post hurtful messages or target their peers on the app when there is no risk of personal consequences.
“I think Yik Yak is dangerous in several contexts,” said Thomas, who wrote an op-ed on the subject last month. “One is when it’s seen as a trustworthy news source—misinformation and gossip have the ability to run rampant, with flashy posts getting an influx of up votes regardless of their authenticity. Another is when users take advantage of the app’s anonymity in a negative way.”
At Villanova, Yik Yak is mostly used for amusement and entertainment, often to discuss pop culture, university happenings, personal opinions and campus gossip, Thomas said. Activity on the app varies, depending on what’s going on in the world and on campus, but the app was busiest last fall right after Yik Yak was re-released.
Thomas said that while misinformation poses a threat, most students take posts with a grain of salt. She hasn’t personally seen any threats or harassment on the app, but she knows peers who have.
“As much as Yik Yak does prove problematic at times, I think that college students, as adults capable of making their own decisions, should be mindful of the risks that go hand in hand with joining the app themselves,” Thomas said.
A full-out ban by campus administrators could be a “slippery slope,” she said, arguing that Yik Yak’s developers should be responsible for increasing user accountability and harassment oversight.
“Institutional action towards a social media app could easily veer more towards student censorship, which is arguably as dangerous as any threat Yik Yak poses,” she said.
Yik Yak can propagate the spread of misinformation on campuses. A student at the University of Vermont wrote an op-ed in February about reading an anonymous post about a student who died at a fraternity. Though the post was not true, it fueled rumors on campus.
Maggie Alexander, a junior at Baylor University, said she decided to write an op-ed for The Baylor Lariat about Yik Yak as an outlet for cyberbullying after watching students use the app to post misinformation about Greek life’s spring rush.
“I saw during rush week people just writing the most absurd things about my sorority and other sororities that I know for a fact were not true,” Alexander said. “So it’s kind of the first instance that I saw it really start to take off and everyone would call it ‘Rush Yik Yak.’”
Students on Baylor’s campus tend to post whatever they want, even if it’s untrue or just mean, because the anonymity means there are no repercussions, she said. Still, she can’t imagine Baylor banning the app on campus.
“I don’t think Baylor has any control over it,” Alexander said. “If Baylor were to say, ‘Ban Yik Yak from campus,’ I don’t really think there’s a way to reinforce that. But I think Yik Yak could be doing a better job of censoring harassment.”
Threats and Arrests
Some institutions are already seeing students use the app to make threats. Last month, campus police at Iowa State University arrested two freshmen for anonymous Yik Yak posts warning students to avoid two specific campus buildings, according to a press release.
University police officers worked overnight with the FBI and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to identify and monitor the individuals responsible for the posts, the press release said. Campus police arrested two first-year students, who apparently did not coordinate the posts, and charged them with the threat of terrorism.
“There is no known connection between the two students and the posts were made separately,” the statement read. “While there is no indication that either student planned to enact violence against the campus community, actions of this nature are treated as a serious crime.”
In January, a student at Louisiana State University was arrested for falsely warning of a campus shooting on the app, The Advocate reported, and last month a student from Jones County Junior College in Mississippi was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats on Yik Yak, The Leader-Call reported.
The anonymity of Yik Yak also facilitates sexual harassment; a student from Williams College wrote about digital catcallers who posted sexualized messages about her on the app using her unusual first name, which made her immediately identifiable.
One thing that may be different regarding Yik Yak this time around: today’s students are more aware of the risks of cyberbullying and more vocal in urging their classmates to act responsibly. Student journalists at The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The Brown and White at Lehigh University wrote editorials against hate speech and cyberbullying on the app.
Some students actually see an upside to the app’s anonymity. Ella Hanley, a freshman political science student at Appalachian State University, wrote an op-ed arguing that Yik Yak provides an outlet for students involved in Greek life to voice anonymous concerns about hazing and sexual assault.
“I think Yik Yak can be pretty good, especially in the context of Greek life, because it allows people to speak out about things they’re not able to speak out about otherwise,” Hanley said. “Some of the threats are definitely a negative part of it, but like I said, I have no reason to believe that would be a problem, at least on my campus.”
Though she hasn’t seen any threats or harassment on Yik Yak, she has seen some “sketchy” comments, she said, such as one post from a peer fat shaming other students. However, she said other students are quick to call out offensive posts.
To Ban or Not to Ban?
Some colleges are upholding their previous bans on Yik Yak despite the new safeguards in place. Oklahoma Christian University announced back in 2014 that it would no longer allow access to the Yik Yak website or app through its Wi-Fi service. When Yik Yak relaunched last August, Chief of Student Life Officer Neil Arter reminded students of the ban in a campuswide message, reported KWTV-DT, a local Oklahoma City station.
“Once again OC finds itself in a time where a social media app brings out the worst in people,” Arter said in a statement. “Almost 7 years ago I sent an email to the campus notifying them of the inappropriateness of the social media app Yik Yak when used to hurt others.”
Arter told students that Yik Yak’s website and app do not meet “the acceptable use policy for technology at Oklahoma Christian University.”
“While we fully understand that students can utilize their own data to access the app, we believe it is important that you know that no university resources are to be used to access such inappropriate and potentially illegal content,” Arter said.
Other institutions upholding their Wi-Fi network bans of Yik Yak include Norwich University in Vermont, according to a university spokesperson. In 2014, Norwich first blocked access to Yik Yak through the school’s computer system, the Associated Press reported.
John Brown University in Arkansas first banned the app from its Wi-Fi network in 2014 after the university’s Yik Yak feed was overrun with racist commentary. But since Yik Yak’s return last year, the university has been unable to block it from the Wi-Fi network, a university spokesperson said.
Not surprisingly, free speech advocates staunchly oppose campuses barring access to Yik Yak through their Wi-Fi networks. Nora Pelizzari, director of communications at the National Coalition Against Censorship, said it’s not the role of educational institutions to determine where and how adult students are allowed to communicate with one another. NCAC maintains that removing speech platforms such as Yik Yak prevents more legal than illegal speech, and that individuals who make threats or engage in harassment should be dealt with on an individual basis, she said.
“We should always remain vigilant in ensuring that universities do not infringe on students’ rights to express themselves, even when their motives for doing so seem positive,” Pelizzari said. “The social media landscape has changed significantly in recent years, so we will have to wait and see if Yik Yak poses challenges to colleges that the past decade has not prepared them for.”
Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, said the new version of Yik Yak hasn’t caught on at his campus the way the previous version did, but he hopes students have learned to use it responsibly.
“I hope people would know better now that it’s not anonymous,” Patchin said. “That these posts can be traced back to particular users and there could be accountability for saying hurtful things.”
He said threats and harassment on Yik Yak aren’t as widespread as they once were—at least not yet. But since students can bully or harass one another on any social media platform, including Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Facebook, he said, it would be foolish to assume Yik Yak will remain exempt.
“I’m not surprised by it attracting people to post all sorts of ridiculous stuff, because that’s happening everywhere online these days,” he said.