I live in a college town, and a couple of years ago when I was serving as a campus minister, I downloaded the app Yik Yak. Yik Yak is a social media platform used widely by undergraduates on college campuses. It groups people geographically and allows users to create posts (called Yaks) anonymously. At times, people post humorous commentaries on the shared quirks and cultural elements of university life. With gratitude and solidarity, students also let each other know where the free food can be found.
But beyond the surface level posts of everyday life and food, the anonymity of Yik Yak creates a platform to discuss serious topics. In a variety of tones (there can be a big continuum of conversation styles and levels of decorum on Yik Yak) people make powerful connections with one another. These small, anonymous posts can create energy that affects the very real environment of a campus. Tiny comments with very few characters can bond people together in solidarity, or they can create rifts that diminish a sense of safety.
In other words, when you add anonymity to the depths of real, raw life, the result is powerful. It creates energy that can be harnessed for good or for harm.
I deleted Yik Yak a while back, in large part because I saw how it could be used for harm. Most specifically, it has allowed some to spew racist comments with no real sense of accountability. This has been a major problem on college campuses across the country, and it hit the news in a particular way at the University of Missouri last year. Large scale student protests took place last fall, demanding that the university president and wider administration address the routine and hostile forms of racism on the campus. As a result of these protests, the University of Missouri president and chancellor resigned. The very next day, threats of violence against African-American students were posted to Yik Yak. Students did not know the source of these viable threats. Fearing for their safety, many of them left the campus for their homes. On all levels, this is unacceptable. Yik Yak creators and users must do all they can to guard against the app being used in such sinister ways.
At the same time, I realize that Yik Yak can harness relational connections in positive ways too. This week, I decided to add the app to my phone once again. A painful event served as the catalyst for this decision. A student in my college town died last week after completing a suicide attempt in his dorm. It was a tragic loss, and along with the student’s family, fellow students, staff, and administrators are grieving. It served as a wake up call about mental health needs on the university campus.
Yik Yak can be harnessed positively too, as there are many opportunities to add encouragement and support to other users. The environment of anonymity creates an atmosphere where people feel free to share their deepest struggles. Students at our local university frequently share painful experiences they might be hesitant to voice with their names attached. These include mental health challenges. Students and members of the wider community can add words of support as they reply to these kinds of posts. They can also encourage students to get professional help.
In the span of one week,
I have seen Yik Yak used for sinister and supportive purposes.
After the attacks in Brussels yesterday, anti-Muslim rhetoric emerged in force. I was horrified to read these posts and comments, but I also appreciated that other users refused to serve as quiet bystanders when they encountered the language of scapegoating. I saw others push back, and I did too. In fact, it caused me to reach out to Muslim students in person later in the day.
And in the very same week, a student was contemplating suicide but then decided to get professional help when encouraged by others. A number of students admitted they are struggling with addictions and received support from those who have faced the same challenges. Some expressed they are lonely and have not yet found a group of friends on campus. They received a message that they matter.
All of these posts — just a few sentences with a small character limit — can wield power for connection and disconnection. From our own positions of anonymity in a college town, how will we engage in helpful ways?