What’s all that yakking about?

Megan Yoder

Yik Yak may be relatively new, but the anonymous college gossip site is anything but. For context, the first anonymous forum where college students could anonymously post campus gossip was started by [email protected] in 2006. It was only offered at a few elite schools, however, and a new competitor called JuicyCampus.com soon beat it out.

JuicyCampus.com launched in 2007. Creator and Duke University student, Matt Ivestor, developed a more colorful and interactive site for anonymous posts. The site thrived, reaching over 500 campuses at its peak.  

But there was a dark side to new sites like [email protected], JuicyCampus, and another, CollegiateACB. Many of the posts were hurtful, even slanderous. Advertisers started to back out, worried about the type of content they were funding. JuicyCampus shut down in 2011, and though CollegiateACB tried to revive itself with a new version called CollegeACB, it was sold in 2014. 

So here we are with Yik Yak, 9 years after the first anonymous gossip site, founded on similar principles, featuring user-generated content and with user-maintained content. Users (students) anonymously post content onto a public feed that is sorted by area/university. Users can “peek” at feeds from other areas and comment on posts (like an AU student can check out what’s going on at Penn State). To combat the cyberbullying that plagued sites like JuicyCampus, Yik Yak introduced a “downvote” and “upvote” feature. Users are encouraged to downvote malicious or inappropriate posts and upvote positive or funny posts. 

But that doesn’t prevent those posts from being there, if only briefly. Users can send anything into this swirling abyss, and they do. 

So yes, it’s better than its more malicious predecessors. But it’s not perfect. Users still don’t have accountability. But the very principle on which this app is founded, that users stay anonymous, is what makes it so dangerously morally precarious.

I downloaded Yik Yak for the first time last week. Scrolling through my feed, I am reminded of something that happened at my high school. The summer after my junior year, someone made an anonymous “Burn Book” Twitter account, a reference to Mean Girls. The account was exactly what it sounds like: the mean-spirited creator posted vulgar, sexually explicit and degrading things about fellow students. The tweets were horrifying and the account (unsurprisingly) got a lot of attention. I scrolled through the profile with red-faced dread, reading humiliating things about my classmates and praying I would not find my name. 

Yik Yak certainly was not as blatantly malicious. Some posts made me laugh (“You know I’m AU drunk when I hand out my business card at frat parties”). Most posts were a complete waste of time (“Vagina Boob”). There was a lot of loneliness (“Sometimes I just feel overwhelmingly sad”), some misogyny (“Just wanna fuck the shit out of a girl rn”) and requests for sex. My peek into the world of Yaks mostly revealed a lot of negativity, hormones (“Too horny to go back to sleep and too sleepy to masturbate”), disappointment and requests for relationship advice.

Though I have read arguments for Yik Yak as a positive tool for community organizing, current events, and even random acts of kindness, I think it will always remind me of my high school’s “Burn Book.” I also find it difficult for any reliable organization or discussion to occur on Yik Yak without some level of transparency or accountability. 

But people love it, and that’s okay. It is fun to feel like you are in on campus gossip and light-hearted jokes. Many of my friends say they use it because they like when a clever post of theirs gets a lot of “upvotes,” which is interesting because there is no way for them to get any credit for it. This turns Yik Yak into a self-congratulatory anonymous platform where people can brush off their poorer-rated posts and claim credit for the others—no one is there to call them out on it. 

If history is any indicator, I am skeptical about the positivity of Yik Yak. People will continue to be vulgar and stupid when there is nothing to identify them. I worry for the people who find themselves the target of a malicious post (think back to the racist Yik Yaks about a month ago), for the newcomers who will see an unfair representation of our campus, or for the lonely users who use the app to sink further into their own anonymity. 

For now, I have decided the app is not for me. People will say I take it too seriously. And maybe I do. But I will keep up my small act of protest until I’m proven wrong, even if only to eliminate yet another online distraction for myself. Because when I think about it, I am scared to read something mean about myself or one of my friends and I am scared to find what posts say about our campus’s culture. And scariest of all, I am afraid using Yik Yak would desensitize me to all the things I find problematic about it.