Sharma: Avoiding Yak Mentality

by Hansa Sharma | 10/25/15 7:30pm

I do not usually check Yik Yak, but when I do, there always seems to be some source of inspiration for an upcoming column. All jokes aside, Yik Yak was very active Thursday night — not in a fun or exciting way, but rather in an unsettling manner which raises significant concerns about the benefits of anonymity.

Thursday evening, The Tab Dartmouth — a new campus media source for students — published an article on a freshman’s introduction to the nightlife of Webster Avenue after the ban on freshman entering Greek organizations had ended, titled “My first night in a frat basement.” When this article popped up on my Facebook news feed, I did not pay it much attention, though I did do a quick skim. Besides the poor copyediting, I was alarmed by the pictures of underage drinking and references to specific Greek houses — it felt a bit too risky to have that information published for all to see. I did not dwell on the article for too long, though, and after the short study break I returned to my readings.

Within an hour, a friend sent me a funny Yak about a completely different subject, leading me to open up the app for myself. I saw the forum blow up in real time, with Yak after Yak focused on one topic — “Tab Girl,” the female author of the article. The first Yak I saw was a supportive one, condemning the cyberbullying of her by some various other users. I was, at first, confused — I did not realize The Tab Dartmouth, which is relatively young, had become so widely read as to spark such a heated and ubiquitous discussion.

As I scrolled through the feed, I was deeply troubled by some of the disparaging posts. Yes, I understand Yik Yak is anonymous and meant to be taken as a joke. And yes, once a journalist — including columnists like myself — decides to publish something, she makes herself vulnerable to criticism. Sometimes it is constructive, and sometimes it is baseless and demeaning.

That being said, I am not talking about the silly jokes poking fun at The Tab or naïve first-years who do not know any better than to post pictures taken of themselves with alcohol. Instead, I am talking about alarming posts which threatened violence and objectified the article’s author. This is unacceptable. Anonymity should not enable anyone to intimidate a member of the campus — online or otherwise. While it is important to foster an environment that promotes free speech and diversity of opinion, it is equally important to do so in a safe way.

Ironically, most of the criticism for the article came from concerns regarding the privacy and safety of the individuals and organizations explicitly represented in the article. But in doing so, the anonymous Yak critics completely disregarded the privacy and safety of one individual — the writer herself. As a campus, we should feel more comfortable addressing our concerns directly rather than hiding behind a veil of anonymity. If you feel strongly about something, you add legitimacy by addressing the issue personally and outright, rather than letting an anonymous thread and upvotes define your opinion.

This, of course, does not mean that the majority of Yik Yak users demean others — in fact, I would argue that most do not. By the end of the surge of critical Yaks, many more were positive and often condemned the offensive and threatening posts, most of which had already been downvoted into oblivion.

It is intriguing to observe how quickly our campus can rally against and then for someone. We obviously feel very strongly about the organizations that are so historically significant to us, as well as the wellbeing of our community. It should not be difficult, however, to defend our traditions and respect the privacy of an individual student simultaneously. If a comment is so caustic that you might never say it out loud, think twice before posting it online. As Dartmouth students, we should hold journalists and each other accountable for what we write and say — but we should do so in a manner that is safe and welcoming for everyone involved. Only then can we make a difference moving forward.