Yik Yak reflects campus culture

by Chris Leech | 10/20/14 5:58pm

When the Class of 2018 arrived on campus in September, they brought with them a penchant for a new social media platform, a location-based forum known as Yik Yak. The app allows users to submit anonymous posts, or “yaks,” that can be seen, replied to and voted up or down by nearby users.

Usage of the app has grown significantly at Dartmouth since the start of the fall, earning the College its own “peek,” a special tab where off-campus users can read yaks posted by students on campus but not write their own.

Posts range from freshman year advice to complaints about midterms, to comments on fraternities and hook ups.

“Drill must be working since I apparently sent several drunken Snapchats in French this weekend,” one user posted on Sunday, garnering 65 up-votes.

Associate Dean of the College Liz Agosto said she occasionally accesses Yik Yak to “check the temperature” of campus.

She also checks Bored at Baker, an anonymous message board that requires a Dartmouth email address. When Agosto receives reports about Bored at Baker, she follows up with the forum’s moderators to remove offensive posts. In serious cases, Agosto said Safety and Security works with Hanover Police and the College’s computing services department to identify offenders.

While students have yet to report any inappropriate posts on Yik Yak to her, because it is a mobile app, it might be more difficult to identify troublesome posters, Agosto said.

“We can only do so much,” she said. “A symbolic ban of the app from the Dartmouth server doesn’t impact usage as much.”

If the College tried to remove access to Yik Yak over Dartmouth-provided Internet, students could still easily access the app using cell phone data plans.

Agosto said the College currently has no plans to enact a ban on either Bored at Baker or Yik Yak, adding that any real change to the culture of either forum would have to come from the students.

Nationally, abusive posts have been a problem for users. The app’s developers have erected geo-fences, or boundaries within which the app cannot be used, around middle schools and high schools across the country.

At Colgate University, racist posts on Yik Yak contributed to protests, Inside Higher Ed reported in September. A sex tape posted on Rowan University’s Yik Yak feed led to disciplinary action against several students, and a student at Widener University was arrested after posting a shooting threat on the school’s Yik Yak, the Washington Post and ABC News reported.

Claire Votava ’18, an infrequent user, said that during the first weeks of fall, the forum served as a way for freshmen to find alcohol or parties in dorms.

While posts giving specific dorm numbers are usually pranks, Votava said, posts that direct students to residence halls or floors may indicate legitimate gatherings.

Anonymity, she said, may detract from the quality of posts.

“It’s gotten a lot more crass and less fun to read,” Votava said. “It’s a lot about hangovers and hook ups.”

Votava added that she has seen multiple posts that joked about sexual assault.

Ethan Isaacson ’18 said he downloaded the app by his third week at Dartmouth, after he was drawn in by a post about a fellow freshman’s intoxicated antics.

Isaacson said that, for him, the app is a diversion.

“It’s mostly entertainment — it’s anonymous Twitter,” Isaacson said. “It’s fun to see what people are thinking that they don’t want associated with their name.”

He added that he believes the posts were “95 percent garbage.”

Votava said that she believes Dartmouth’s feed is often more positive than that of other schools.

Isaacson said that, in addition to being more civil, Dartmouth’s posts are also funnier.

“Dartmouth has the strongest yak scene that I’ve witnessed,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson said that because students post anonymously, it may be reassuring to see other students posting about troubles similar to their own.

Max Zoberman, a sophomore at Emory University, said that when Yik Yak came to his campus last year, posts were largely benign.

The app became less innocuous during the beginning of this school year, Zoberman said, and turned into a forum for hate speech that often targeted minorities on campus.

Zoberman drafted and presented a resolution to Emory’s student government that condemned the app and asked administrators to prevent users from opening it using Emory’s wireless network. The provision, however, was amended out of the bill after students protested the measure as a violation of free speech.

“The ban is not a means to police the student body — they still have access,” he said. “It is action for the student body and the administration to withdraw their support for the app.”

Agosto said that the app ultimately runs a fine line between helpful and hurtful.

“There’s always some value to students being able to communicate in an environment where they’re able to express things without social retribution,” Agosto said. “That said, I am really concerned about how people’s words and language impact the larger community.”

Clarification appended: Oct. 21, 2014

This article has been revised to clarify that Safety and Security conducts investigations of offensive posts on Bored at Baker, not associate dean of the College Liz Agosto.