The Social Media App Yik Yak and The Dangers of Anonymity

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What better way to motivate the aspiring bully than with an app that makes it easy to be one? I won’t belabor the well-documented social scourge plaguing many of our nation’s schools, nor will I criticize the dereliction of countless parents who can’t or won’t do their damn job. I will however, comment on what seems an ever growing cultural obsession with anonymity.

Earlier today I received an email from my daughter’s middle school principal warning of the latest and greatest attempt at making my job as a parent more difficult than necessary. What I read, and later researched, left me with the conviction that we as a society are bored out of our collective minds. It’s an app called Yik Yak, invented shockingly enough by two guys without kids, and allows students to, well, I’ll let them explain it,

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To which they should now add, and bully anyone relentlessly within a five-mile radius.

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Not surprisingly, the app soared past 100,000 users in the three months since launch – mostly by their target audience of college students. But therein lies part of the problem, because it won’t stay there for long. Anything so alluring to college kids, who have a basic modicum of common sense, will be crack cocaine to high school and middle school kids, just think Facebook.  One Alabama school administrator already dealing with fallout from the app put it this way,

“Any time there’s something out there where you can be anonymous and make false accusations or say things you think are funny, middle school and high school kids fall into that trap.”

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Not withstanding that endearing bovid mascot – the yak has been sorely underrepresented in the software world – the question remains why this messaging app and what makes it so special? First is the viral capability, for free, posters can choose to share with the closest 100, 250, or 500 Yik Yakers, you don’t need friends or followers just be in the vicinity. Then for $.99, users can share with 1,000 people  and up to 10,000 or for $5. The second more sinister reason is the app’s complete anonymity.

A better revenge tool there’s never been; I can post that my neighbor, who just painted her house mauve, is having an affair with her son’s best friend and nothing could stop me from sending it 10,000 people, anonymously. While the coding is designed so posts are deleted when two or more users mark the content as inappropriate, or if someone emails screenshots of offensive content to Yik Yak, the founders admit, “We’re working on trying to find technical solutions to prevent app abuse by high schoolers, the blocks that we currently have in place aren’t working as well as we’d like them to.”

But even if they happen to achieve coding perfection the site’s legal disclaimer makes their intent rather clear,

 The Yik Yak service allows for anonymous content that Yik Yak does not monitor. You agree to use the Yik Yak service at your own risk and that Yik Yak shall have no liability to you for content that you may find objectionable, obscene, or in poor taste.

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I’m not sure if these guys didn’t play this tape through to the end, simply don’t care, or are just looking to turn a quick billion dollars, but as it is designed today this app is a disaster waiting to happen, which will likely make it astonishingly successful.

One element that keeps many would-be bullies away and prevents others from doing even more damage is visibility, with apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Ask.fm, requiring some kind of profile (though fakes are used). But Yik Yak has chosen to eliminate the need for all that entirely, because invisibility is the bait and what they hope will attract users.  But this evolution isn’t altogether surprising; as you observe the progression of social apps this level of obscurity was inevitable. Compared to Yik Yak, Twitter is a mortgage application and Facebook is like getting an organ transplant.

So why this growing need for anonymity?

Has the Internet generation become restless? Are they tired of living an online life that isn’t really theirs? Or are they just angry and want to scream at the world without it keeping tabs? Whatever the reason one thing is certain and the founders of Yik Yak missed this – wherever there is anonymity there is irresponsibility.

When you give a kid the platform to say what she wants, about whom she wants, when she wants, and then help her send that message out to thousands of people without anyone ever knowing it is her, you my friend, can put a fork in it because it’s cooked. You have just set loose a tsunami of emotional destruction that will take years of therapy to rebuild.

Furthermore you nurture within her the notion that character and reputation are important only when someone’s looking and whatever else happens won’t matter – so long as the only one paying attention is a yak.

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