Yakkers Anonymous

Bennett says anonymity promotes uncivil behavior


Illustration by Philip Kuhns

President Linda Bennett announced at the beginning of the semester that the university will focus on the concept of “civility.” Bennett said this focus promotes healthy discussion despite critical differences in opinion, beliefs and culture. Over the next few weeks, The Shield will explore different aspects of civility and how they impact the campus environment.

The first time McKenzie Cobb used Yik Yak, she saw a post that called the dance team “fat.”

Cobb, a freshman history major, opened her dance team group message several weeks ago to find a screenshot of a Yak post. At the time, Cobb didn’t have the anonymous message board app downloaded on her phone and she never felt compelled to add it.

The post she found in her messages degraded the girls’ body shapes as well as their dancing abilities.

While campus administration pushes for civility, students continue to take to the app to hurl insults at groups such as Cobb’s.

The dance team took the Yak as a challenge to work harder, but Cobb said the demeaning comments were still painful.

“That’s my team. Those are my girls,” Cobb said. “It just hurts when you put so much effort into something.”

Yik Yak posters not only attacked Cobb’s dance team, but also her sorority.

Within one hour of anonymous posts Tuesday, seven of them insulted Greek life on campus.

Several posts later defended fraternities and sororities, but the negative posts outweighed the positive.

Presidential monitoring

Bennett scrolls through Yik Yak every so often on her newly repaired Android, absorbing the same posts students do when they open the app.

“Oh, I check in from time to time,” Bennett said. “I think at times it’s very crude.”

Bennett witnesses vulgar exchanges on Yik Yak, but she said civility isn’t just about being nice.

“We ought to be able to talk about things, and at times we have to acknowledge that we have deep differences, profound differences,” she said. “That doesn’t keep us from having mutual respect.”

Bennett said students need to step up and not be afraid to state what they believe.

“When I think about the way social media is used, at times with great harshness and great cruelty, we need to develop the courage to speak up,” she said. “If we hear a statement that is demeaning, speak up. Say, ‘I disagree with that, and here’s why.’”

She said Yik Yak’s structure allows for more rudeness than students would be willing to convey in person.

“Any time you have anonymity, you have irresponsibility,” Bennett said. “Some of the communication on (Yik Yak) is just inappropriate. Sometimes, though, I check (Yik Yak) to get sort of a temper of what’s going on on campus.”

University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana released a study in 2014 titled “Virtuous or Vitriolic,” in which he found a link between uncivil comments and anonymity.

In the comments of online news stories, Santana found 53.3 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful, according to the study. Only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments were found to have the hateful language.

Dean of Students Bryan Rush, on the other hand, does not check Yik Yak and said he doesn’t intend to ever download the app.

He said he chooses not to have the app on his phone because he doesn’t like to see students insulting one another or using vulgar language. Rush views the app as primarily dominated by that cruelty.

“Students need to do things to build people up, not tear them down,” Rush said. “It’s being civil.”

From what Rush has heard, many Yaks turn into bullying, but he said that’s nothing new among students.

“It’s the ‘bathroom wall’ mentality,” Rush said. “It was the same 30 years ago when people would walk into the bathroom and write (negative) things on the wall. Those things are now sent right to them.”

He said his office would intervene if there was a threat to campus, self or others, but Rush only knows of potentially dangerous Yaks if a student reports it to him.

‘Depends on how I’m yakking’

As former Yik Yak employee Kamerin Greer scrolled through the app Monday, nothing jumped out at him as “negative.”

“There’s stuff about the weather and February or Valentine’s (Day),” the junior radio and television major said. “Sometimes the posts are really good, and sometimes it gets really weird.”

Greer said he’s seen crude exchanges between Yik Yak posters, but he acknowledges when students do act courteously on the app.

“Some of the positive things I’ve seen are people asking for help with their life or in general,” he said. “I’ve seen people say stuff about (how) their life sucks and other people say nice things.”

When he sees tension among Yakkers, Greer usually makes a move.

“I comment on other people’s Yaks and try to mediate things and see what’s going on,” he said. “If it’s really bad, I’ll downvote it. It depends on the day. It depends on how I’m yakking.”

Greer was a Yik Yak campus representative last semester, which entails handing out free merchandise and making the student body aware of how the anonymous app works.

According to the app’s website, two students named Tyler and Brooks founded Yik Yak on their college campus as “a way for people to instantly connect with everyone around them.”

Since 2013, the app has expanded to more than 2,000 college campuses and reports 3.6 million users, according to the Directory of Social Networks, Apps and Digital Services.

Greer said the ability to post without an identity is what makes Yik Yak so appealing to people with potentially controversial or offensive thoughts.

“If it weren’t completely anonymous, it (would) become less popular,” he said. “Everyone’s hiding behind these anonymous things.”