As if adolescence and young adulthood isn’t hard enough, a social media platform built on proximity and anonymity has made a comeback. Yik Yak is a smartphone application that allows users within a 5-mile radius to create anonymous posts and discussions. Entirely unsurprisingly, its 2013 launch was soon followed by reports of cyberbullying and threats. Yik Yak went bust in 2017, only to be revived in 2021.
“We brought Yik Yak back because we believe the global community deserves a place to be authentic, a place to be equal, and a place to connect with people nearby,” according to the company website. “When you think local, you think Yik Yak – that’s our goal. We want to be the world’s dominant mode of local communication.” Call us old-fashioned, but shouldn’t the dominant form of local communication be (gasp) talking to people? People you can see, hear, or, at the very least, identify at the other end of a digital communication.
Anonymity is not inherently bad. For many, it can be liberating. And it’s certainly nothing new on the internet. However, the combination of concealed identities and a limited geographic area is ripe for abuse. It can take school gossip to a whole other level – one on which bullies can say whatever they want with no personal accountability. Yik Yak is self-policing in that users can “downvote” and report posts that do not follow guidelines. Posts that receive five downvotes are removed. But before any of that happens, those statements are out there in the ether for all to see and no one to stand behind.
Meanwhile, the app cultivates a youth-friendly image with its cartoon logo of a yak and heavy use of emojis such as peace signs and hearts. The terms of service specify that users must be at least 13 and that those between the ages of 13 and 18 must have the approval of a parent or guardian. We suspect that is not always the case. Even parents diligent about monitoring their children’s online presence must have a hard time keeping up.
In 2017, a former Western Washington University student was sentenced to probation after posting “Let’s lynch her” about a Black student on Yik Yak. Turns out, the platform is not so anonymous when it comes to law enforcement investigations. Yik Yak states that it follows applicable law in turning over user information. The app records the date and time of use, GPS coordinates of devices and the user’s phone number.
Some argue that a few bad actors should not undermine the app’s potential to create digital communities where users can share openly without fear of ostracization. There is more than a little irony – and tragedy – in the concept that authenticity requires anonymity. The pandemic has caused enough isolation without kids seeking “community” among those around them without actually getting to know the people around them.
In many ways, today’s youth are growing up in a digital environment that we can only wonder at and worry about from afar. They have found ways to navigate and embrace that environment. Still, they are vulnerable. This is just one more reason for parents to be as involved and alert to that environment as possible, and to weigh at what age a child is mature enough to be exposed to it at all.