A controversial return: Anonymous social media app Yik Yak makes a comeback at UGA | Arts & Culture

The social media app Yik Yak reached peak popularity in 2014 before being shut down indefinitely in 2017 due to claims of cyberbullying and threats that overwhelmed the app. Now, the platform has returned seemingly out of nowhere under new ownership to schools across the country, including the University of Georgia.

The new owners of the company purchased rights in February to redevelop the app from the original maker, according to the Yik Yak website. Since then, the platform’s new team has been working to bring the app back to life. Some UGA professors and students wonder if that’s a good thing.

Anonymity and controversy

Yik Yak allows users to anonymously write comments, respond to threads and up or down vote posts of anyone within a 5-mile radius. The main goal of the app is to provide the global community with “a place to be authentic, a place to be equal and a place to connect with people nearby,” according to its website.

Yet the app was notoriously shut down four years ago after the platform was used for threats of mass shootings, racist commentary and sexual harassment. In 2014, a UGA student was arrested for posting a bomb threat at the Zell B. Miller Learning Center on Yik Yak. A year later, students posted racist messages on the platform about another student who died.

Since the app was used often by college students on campuses, the issues that arose affected them deeply. The anonymity of the app made it difficult to track down the perpetrators.

The company has now devoted itself to preventing the app from falling back into negativity with updated guidelines for the app, according to its website. These “community guardrails” are meant to prohibit bullying, hate speech, threats and sharing of personal information. Users can no longer post photos or videos — the app is strictly made up of text posts.

Itai Himelboim, a professor of media analytics at UGA, said he thinks Yik Yak’s comeback is grounded in a desire by users to expand outside their usual media bubble via the app’s geographic filter.

“‘Homophily’ means ‘the love of the same’ in Greek, and we see it when you look at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Himelboim, who studies how social media affects poltical discourse, said. “People end up creating their own tiny community of like-minded individuals. It’s limiting. Suddenly [with Yik Yak] you are exposed to a range of people that have in common geographic location, not pre-selected similarities. That can be very valuable around issues of social and political controversies.”

However, concerns remain regarding the potential for bullying and rude comments facilitated by the app’s key feature of anonymity.

Yik Yak’s team notes on its website the installation of features to prevent bullying, including removing posts with five downvotes and banning accounts violating community guidelines.

Yet when an app has millions of users, more potential exists for accounts to slip through the cracks.

Lia O’Malley, a sophomore psychology major, uses the app as a form of entertainment, but has witnessed negativity that can prevail on the anonymous platform.

“Some of them are funny, but I don’t like how hurtful [Yik Yak] can be towards certain people and organizations,” O’Malley said. “I feel like a lot of people use it as a hate page since it’s anonymous instead of for the reasons the people who created the app would probably want.”

Freedom of expression

Though Yik Yak is new in its relaunch, it is expected to grow significantly as more people engage with the anonymous social network. The company hopes that as numbers increase, the guidelines continue to be followed to prevent yet another shutdown from occurring, according to its website.

Skyler Edgcomb, a junior psychology major, echoed O’Malley’s thoughts concerning the harm posts can cause when directed at specific people. She has seen women at UGA receive negative comments on their bodies on the app. However, the majority of Edgcomb’s experience on Yik Yak has been positive. She thinks UGA’s large student body feels smaller through the app.

“In a weird way, it brings a sense of community because everyone’s talking about funny things that happened in Athens,” Edgcomb said. “Sometimes the comments can stray from being funny to actually being mean. It’s harmful when it’s targeting specific people, but for the most part the jokes are pretty harmless.”

The posts that have received the most traction on the app among UGA students range from classroom policies to various experiences on campus.

“I hate walking past the bookstore and getting harassed by 23 different people handing out flyers,” one post read. It received more than 800 upvotes.

Himelboim expressed hope that Yik Yak would return with an improved plan to defeat its negative reputation and evolve from previous mistakes, especially considering the extended time taken off by the app developers to improve loopholes.

“[Yik Yak] can learn from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where the problems are, what works and what doesn’t,” Himelboim said. “They can’t hide behind any excuse at this point because they took the time off. If it’s legal, maybe there’s a way to exclude geographic areas or ways to say, ‘Not in my school.’”

While Yik Yak’s technology may not be sustainable for productive use in its current form, Himelboim said, he noted that the geographically-based technology used in the app could be applied to aid in communication during natural disasters and more serious events.

“[The technology] can be important in times of crisis,” Himelboim said. “The people around you will know what’s best about where to get water, where to get shelter, where the fire has spread or if you can drive safely.”

While the anonymous aspect of the app can be used for harm, the feature can also bring a new sense of lighthearted freedom to social media, Edgcomb said.

“There’s no name attached to what people post, so you don’t have to worry about being embarrassed or posting the right thing,” Edgcomb said. “On Instagram and other social media platforms you’re always worried about what other people will think of you. On Yik Yak, you can post whatever you feel like.”

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