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Yik Yak and the Abyss of Total Anonymity

Jun 5 2015in Whats New adminTags: , , , , , ,
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Mobile App Yik Yak Takes No Responsibility for Any Content Posted

Anonymity and the worldwide web get a bad rap. But what about a mobile app that offers total anonymity and local posts? Perhaps the most interesting, Yik Yak is a free location-based app that allows users to post short text-only messages within a 10 mile radius.

Yik Yak is like a virtual bulletin board, where users are automatically connected via GPS tracking on their phones. Users are limited to two hundred characters for posts called “yaks” and pictures or audio content is not allowed. Yaks are up-voted or down-voted and are commented upon. After -5 down votes, the post can no longer be seen on the message board.

Users earn reputation points, known as “yakarma” with more the positive votes they receive. To keep updates relatively recent, yaks have a lifespan of 100 days before expiring. Although the app was intended for college students, younger users can easily sign up because the app does not ask for any profile information. Also, there are no user-names involved; only a phone number is required to register. A new feature, “Peek”, has recently been added which allows users to view yaks from any college in the US, but doesn’t allow users to reply or vote unless they are within the one point five mile radius.

Anything goes on Yik Yak. In fact, the app allows about almost anything, including sexually explicit language, messages about illegal substances and allows users to post messages about anyone.
In one case, after a bomb threat was made on the app about a college, the campus police had to contact the cellphone provider to get the student’s name. Even if a post has been deleted, police are still able to get the information by obtaining a court order, a search warrant or a subpoena. Yik Yak states that it will help authorities when there is a threat, but does not interfere with most cyberbullying complaints.

The app is barely more than a year old (it was released on November 2013), but it has cemented its reputation for being a hotbed of cruelty and gossip. Myriad threats of violence, sex crimes and hate crimes have been reported, including a mass shooting threat and the circulation of a sex tape. Even high schools have been on lock-downs after bomb threats.

In spite of being embroiled in such controversies in colleges and universities in America, the app depends on community regulation. Posts down-voted enough times by users disappear- especially if they contain racist, homophobic or violent messages. Users can “flag” yaks as inappropriate, but its unclear what happens to those flags and how quickly they’re removed and addressed. Additionally, the down-voting algorithm can assign down-votes on a regular basis, which are actually censored by Yik Yak.

In an extreme case, representatives of Yik Yak claimed to have disabled the app in the Chicago area amid worries of high-school and middle-school principals who had seen rampant bullying of students and teachers on the app. Many schools had also sent emails warning parents to delete the app from their children’s smart-phones and banned the app on school networks. But many fear that teenagers would find another way to access the app.

In a bid to stop the complaints, Yik Yak founders geo-fenced all high-schools and middle schools in the United States. The company teamed up with a data provider to make the app inaccessible to students in those areas. The founders maintain that the app was for college students. In a sense, Yik Yak is a descendant of JuicyCampus, an anonymous online college message board that enjoyed a brief period of popularity several years ago. The founder of JuciyCampus, Matt Ivester closed the app after it gained a reputation for cyber-bullying. However, with plans for expanding to other countries, Yik Yak is here to stay.

Written by, Beyond Bullies Volunteer, Ravneet Sandhu
High School Senior
India

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