Yik Yak Yuck


Margaret Crouch, a philosophy professor at Eastern Michigan University, was team-teaching a large group of students with two other professors, while, unbeknownst to the three, many of the students were using the class time to post hostile and vulgar remarks about them via Yik Yak. (If you don’t know Yik Yak, think of it as a local anonymous twitter feed in which old posts disappear.) The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The three women knew that many of the nearly 230 freshmen in the auditorium resented having to show up at 9 a.m. every Friday for a mandatory interdisciplinary-studies class. But whatever unhappy students previously had said directly to them seemed mild in comparison to the verbal abuse being hurled at them silently as they taught one Friday morning last fall.

Students typed the words into their smartphones, and the messages appeared on their classmates’ screens via Yik Yak, a smartphone application that lets people anonymously post brief remarks on virtual bulletin boards…

Students had written more than 100 demeaning Yik Yak posts about them, including sexual remarks, references to them using “bitch” and a vulgar term for female anatomy, and insults about their appearance and teaching…

In an email to administrators later that day, one of the three, Margaret A. Crouch, a professor of philosophy, said, “I will quit before I put up with this again.” 

The article in the Chronicle is here (currently behind a paywall). It sounds like it was an awful situation.

Ms. Crouch and another target of the online attack, Elisabeth Däumer, a professor of English, say they see the Yik Yak incident as part of a broader deterioration of students’ discipline and respect for female instructors…

The professors characterized the online abuse as part of a hostile work environment. In a confidential report on the Yik Yak incident issued last month, Sharon L. Abraham, the university’s director of diversity and affirmative action, said the professors had “described a classroom environment where students talked during lecture, responded aggressively to requests to stop inappropriate behavior, and were generally disrespectful.” It said the professors had “felt threatened when dealing with students in the class who were physically large and male.”…

Ms. Crouch says the Yik Yak posts “wrecked the class” and “made it impossible for us to appear in front of the 220 students again.” The instructors did not confront their students about the remarks, she says, because “we did not really feel we had any authority anymore.”…

The professors focused their energy on urging the administration to try to identify the students who had written the offensive posts and to punish them for violating the code of student conduct.

Meanwhile, another Eastern Michigan professor, Steven Krause, argues against banning Yik Yak here. Among other things, he says:

Describing Yik-Yak as a way of “anonymously cyber-bullying” people is sort of like saying that an automobile is a way to kill people. Sure, you can use it for that, but is that the point? The answer is no for both.

Yik Yak knows that its users can create quite a bit of trouble. Some schools have tried to ban the app from their location, but that is difficult. Yik Yak does contract with a company that is supposed to screen out some offensive posts, but it is not clear how effective it is. Andrew Cullison (DePauw) was interviewed for a story in Yik Yak in Atlanta Magazine.  On this point:

Yik Yak’s self-policing measures could be seen as half-hearted, and serve only to make the app more enticing to high schoolers. After all, teenagers love forbidden fruit. It’s as though the company is trying to have it both ways: monitoring and controlling some of its content while letting the rest run free, says Cullison, the ethics researcher. “If they’re really trying to become a respectable news organization of sorts, they’re making a promise to consumers,” he says. “But it’s going to get harder to pick and choose when to take steps to block people and control content. They can’t stick their heads in the sand.” 

I teach a lecture hall full of 180 students this afternoon. They’re supposed to have their phones put away while there, but rates of compliance are hard to assess. I’ve downloaded the app. Perhaps I’ll leave it open during class, just to see.

guest
9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I downloaded Yik Yak last week, after I read this article in The Chronicle. I checked in, from time to time, on Friday morning.

There were only a few posts that seemed to come from lecture halls, and those were mainly innocuous. The rest was dominated by thoughts of beds (in two possible uses), bars and bathrooms.

Much of it is crude, some just gross; some of it tries to be funny, with mixed results. Sometimes posts are wry, verging on thoughtful.

It was interesting, if nothing else, for an unfiltered glimpse into the minds a subset of undergraduates.

I can see how it might lend itself to abuse, especially since it allows for the formation of a kind of cyber-mob on the basis of nothing but proximity. I wonder, though if that is the exception rather than the rule.

As for how to respond, I suppose that banning it would be neither right nor effective. Perhaps more faculty should have the app and check in, from time to time – and let their presence be known.

There was a story, I think in The Chronicle late last year, about some faculty at a smaller school banding together to flood Yik Yak with good wishes for their students during exam week.

I tried that myself, last Friday: a “good morning” with good wishes for the day and the weeken received 100+ up votes.

If I ever do see abuse, I’ll see what I can do about quelling it, taking advantage of the anonymity of the thing.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

The podcast Reply All has also a story (‘The Writing on the Wall’) about Yik Yak and the harassment of African-American students at Colgate. Apparently the faculty responded by filling the app with cheerful, positive messages. I think that may be what Bob Kirkman is referring to at the end of his comment.Report

Donald Stahl
Donald Stahl
6 years ago

It would seem to me that the crucial point is how the teachers became aware of the offensive remarks, if the remarks were not, as they seem not to have been, addressed or directed to them.Report

Tyler Hamrick
Tyler Hamrick
6 years ago

As a student who checks in at my prospective college’s feed on Yik Yak (or at least I used too before I got bored), I can’t say I saw much abuse–none that I remember concerning instructors, anyway.

My experience with it is similar to Mr. Kirkman’s. Usually remarks about happenings on campus or a fraternity/sorority (sometimes mocking) were posted. Other times it’d just be your usual college student fair: sleep, sex, partying, food.Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
6 years ago

I’ve peeked in on yikyak a couple of times (long before hearing of this story) both on my own campus, and at home, which is closer to the University of Tampa. Most of what I’ve seen agrees with what Bob says above. Funniest thing I saw: “I asked my professor how he was doing today. He said: ‘Its on the Syllabus’.”Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

On the other hand, I saw a “yak” today in which a student complains about what the student took to be a draconian tardiness policy imposed by a female TA. The first reply indicated that the student should “punch her in the face.”

Now, the question is: How best do I reply to what was clearly meant to be a casual, off-hand remark but just as clearly could not be let pass as such?

In that case, I was thinking about how to reply when I got caught up in the actual business of the day. Given the way of Yik Yak, the first post and the reply were swept away in the current – it was, like, SO two hours ago! – and I’d missed my chance.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

This is a great advertisement. I immediately got yik yak to check it out. This is almost as good as a tv spot about a kid dying.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I have handled anonymous rape yaks before by providing students with information about campus and legal reporting options. I’m not sure that universities are aware of how to handle technology like yik yak especially given their anonymous nature. Most of the yaks in my campus area are relatively inane and occasionally (very occasionally) quite good.

One way that I have tried to combat the negative yik yak culture is by posting as a “Prof” from our campus. I out myself as a professor but remain anonymous otherwise. I only post positive messages even in the face of the occasionally stupid student responses and my responses have been very good so far. I think students tend to think of the space as belonging to them. Disrupting that assumption goes a long way.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
6 years ago

I apologize for this being so late to the conversation, but somehow I missed this thread as it originally came up. I teach at SUNY Potsdam in the north country of New York and, at least up here, we’ve had a very bad track record with Yik Yak. The only reasons I’m even aware that the site exists were a result of (1) multiple threats on the site to attack students on another local SUNY campus, which led to a lockdown and a Homeland Security investigation and (2) students on our campus talking about the unbelievable hurt they felt at a steady barrage of racist posts.Report