Campuses combat Yik Yak with positivity

UB reader survey finds administrators urging students to drown out harmful comments

Yik Yak poses a danger to higher ed communities, but few institutions aggressively track its traffic or have tried to banish the anonymous social media site from campus, according to a UB reader survey.

Nearly half of the approximately 500 respondents (48 percent) said bullying and insults posted on Yik Yak make the social network and its app a “serious threat.” Nearly the same number of respondents said the network is “benign” and called it a fad that would fade over the next year.

Yik Yak allows users to post all comments anonymously, and the posts can be seen by anyone within a 10-mile radius. The mobile app also allows nonregistered users to view a sample of select campus feeds. The posts are generally mundane, focusing on daily college frustrations, such as finals, though many also are crass and perhaps more befitting of a middle school bathroom. Despite the many concerns about the network, only 9 percent of respondents say they have tried to block it from their networks.

Rather, the large majority have used the app to post positive campus messages or launched campaigns to encourage students to behave responsibly—such as by “downvoting” and thereby erasing potentially harmful comments.

But even if a college or university blocks Yik Yak from its network, users would still be able to access the app with their own data plan.

“It’s certainly an app we tell students to avoid because nothing good can come from it other than fleeting entertainment,” Andy Shaw, director of web communications at York College of Pennsylvania, wrote in his survey response. “Knowing they’ll use it anyway, we’ve held workshops telling them the best thing you can do is flood Yik Yak with positive comments.”

“It provides an unfiltered look at what your students think of your campus,” wrote West Virginia University social media strategist Tony Dobies, who checks the campus Yik Yak feed daily, in a survey response. “Because it’s anonymous, posters don’t pull any punches; you find out quickly what your weaknesses and strengths are as a school and as an experience.” Yik Yak isn’t heavily used at West Virginia, and students have been voting down posts that are “inflammatory or obscene,” Dobies added.

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, says most users of anonymous networks like Yik Yak or Snapchat are not engaging in illegal behavior or bullying. But they want to make comments without suffering repercussions in the future. “Young people have been constantly warned over the last few years that what they post online is going to be viewed by potential employers, colleges and spouses,” Patchin says. “These apps allow students to communicate with less fear about that.”

Westfield State University in Massachusetts launched its campuswide “Upvote” campaign in January after hearing complaints that students were being harassed on Yik Yak. The campaign, which includes social media posts and signage around campus, encourages students to post or upvote positive messages, while downvoting negative comments, says Janet Garcia, Westfield’s executive director of marketing.

“You can’t control it and I think if you try, it has a tendency to blow back on you. Students have really embraced Upvote—they rallied behind it, and it has really helped to squash the amount of cyberbullying on the anonymous apps around campus.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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