Food, sex, alcohol, uni work and… racism?
Yik Yak is a relatively new social media platform, launched in November 2013, and the first I heard of it was the accusations of bullying and harassment surrounding it. According to the app’s developers, Brooke Buffington and Tyler Droll, Yik Yak was designed to be used on college and university campuses. The app has been banned from many schools, in the USA and the UK, because of bullying incidents, but what concerns me is that the app may not be functioning as intended in colleges and universities. Notably, regarding the app’s use around Glasgow University, there have been accusations of racism.
Yik Yak seems to me not unlike Twitter, with the news feed being a series of short posts, but the key difference between this and other popular sites and apps is that it is anonymous; there are no user profiles. It is location specific, meaning the posts you see when using the app are from people within a ten-mile radius of you. I understand the idea – you see more relevant, relatable posts, and you have an opportunity to be totally honest, without having your name attached to your words, creating the potential for good, honest musings and hilarity. However, the obvious, immediate issue here is that with the location specific function, individual targeting is very easy, and the anonymity creates a platform for those who have bullying tendencies to use, without having to deal with any repercussions. In other words, in the worst case scenario the app functions as a removal of conscience, allowing people to be as prejudiced and abusive as they please.
With this in mind, I was prepared to slander the app and its creators, but, before I could do this, I needed more information to support my damning argument against Yik Yak. So, in the name of research, I downloaded the app, and I have to admit, what I found was not what I was expecting. The vast majority of “Yaks” I have read have been about food, alcohol, sex, uni work, going (or not going) to classes, and I have seen a number of questions relevant to the area, for example someone asking for recommendations of where to take their mum for lunch in the West End. All of these things are relevant to students, and this demonstrates the benefit of the app being location specific.
Furthermore, most of the Yaks I have read are harmless, and many I found really funny. My personal favourite so far has been: ‘So sorry, Sir, I didn’t realise you were head of the CIA and not just a library security guard.’ Anyone who has ever set off the alarm leaving Glasgow University’s library can relate to this – I personally always struggle, and usually fail to keep a straight face when I encounter the dramatic overreaction to the possibility that I might be concealing undeclared books.
However, occasionally breaking up the witty comments and musings about life, are comments like these:
”Dear Asian friend on the sixth floor of the library, can you please wake up, go home for a nap, and let me use the computer?”
”Watching an Asian wrestle with an inside out umbrella on library hill has infinitely improved my day.”
”I swear the Asian students are nocturnal. Getting dark outside and the library is filling up with them.”
The issue here, in my opinion, is not the complaints, or making fun of other students – the anonymous platform can be used as an opportunity to vent about or comment on day-to-day happenings and frustrations, without specifically targeting anyone. What is an issue is the racial distinction of the person or people being described. Yes, someone taking a nap at a library computer in peak study season is annoying, and something many GU students can relate to, but that person’s ethnicity is not relevant. Comments like this are singling people out for identification, but what is more troubling is that they suggest people are defined by their race.
This seems to reveal a tendency towards racial stereotyping, which is the real problem here, not specific to Yik Yak; comments very similar to these have also been seen on the Facebook page, “Spotted: Glasgow Uni Library”. A recent comment posted on this page was: “To the Asian girl on the computers in level 5: There was no need for you to log on to a second computer.” Again, we see the use of a person’s race to single them out. To me, this indicates an underlying issue of casual racism in the university community.
I am in no way suggesting that this issue is widespread; as previously mentioned, such comments are very much in the minority, therefore it seems reasonable to assume that it is only a small number of people in the university community who have this kind of mindset. Obviously, this cannot be tolerated, but I do not believe banning Yik Yak is the answer to this problem. While psychological studies, such as “Predicting Cyberbullying From Anonymity”, by Barlett, Gentile and Chew, (2014) show a clear connection between anonymity and cyberbullying, social media does not cause bullying, harassment or stereotyping. It is a platform for a type of harassment different from more “traditional” methods of bullying. Banning Yik Yak, or any other anonymous outlets that emerge, will not change how people view racial stereotyping; it will simply mean such attitudes are not expressed through this medium, but will be expressed in another way.
While Yik Yak has a voting system, where posts with five negative voted are removed, this is used as a way of agreeing or disagreeing with other “Yakkers”. For example, I saw a down-voted post about putting sugar in tea, which shows, quite rightly, that Glasgow West-Enders feel very strongly about their tea preferences, but means that this is clearly not an effective way of removing offensive or inappropriate comments.
There is a report function on Yik Yak, and I would encourage anyone using the app to make use of it, which I believe would show that the majority of us at Glasgow University are not racist, and to make it clear that racism will not be tolerated. At the risk of sounding like my mother, we need to deal with the attitude problem, not cover it up by blaming it on social media.