Opinion: Yik Yak effect, taking possession of our own narratives

The Yak Effect

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It all started when a friend texted me on Thursday.

“You’re Yak famous again!”

Yik Yak lives in the social media folder on my phone, which is probably my most-frequented folder. I’m a total media nerd.

With two quick taps, I was out of my messages app and into Yik Yak’s minty teal feed, scrolling down to see which post she had texted me about.

I love Yik Yak. The anonymous, location-based conversation app seems like it’s become a staple in our campus experience, and I get a big kick out of reading what my peers post daily.

Some posts are hilarious. Like drop-my-phone-from-laughing-too-hard hilarious.

But I also find myself getting annoyed, frustrated, and even downright angry at the hatred, bigotry and disregard for personhood that the app can represent.

Anyway, I found the post.

“Alexandra I <3 you,” OP wrote, followed by the clarifications “From rowing team” and “You’re seriously cute and sexy.”

I was blushing. How cute, I had a secret admirer. Or whatever.

This isn’t the first time I’d been the subject of this kind of post. But I don’t engage with them. I sit back and read the comments, if any.

I like thinking about how we portray ourselves on different media platforms. To me, a lot of the value in social media comes from the power it gives us to control how we are seen and how we make our voices heard.

My relationship with Yik Yak seems to be a continuously developing one. I’ve had the app for about a year, and it’s fun to participate in campus talk. I’ve used it (embarrassingly) to chase down fake leads, thinking the posts’ content might make a good story for the Crimson. And they would have, had the information been true. 

Some of the campus might know that The Crimson found out the facts behind a troll-y Gleason-is-dead hoax started on Yik Yak and subsequently published an article about what happened.

They don’t know that my Editor-In-Chief and I spent an 88 degree Friday afternoon trekking around campus from Facilities to Security, and through the Botanical Gardens, hoping to do our part easing students’ minds about the beloved cat.

I’ve had good experiences on Yik Yak, too. For every annoying, troll-y, racist, sexist, or just downright rude post, there’s usually a positive one, too. I like looking for the kindness.

Noah Keaton, OP of our campus #BikeGroup agreed to meet with me for an interview after we communicated on Yik Yak about his regular posts encouraging others to join him on a sunrise ride to the beach.

I truly enjoyed connecting with such a positive person “in real life” and sharing his story in the Crimson. Good things can happen on Yik Yak.

A while later, I refreshed the feed and scrolled back down. New comments had appeared. One user asked if OP was referring to a stripper.

The next user, aided by an emoji, claimed to be me. “The plot thickens,” I texted my friend.

I didn’t think much of it. Sure, it was annoying, but — whatever. Where was the harm? I didn’t like that someone was impersonating me, but no one was hurting anyone so far. My previous experiences with the app had taught me not to take Yik Yak too seriously.

I couldn’t resist checking the Yak one more time before bed.

Another user had joined the conversation. You can read the full conversation in the images included to the side.

I can’t describe how weird it felt to look at a 4.7 inch screen and see a false representation of myself being played with by strangers whose true identities I will probably never know.

“How dare they treat me this way,” I found myself thinking. Was I being self-absorbed?

It was a re-formatted echo of the question I’d posed countless times before upon reading cruel and unusual posts online.

How dare they treat minorities this way? How dare they treat athletes this way? How dare they treat LGBTQ+ people this way? How dare they, how dare they, how dare they.

But it’s out of my control.

My experience is a minor one, insignificant even, in comparison to cruelty that the internet’s magic makes possible for users worldwide to produce daily.

People get bullied, threatened, slandered and impersonated online every hour of every day.

I don’t need to go over the social theories surrounding modern, digital communication for us to understand what makes us treat strangers invisible to us on the other side of a screen the way we do. We just stop caring. Is that person on the other side even real? 

Before I sat down and started typing, I wondered if I even ‘deserved’ to write this piece. Right now, at 6:54 p.m. on a Sunday, I find myself second-guessing the value of sharing my experience. Will anyone even care?

My editor looked me in the eye and reminded me that unless someone says something, nothing gets changed. She has a point.

A quick Google search brings up what seem like endless examples of the internet’s worst doing what they do best.

In March, Jonathan Mahler at The New York Times reported on how Margaret Crouch, philosophy professor at Eastern Michigan University, was the victim of sexual harassment via Yik Yak.

“I have been defamed, my reputation besmirched,” she said after learning about the dozens of sexually explicit Yaks posted about her. “I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused. I am about ready to hire a lawyer.”

Along with many of my peers, I believe in each person’s right to individual liberty. Shouldn’t all of us have the right to do and say what we want?

Judicial scholar and free speech advocate Zechariah Chafee wrote, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” in his 1919 publication “Freedom of Speech in Wartime.”

This is how I believe our social actions ought to be tempered: with consideration for the rights of others.

Yes, let’s fully realize and make use of our rights and abilities to communicate the way we want. Let’s express ourselves honestly and sincerely. Let’s stand up for what we truly want to communicate.

But let’s not take away that same ability from one another.

On our social profiles and throughout the internet at large, we have the power to present ourselves to the world in the way we prefer.

On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and almost any other platform, I am in complete control of what people see me do, what people hear me say.

To have that autonomy taken from me by a handful of careless strangers was not a pleasant experience. Maybe my peers believed the narrative that these users created surrounding my identity. Hopefully they saw through it.

But that’s not really what matters.

What matters is that three anonymous users, with disregard for another student’s right to be her own voice, created a false narrative surrounding my identity.

We’re millennials, and it sometimes feel like living with the technology we have is like living in some sort of fast-paced, surreal dreamscape.

But we don’t have to be victims, and we especially don’t have to create victims of the people around us.

We’re the generation with the greatest ability to tell our own stories that has ever lived.

I have two personal rules for my internet use. They’re not difficult to follow, but they force us to reevaluate what we find funny.

Be honest. Be kind.

Please join me in doing the same.


Author’s note: I welcome your feedback. Please tweet me at @AlexDeeC