The independent news organization of Duke University

Don’t feed the trolls, feed the yaks

Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember Duke before Yik Yak.

When Yik Yak, the anonymous, location-based social app, splashed onto the scene at the beginning of this year, I didn’t know what to make of it, and I certainly didn’t expect it to become the force that it is. The rise of Yik Yak followed the fall of Collegiate ACB, a site whose posters consisted primarily of porn star stalkers and people inexplicably obsessed with ranking and re-ranking Greek organizations very few of us cared about in the first place.

Over the past year, Yik Yak has become a linchpin of campus culture, perused by students, faculty and administrators alike. Indeed, last weekend I was at a meeting for planning an on-campus event, and one student commented, “Let’s hope we don’t get torn apart on Yik Yak!” The fact that Yik Yak would even manifest itself as a consideration in such a setting is indicative of the influence the app has on the student body.

Over the past year, the app has received its fair share of challenges on campuses across the country. Although use of the app is restricted by a geo-fence at most elementary or secondary schools, some college campuses have also been under pressure to ban or at least try to ban the app.

In a year where so much national dialogue has revolved around race, Yik Yak has become an avenue all over the country for people to express their bigotry without fear of social consequences , including here at Duke. The app has also become a site for misogynistic and homophobic speech on campus with rape jokes and threats made all too frequently, particularly in light of the charges brought against members of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and against Rasheed Sulaimon. Yik Yak users love a good scandal, and often their commentary is hurtful more than it is constructive.

As a person who cares about social justice on this campus, I know that I should probably hate Yik Yak. I’ve seen things on there that make my skin crawl; I won’t repeat them here because they don’t deserve publicity.

At times, Yik Yak has made me feel thoroughly disappointed in my peers and in my school, and I’ve considered deleting the app once and for all. There’s something intensely disturbing about anonymity; when you don’t know who said something, everyone you see becomes a possible culprit. It’s not pleasant walking across the quad, looking at your peers, and thinking, “Could you be the one who posted the racist joke or who blamed the girl for getting raped?”

I also know what online harassment feels like. When I started writing this column, I never expected to encounter the amount of anonymous vitriol and hate that I’ve faced. I’ve been particularly disturbed by the animosity directed at my identity as a woman and my writing on sexual violence. I’ve received comments that are upsetting, infuriating, even scary. People truly will say anything behind the guise of anonymity, and that anonymity seems, in fact, to encourage provocative “troll” behavior.

I should hate it, but I don’t. True, there have been times this year when Yik Yak threatened to tear our campus apart. But there have also been moments where it brought us together.

Why do I defend Yik Yak?

I believe that Yik Yak allows for anonymous expression in a way that many of us crave. I know I can always count on Yik Yak for a good laugh often from a joke that resonates with my identity as a Duke student. I’ve experienced those moment where I read something on Yik Yak, no matter how trivial, and thought, “Yes! Someone else has experienced that too!”

But it’s deeper than that. In many ways, Yik Yak is popular for the same reason that Me Too Monologues is popular. It may seem odd to pair the two together, but they accomplish similar goals. They allow us to express that which we are afraid to share in other spaces, and they provide avenues to receive affirmation and encouragement from peers. In some instances, Yik Yak has functioned in ways similar to the Duke Facebook page You’re Not Alone or the student-run service Peer For You. Whether students shared stories of relationships gone wrong, tales of homesickness during O-Week or personal struggles with mental health or violence, responses on Yik Yak brought people together. People offered words of encouragement, directed their peers to appropriate resources and shared their own stories, all of which they might have been scared to do if they could have been identified.

In this way, Yik Yak has provided an online snapshot of campus culture, documenting our joys and our jokes and our pains and our prejudices.

Yik Yak is differentiated from other popular gossip sites in that not only do community members produce the content shared but they also regulate it. This allows for immediate responses to hateful language or content targeting specific individuals. With five down votes, the content is gone often faster than if the app administrators were to remove it themselves. I don’t want to understate the potential of such content to do real harm even if it is only available for a fleeting moment. That said, the app offers an opportunity for the campus community to make clear its standards and send a message that we won’t tolerate hateful speech in our community.

It looks like Yik Yak is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to be the enemy. In the next academic year, I urge campus leaders and activists—Yaktivists?—to embrace Yik Yak as a tool for making campus a safer and more inclusive space. We don’t have to let the trolls win. We can yak back.

Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.


Share and discuss “Don’t feed the trolls, feed the yaks” on social media.