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The Power of Digital Anonymity: Yik Yak at UMass

Warning: This story mentions sexual assault which could be triggering to some readers.

Literally overnight, anonymous Yik Yak users at UMass Amherst sparked a movement that garnered the attention of news organizations ranging from The Boston Globe to CBS Boston. Rumors of sexual assault at a well-known fraternity on campus had spread across the social media app, resulting in a mass call to protest. The credibility of content on an app like Yik Yak, where there is almost no indication of who is posting, is low. But the next afternoon, hundreds of people had gathered to protest sexual assault incidents that had occurred at the fraternity over a number of years. 

Without Yik Yak, I don’t think the protest would have occurred at the scale that it did. I was scrolling through the app on a Saturday night when posts about ambulances and cop cars sighted at the Theta Chi fraternity began to circulate. It wasn’t long before “what happened at Theta?” posts dominated the app. Rumors of someone being drugged and sexually assaulted started to fill the screen and hundreds of anonymous users started to condemn the fraternity and share their own harrowing experiences. People were agitated and frustrated; they wanted to take action. New posts flooded in every second. Many of them were telling people to gather at Theta Chi at noontime.

How did an app with a cartoon bovine as its mascot contribute to something of this magnitude? The answer lies within the app’s design. Yik Yak is an app that allows users to create, view, comment on, upvote, and downvote text-based posts known as ‘Yaks’ within a five-mile radius. Users do not have a personal profile and there is no name or image attached to posts. Commenters are differentiated by randomly generated emoji profile pictures that can be changed by the individual user at any time. 

With the cloak of anonymity to protect them, users feel free to speak their minds without consequence. Yik Yak has gone mainstream this semester at UMass, serving as an incentive to post on the app. There is an active audience. People are refreshing the app every day, whispering about it in class, and sending screenshots of Yaks to group chats. 

The majority of the app is dominated by posts about not being able to find forks at the dining halls, having to sleep in close quarters with a roommate, and other typical college qualms. Although the app takes a strong stance against cyberbullying, gossip and slander are still rampant. Yik Yak is essentially a virtual breeding ground for a rumor-fueled game of telephone. Someone says something, another person sees it and piggybacks off of it, and the cycle continues.

In the case of sexual assault survivors and allies banding together to create a movement and share their stories without fear, Yik Yak was chivalrous.

In cases where people’s names get thrown into the abyss paired with degrading comments, Yik Yak is detrimental.

Should people believe everything they read on an anonymous app? The easy answer is no, but it’s often the case where if people see something often enough, they begin to believe it. It’s very common for people to post copies of other posts that have a lot of upvotes just so they can get upvotes as well. These post upvotes translate into a digital score known as Yakarma, which incentivizes users to post often and to post agreeable content. What is agreeable content? That depends on the mindset of the users. 

Contrary to what Yik Yak may seem like, it isn’t a public forum that allows everyone to have an equal voice. A post only needs to be downvoted five times before it disappears from the app completely. Popular opinions gain more coverage by appearing on the “Hot” tab and by people copying them to gain upvotes for themselves. Unpopular opinions simply cease to exist. While this may seem unfair, it’s understandable that an anonymous app has harsh rules like this. Without downvotes, posts with dangerous or violent content could have too much of a platform since there are essentially no moderators. Even with that in mind, it’s interesting to note that Yik Yak calls each user pod a “herd” and that the culture it perpetuates is a herd mentality.

Yik Yak is essentially an anonymous echo chamber down to its definition. This can help when urgent or serious news around campus needs to be spread. It can bring people together in times of need and uplift voices that might otherwise be unheard. It can also give people the power to start and spread baseless rumors and rely on the Yik Yak system to push those rumors to virality. Yik Yak is a double-edged sword; the power of digital anonymity is only as strong as those who wield it.

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Vera Gold

U Mass Amherst '23

Vera is a junior communication major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the Facebook Coordinator of her chapter and loves writing about digital media, beauty, and entertainment.
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