Yik Yak catches flak from Mich. universities

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

College students have long contemplated Plato, but the Greek philosopher's discussions are emerging as a contemporary metaphor for the social media network Yik Yak.

Centuries ago, Plato posed a question: Would people act immorally if they didn't have to worry about getting caught and could escape repercussions?

Eastern Michigan student Laura Krench says she checks her Yik Yak account dozens of times a day. The app allows users to post anonymously.

Modern philosophers answer yes and, as proof, they point to the behavior of college students using Yik Yak — a wildly popular social media platform built on anonymous posts.

From yaks with threats of school violence to disruptive comments during lectures to spews of sexism, racism and other offensive speech, Yik Yak has created some problems on campuses in Michigan and across the nation.

Gun violence was threatened recently on Yik Yak at Michigan State University, and students using the app harassed professors during a class at Eastern Michigan University. Some students at University of Michigan-Dearborn have even called for Yik Yak to be banished from campus.

Yik Yak's popularity is surging on campuses: Less than 18 months after it was introduced, the network has spread to more than 200 universities nationwide. Yak users share anonymous thoughts to those within a 10-mile radius, making the service hyper-local. For some students, it is becoming the social media of choice, with Facebook and Twitter left behind as relics in the evolving world of social networking.

"Apps like Yik Yak, because of their anonymity, make it remarkably easy for people to behave badly with impunity," said John Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University.

"The fact that they don't typically see the results of their bullying means that their natural sympathy is less likely to kick in. So they post comments — sometimes quite nasty — and then move on to something else; it's like shooting a bullet in the air with no concern for where it lands."

But officials with Yik Yak say all social networks have to be aware of misuse.

"We find this stuff unacceptable and want it to have no place on our app, so we've taken preventative measures and continue to focus on expanding these efforts," said Hilary McQuaide, a Yik Yak spokeswoman. "For example, we employ filters to screen out inappropriate words, and we empower communities to self-moderate by downvoting posts off the feed. We also make it easy for users to report a post for removal, and we moderate this 24/7."

Yik Yak has a geofence — a virtual perimeter — around middle and high schools to avoid cyberbullying, so users are primarily on college campuses, company officials say.

Students yak anonymously about professors, failing exams, picking up members of the opposite sex and more. Users vote a yak up or down. After five votes down, the yak disappears.

For some, Yik Yak has been a haven for some who long for a safe place to get and give support. For others, it's a place to be witty, vent or get news they wouldn't anywhere else.

Popular yaks near the University of Michigan recently included, "I have had sex and pooped twice this morning ... it's going to be a good day." Meanwhile, at Michigan State University during the Final Four games, one person yakked: "If you go to Duke, don't come to East Lansing to watch the game. We hate you."

Laura Krench, a junior at Eastern Michigan University, is a huge fan of Yik Yak. She downloaded the app onto her phone about a month ago and checks it about every 20 minutes throughout the day.

Recently, she commented on a yak from someone who posted that they had stopped cutting themselves for almost six months but had cut themselves three days in a row.

"If you feel like cutting, write about it, cry about it," Krench wrote. "Find an alternative because hurting yourself is not the solution. I've been there and I believe in you. You can quit again, you truly can."

But the anonymous platform allows students to say things they might not in person, or even on other social media networks where an identity is attached.

For instance, someone on Yik Yak proposed a gang rape at Kenyon College in Ohio. Other controversial incidents on college campuses across the nation have included yaks that are sexist, racist and homophobic, and violent.

In the Michigan State incident, many nearby schools went on lockdown after an MSU student saw this yak: "I am gonna (gun emoji) the school at 12:15 p.m. today."

Police contacted the app's developer and within hours arrested Matthew Mullen, an MSU freshman who lived in East Akers Hall.

Mullen was charged with terrorism, pleaded guilty and left the university. His lawyer has said that Mullen was only joking.

Around the same time, honor students at EMU posted yaks about three professors while the trio were teaching a class. The yaks made disparaging comments about the professors' credentials, teaching style and looks, and some included epithets about women.

The instructors discovered the yaks, took screen shots and posted them in the classroom. Later, they alerted EMU administrators, who did nothing, the instructors said.

"What this did is made it impossible for us to teach because they did not respect us," said Margaret Crouch, a philosophy professor. "You cannot teach in an environment like that."

Crouch said the university did not investigate properly, or even talk to the instructors, so they went to the faculty union.

But Geoff Larcom, EMU spokesman, said the university's Department of Public Safety investigated and presented the results to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office, which declined to pursue the case since no crime was committed.

As well, he said, the situation was presented to several EMU offices to investigate for possible harassment or violations of the student conduct code.

"After all the actions taken, there is no indication that any further conduct of this nature occurred," Larcom said. "This action has brought to the foreground the need for K-12 schools and universities to do more to help young people understand what it means to be a good digital citizen in a global community."

Crouch said students need to be held accountable for violating the student code of conduct, especially in a world that continues to be changed by technology. Already the Internet has created distance between people who use it more often to communicate than face to face, and sometimes to hide as trolls on blogs.

Social media apps that allow anonymity change things even more, leaving no social sanctions — exactly what Plato was talking about centuries ago, Crouch said.

"The kind of behavior we think of as ethical or even just decent is kept in place by social sanction — by other people," Crouch said. "There will be people who will do bad things if they don't have the social coercion to behave. ... So the idea that people will behave badly if they have anonymity has been around a long time. It's not anything new."