It would be a difficult quest to find a student at Northwestern who isn’t familiar with Yik Yak. The app is a sounding board for whatever is on users’ minds. “Work? Finished. Froggy hat? On.” “Used a semicolon today and accidentally ended up with a degree from Medill.” “How do I tell him I like him?” Just to name a few.
Yik Yak has a few key features that distinguish it from other popular social media platforms; namely, the strict policy of anonymity and the curation of posts from within a five-mile radius. Students have expressed comfort in the community facilitated by Yik Yak’s main features, but they also point to a potential for darker consequences.
Targeting, hookup culture and more: the controversial sides of YikYak
Unlike Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, Yik Yak does not require a username or password to sign up. Posts are only labeled with the approximate distance away and the time they were posted. It allows users to say whatever is on their mind – as long as they don’t violate the community guiderails, which include a section on privacy.
Why stay anonymous? For many students, Yik Yak’s feature of anonymity enables them to post funny “shower thoughts” without embarrassment. But for others, anonymity bolsters attacks on others, increased engagement in hookup culture and trauma dumping.
“From the morning until mid-afternoon, it’s all like, ‘School sucks, everything sucks. There’s a weird period towards the beginning of the night where everything is like, ‘F–k Greek life,’ and then at night it’s all, ‘Where are all the parties?’ ‘I want a hug;’ ‘Who is around that I can meet up with?’”
Thomas, a Northwestern student who chose to preserve anonymity for the story, found the cycle of hook-ups through Yik Yak to be invasive.
“Part of the reason I don’t use the app much anymore is that a lot of people are unnecessarily horny,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot of the same sort of comments about wanting to hook up that are disguised as jokes – they get old.”
Ollo MaClean, a second-year in McCormick, used Yik Yak regularly last year. He noticed meet-up suggestions permeated Yik Yak’s daily post-rotation.
“From the morning until mid-afternoon, it’s all like, ‘School sucks, everything sucks,’” MaClean said. “There’s a weird period towards the beginning of the night where everything is like, ‘F–k Greek life,’ and then at night it’s all, ‘Where are all the parties?’ ‘I want a hug;’ ‘Who is around that I can meet up with?’”
He saw the app’s users crossing more lines as the night went on. Many would abandon anonymity altogether and drop their locations to blindly meet up with other students, MaClean noted.
In addition to the hookup culture present on Yik Yak, there are also frequent posts hinting at others’ intrinsic flaws.
Pew Research found that approximately 12% of internet users have been harassed online. To combat the possibility of harrassment, Yik Yak has a strict policy against discrimination. In the community guardrails, users are advised not to “treat others unfairly solely based on intrinsic characteristics.”
According to Medill first-year Virginia Hunt, when a post clearly contain discrimination and isolating language, users can downvote the post. Yaks with 5 downvotes are automatically removed from the site. In other posts, though, she notices that targeting is more subtle.
“If a post somehow applies to something you do or like, and then you see a lot of people agree with the negativity, it’s easy to generalize it to yourself.”
She recalled an instance where other students targeted her. She was in a dorm with friends on a Friday night, and someone posted a YikYak criticizing her group for being too loud..
“There were a couple of upvotes or people commenting negatively about us. They made me think, ‘Oh my god, they all hate us,’” Hunt said.
She added that while no one else knew the post was about her and her friends, it still felt personal. To Hunt, this hurtful Yik Yak experience applies both to direct attacks and to broader negative targets.
“If a post somehow applies to something you do or like,” Hunt said, “and then you see a lot of people agree with the negativity, it’s easy to generalize it to yourself.”
Hunt said that Yik Yak’s anonymous feature gives people an outlet to make rude, generalized statements. Moreover, she noted that many rude posters demonstrate a lack of responsibility for their rudeness.
Building a community through YikYak
But while some students have voiced concerns about the potential harm that YikYak has offered, many including Thomas and Hunt see great benefits.
Thomas noted that the community aspect of Yik Yak contributes to their engagement with the app. Users can see everything posted within a five-mile radius of them; this is a large reason it’s so popular on college campuses.
Thomas likes to tailor their posts to the Northwestern community. One of their posts reads, “All I want is an STD test but the NU medical website keeps saying I’m not a student :// they must be confused since everyone else here is a virgin.”
Like Thomas, Hunt enjoys the knowledge that other posters are near her.
“While it is superficial, there is a sense of community,” Hunt said, “It feels like somewhere you can go to talk about anything, and you see that others are existing around you. You feel like you’re in on something.”
Thomas sees downsides to the community aspect as well, which manifested in a particularly bad Yik Yak-induced interruption during Wildcat Welcome this year. Students posted a time at which everyone in the room should cough; many followed through.
“During Schill’s speech [to the first-years,] people were planning ‘jokes’ on Yik Yak using the five-mile radius,” Thomas said. “It felt very high school to me.”
Thomas said they felt disappointed in the Northwestern community’s negative use of Yik Yak that day. They are now more conscious of how the app can be used for harm, though they still enjoy the community it provides.
“While it is superficial, there is a sense of community.”
Josh Ryan, a fourth-year in the School of Communication, thinks Yik Yak connects users to an intricate social circle even if they don’t know each other. It can be comforting for Ryan to know that many people near him are going through similar experiences.
“When you have a random person saying, ‘Oh, organic chemistry was so hard,’ or ‘That Poli-Sci class really got me today,’ it just feels like these people are in the same circumstances as you,” Ryan said.
Despite the controversial nature of Yik Yak, Thomas added they enjoy engaging with the app and find the community to be generally supportive.
“I say a lot of stupid things,” Thomas said, “I feel like that’s what Yik Yak is for – to say your silly little thoughts, and then if people hear them and react to them, then that’s great.”
Graphic by Olivia Abeyta, North by Northwestern