How WSU students sparked a social media campaign against a social media app

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"Yikity Yak," WSU students say. "Don't talk back."
  • "Yikity Yak," WSU students say. "Don't talk back."


Last year, we tackled how online innovations gave rise to anonymous confession pages that allowed bullies to lob any insult at any person, risk-free. 

And a lot of older types don't get just how much that sort of anonymous social sabotage can hurt young people. Social media is not a hobby or a game: It’s an entire sector of life, often even more crucial than home life or school life. Meanwhile, the regular introduction of new communication apps — Instagram! SnapChat! — introduces entirely new social navigation challenges, and new avenues to bully.

Most recently: Yik Yak.

The name sounds like the sort of fictional social media app that would show up on The Good Wife, but it’s totally real. Like Twitter, users post short messages. Like Reddit, users can up-vote messages they like, and down-vote messages they don’t. Enough down-votes, and the message disappears. Users can easily search messages from location, like Washington State University or even a specific classroom.

And then there’s the feature that makes all the difference: “The wonderful thing about Yik Yak: it’s anonymous,” a Yik Yak message from the WSU area said today. “The terrifying thing about Yik Yak: It’s anonymous.”

There isn’t even a username associated with each post. They just appear, as if summoned from the ether.

So, like Juicy Campus before it, Yik Yak has become a sensation at universities like WSU. It’s been that way all semester, says Sarah Temple, a WSU senior working as the WSU Panhellenic vice president for membership education.

At first, she says, the messages seemed pretty harmless. But as the semester wore on, the messages began to take on an edge.

“There were some that were sexual in nature,” Temple says. “Some referred to alcohol. Some very degrading to both men and women. When it was less about honest, light-hearted fun, we really had a problem with that.”

In particular, she says, messages began slamming specific fraternities and sororities, even specific individuals. “I think it was focused on our Greek community,” Temple says.

It got personal, she says.

Enter #ReleaseTheYak. Temple says she first saw it three weeks ago on a Delta Gamma member’s Instagram feed. Soon the organic campaign became official: Students would post photos of themselves deleting the Yik Yak app on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram under the hashtag #ReleaseTheYak.

And just like any good meme, the idea has started to spread. University of Washington students have joined.

“In the last couple of hours, [Oregon State University] has now gotten on board,” Temple says. “Other schools have banded with us.”

Viral content, meet viral antibodies.

“Today @OSUGreeks is joining @WSUpanhellenic in the #ReleaseTheYak campaign because we support sisterhood and love, not gossip and negativity,” one OSU student tweet from today reads.

But so far, the efforts haven’t really seemed to stem a tide of WSU Yak messages: In the span of 10 minutes around 1 pm on Thursday, over 30 messages came from WSU. That’s the other problem with something being anonymous. It wouldn’t be hard for WSU students to righteously condemn the app, and make a big show of deleting it, while continuing to send messages under the table. They could keep spreading gossip, keep checking the app, keep slinging barbs or insults.

Most of the messages, however, weren’t particularly vile. “Horatio Cane is the most bad ass crime scene show character to ever exist.” “My friends in class aren’t here so I have to sit here drunk by myself.” “The clock tower being one minute late bothers me.”)

It’s mostly banal stuff. Questions about homework assignments, complaints about essays, meta-commentary about the app itself, and slightly risqué psuedo-confessions: “I finally had sex in every building on campus. I can now graduate” and “if you don’t smack my ass and pull my hair, you’re not doing it right.”

Even if some WSU students still use the app, Temple says, if the content has become less ugly, that’s a victory. At least, over this one specific social media app. 
“We have some anonymous Twitter accounts that have done some very similar things,” Temple says.