The latest frontier in coddling college students: banning the smartphone app/social network Yik Yak.
With Yik Yak—which was just awarded the 2015 TechCrunch award for fastest rising startup—users post short, anonymous statements that are culled into a feed for a particular geographic area. Tyler Droll, Yik Yak's co-founder, described it as "a local, anonymous Twitter or a local virtual bulletin board." It's become very popular on U.S. college campuses.
Because posts are anonymous, Yik Yak is frequently home to off-color commentary. A function allowing users to up- or down-vote comments can mitigate this, but sometimes nasty comments can also be popular. And regardless of up- or downvoting, they still exist. This distresses some students so much that not only are they boycotting the app themselves, they're trying to get their schools to ban it entirely.
Administrators at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill are now considering a Yik Yak ban, at the request of some students. "People have been saying some very racist, very hurtful things," Ashley Winkfield, a UNC senior, told WRAL.com.
During the height of the "Black Lives Matter" protests on campus last fall, for example, one person posted, "I really hate blacks, I'm going home where there aren't any." Another poster said, "the way blacks are acting right now kind of justify a slavery."
Winkfield said the anonymous posts scare her and are making her increasingly distrustful. "These are people we are going to class with, people who we see every day, and they might have some type of ill will toward us," she said.
I find it hard to believe that before seeing these sentiments expressed on Yik-Yak, Winkfield had no idea that any fellow students might be racists and assholes. But whatever. What's more mind-boggling is how she thinks banning Yik-Yak would help here. Does she suppose that someone who hates blacks will suddenly stop hating blacks if they can't 'yak' about it? Does she think no one on campus could harbor racial animosity without this smartphone app?
And is she aware of the existence of the rest of the Internet? Because there are no shortage of venues for people to rant and vent anonymously. If the university wants to stop student exposure to hurtful speech and ideas, they're going to have to ban a lot more than just Yik Yak.
Still, Winston Crisp, UNC-Chapel Hill's vice chancellor of student affairs, told WRAL that officials are currently considering options for dealing with Yik-Yak. "I think it adds little to no value to our community and creates more problems for our students than it will ever be worth," Crisp said in a statement.
How could colleges possibly stop students from downloading or using a particular app? They can't. But they can make the app slightly harder to use on-campus by blocking it from school wireless networks. That this is largely a symbolic guesture hasn't stopped several schools, including New York's Utica College and Vermont's Norwich University, from doing so. Other schools are considering it, prompted by student complaints.
At least there are some sane college administrators left: Larry Moneta, Duke University's vice president of student affairs, told WRAL that Duke has no plans to limit Yik-Yak and students who don't like the app should simply not use it. "What we tell students is freedom of expression, even offensive freedom expression, is what we cherish," said Moneta. "Our position has always been every student has the right to avoid it simply stop looking at it, and in time, it will fade into oblivion as every predecessor has done."
Other schools, such as Colgate University, are using Yik Yak to fight speech with more speech, as the adage goes. After complaints from students about racist Yik Yak messages, professors launched a "Yak Back" in December, filling the feed with messages of anti-bigotry and general positivity.