Home > social computing > Foul Yet Profound Social Media: YikYak

Foul Yet Profound Social Media: YikYak

It’s a good morning if the students are chatting about squirrels. They seem obsessed with campus squirrels. Other mornings, they brag about sexual exploits (real or imagined), about how hard they are studying, and about how much they are not studying.  The site is YikYak, social media that lets you post anonymously to others in your local geographic area.

Amid the racist, sexist, and homophobic sewage stream of words come oddly profound moments. Students post about depression and stress, and I wonder whether they are just venting or really in need of help. A student posts about needing emergency contraception, and immediately receives replies with both practical information and encouragement. Another student asks, “Is it bad that all I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom & a wife?” Another says he/she was so nervous about a job interview that he/she was up all night.

yak-best-oct2014

Popular Yaks, October 2014

You can judge a campus’ mood from its Yak. A couple days ago there was a daytime robbery on campus, and our YikYak stream exploded with anxiety. My colleague Jessica Vitak at University of Maryland says her campus’ Yak yesterday was filled with panicky messages about ebola. (An ebola patient had just been transported to their area.) With the CDC located in Atlanta, GT students were a bit more blasé (one popular post: “GT student cures ebola, receives B.”) YikYak streams at different places feel different. You can tell when you’ve moved closer to a different school. And the feed in rural Georgia away from any school was so different (so depressing) it was stunning. GT students are clever and smart and mostly positive and respectful. If I was college shopping now, I’d look carefully at each campus’ YikYak.

I’ve spoken with campus administrators, and they are indeed watching YikYak. You can get real feedback about campus from it. One student posted with frustration that his/her appointment at the health center was canceled with no explanation, and 29 people up-voted the message. That suggests it’s not an isolated problem. Another posts that a professor made him/her feel stupid during office hours. I cajole him/her into at least sharing what department the class was in, and mail the department chair a friendly alert.

The administrators I’ve spoken with are worried about the foulness on YikYak creating a bad impression for their campus. I have a more pressing concern: What do you do when you’re worried an anonymous posting might be from someone who really needs help? Yesterday a colleague at Drexel University saw a posting that looked suspiciously like a suicide note. It could be from anyone at three nearby universities. What can anyone do?

For scholars of social media, YikYak is fascinating. Users can upvote or downvote each posting. Just five down votes makes a posting disappear from the feed. As a result, social norms quickly emerge that differ by location. There’s a great research project lurking in here. Maybe several.

If you’re a social media researcher or campus administrator interested in YikYak, email me if you’d like to be added to a Facebook group for discussing it, Meta-Yak.

Categories: social computing
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