Friday, November 6, 2015

What Colleges Might Lose by Banning Yik Yak

In an effort to curb harassment on college campuses, 72 women’s and civil-rights groups from across the nation recently announced a campaign to enlist the federal government to shut down applications like Yik Yak, which they claim foster an environment of exclusion and hate. For those unfamiliar, Yik Yak is a social-media app, described by many as an anonymous version of Twitter. It requires no user name or log-in information, and users, thanks to geolocative technology, engage only with others in the vicinity. People are able to create their own yak, comment on other people’s yaks, and "upvote" or "downvote" content. I agree that college administrators (and researchers) need to pay more attention to what is happening on forums like Yik Yak, but shutting them down will not alleviate the larger problem of deep-seated misogyny, racism, and homophobia on college campuses. As a 2013 study that I conducted with Andrea Press demonstrates, the sexism that circulates on forums like Yik Yak is not a new phenomenon. Closing Yik Yak’s window will likely open the door for a similar app waiting to take advantage of the displaced network of users. Yik Yak should work with colleges to identify users who spew particularly hateful or defaming speech, and colleges should care that students on their campuses are doing this. However, my research demonstrates that harassment via Yik Yak is rare. Users attest that "the community" does a good job of regulating what they qualify as derogatory speech. Given these findings, organizations need to stop focusing on "shutting down" technology easily replaceable, and rather use forums like Yik Yak to better understand the broader cultural problems within their communities. I don’t mean to diminish the hurt and isolation students feel when they witness extremely racist, sexist, or damaging content, but focusing solely on harassment and explicitly derogatory content undermines two more pressing problems: the content that persists and the protests hidden from view.

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