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Cover of November 2014 Campus News Student Paper

By Chloe Henson
Campus News

In November of last year, two recent graduates launched the new social media app Yik Yak. Since then, college students across the nation have downloaded and engaged with the app. Students seem to enjoy the new social media sensation, but the app has given rise to problems at some campuses.

Yik Yak allows users to post short blurbs anonymously. It also localizes the posts so that only messages from others on campus appear on the user’s main feed, though there is an option to check out feeds on other campuses.

Many times, Yik Yak users post jokes or harmless musings about college life. Sometimes, though, messages can come along that are offensive or even threatening.

About a month ago, Holyoke Community College had to evacuate students from a library that appeared to be threatened by a bomb, said Yanina Vargas, the school’s vice president of student affairs. The threat had been posted on the Yik Yak, so administrators were unable to identify who had posted the message, or where it originated from. Eventually, state and local police got involved and were able to find the person responsible. It was later discovered that the post was supposed to be code for a drug sale.

“Apparently what this person meant to say was ‘I have a weed bomb,’ but the first message it said, ‘I have a bomb in the library.’ So that caused a very serious disruption in our campus,” Vargas said.
This type of incident is not unique to Holyoke.

At the end of last month, a school in Miami, Johnson and Wales University, investigated a threat of a shooting posted on the social media app.

On Oct. 16, another shooting threat was posted at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa.

And on Oct. 23, SUNY Canton cancelled classes and told students and University employees to seek shelter after receiving two threats on Yik Yak. A sophomore at the school named Alexis Vazquez was later arrested for posting the threats on federal charges, and could face up to five years in prison. The investigation into the threats is still ongoing.
There have been other similar incidents reported nationwide.

Vargas said she has also heard about HCC students being offended by posts on Yik Yak. Two students she spoke to in particular were distressed by a message they saw on the app that said something about them or alluded to them.

“It is very difficult because they are anonymous postings. So I think sometimes anonymity allows people to disclose the worst parts of oneself rather than the best,” she said.

While there have been incidents with other forms of social media, such as Facebook, it’s easier to identify who the student is and take action, Vargas said.

“Even if they create a different identity, eventually you can trace back. And people on Facebook tend to use more of their account and disclose their identity,” she said.

Natalie Santana, a freshman at HCC who uses the app, said she has seen offensive material on the app, though she doesn’t think it’s as bad at Holyoke as at other schools. She said she has other forms of social media that don’t have problems like Yik Yak, and she does think that the anonymity aspect encourages negative posts.

“My whole premise about it is that since it’s anonymous, you can say absolutely anything. And in more cases than not, that’s not a good thing. Because it’s so easy for people to just hide behind their screens to begin with. And if you can hide behind your screens and not let anybody know that it was you that said that, in my opinion that’s worse,” she said.

Tim Wagner, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also said anonymity provides people with a lot of power and gives students “a voice that they really just shouldn’t have.”

“It gives them the power to express what they feel on campus, which is nice, but nobody really uses it for the right purpose. And there’s a lot of inside jokes and attacking people over it,” he said.

A spokesperson for UMass Amherst News and Media Relations said no negative incidents with Yik Yak had come through the office.

But other campuses nationwide have reported problems with offensive material on the app.

For instance, on Oct. 2, a group of students from Belmont High School in New Hampshire posted a series of positive messages on students’ lockers in response to some negative Yik Yak posts earlier in the week.

Then on Oct. 20, the president of the University of Northern Iowa, Michael Licari, had to send out a campus-wide email in response to a racist post on the app.

Some critics have called for schools to ban the app, but Vargas said HCC administrators have not talked at all about limiting access to Yik Yak. She said they believe it is the students’ decision what social media they use.

Santana said while she recognizes problems with the app, she still uses it for the entertainment value.

“I use it here at the school because more times, the things that people post are funny,” she said.

Wagner said Yik Yak was interesting at first, but now he hasn’t used the app in around two weeks. He said he still has it on his phone for when he gets “that bored,” but he will likely delete it when he goes home for winter break.

“If I want to read something, I’d rather read a book,” he said.

While Vargas said she doesn’t like to give students advice about their personal lives, she doesn’t think Yik Yak is the best way to communicate.

“I would never tell a student what to do with regard to use of social media. Do I think Yik Yak is a productive method of communication? No, I do not,” she said.

A major part of the academic environment is integrity, which is tied directly to authorship, Vargas said.

“For me, the only thing is that I do think that authorship is a very important and wonderful principle to live by. And anonymity in social media I think goes against all of that,” she said.