By Sage Lazzaro
This is the third installment in a three part series about Yik Yak, Asleep on the Job. Click here for Part I and here for Part II of the story.
Part III: A Conversation with Yik Yak
Yik Yak’s (Lack of) Response: A Conversation with the Company
After investigating claims of misuse on the app, interviewing Ms. Long about her experience with the company, and spending several weeks monitoring multiple campus feeds, we sought to connect with Yik Yak. We wanted to ask about the persistence of hate speech and the company’s plans to prevent or filter posts that are targeted and/or threatening. Founders Mr. Buffington and Mr. Droll wouldn’t speak to us, but we were granted an interview with Hilary McQuaide, Yik Yak’s director of communications.
Ms. McQuaide has also communicated with Elizabeth Long, who has repeatedly attempted to follow up with Yik Yak’s founders regarding their initial meeting. So far they’ve sent her to Ms. McQuaide. Of her experience she says, “I feel like she was assigned to take care of this 19-year-old girl. She told me nothing that wasn’t in the FAQ.” Long reports that when she wanted to discuss bullying among high school students, McQuaide suggested victims of bullying request their houses be geo-fenced. While blinding victims’ from their own abuse is certainly a backwards solution, the writer would like to point out that isolating a victim’s home from service would not fix the problem: Anyone who knows anything about teenagers knows that even without access to the app, the victim would hear all about the insults the next day at school.
We can only surmise that McQuaide’s suggestion indicates that company’s founders may not actually understand the real world impact of posting threats and hate speech anonymously and whether or not they care. In an on-stage interview in May with Tech Crunch’s Jordan Crook, Brooks Buffington provided his view of Yik Yak’s popularity:
“I think that if you were to ask a college kid, you know, “What makes Yik Yak special?” as a knee-jerk reaction they may say “Oh it’s the anonymity,” but I think in reality what they really like about it is the fact that they’re connected to their community.”
While Buffington re-assigning the core value proposition of his app for his users is a separate issue, there have been a fair number of positive stories associated with Yik Yak. There are stories of lost dogs found, blood drives organized, and frank conversations about personal problems begun on the platform—so it’s safe to say that there’s some potential value to local, anonymous message boards. Does it outweigh the harm?
Given this question, we tried our hand at a real conversation with Yik Yak about its role in the communities it has so rapidly infiltrated. Our first question to Hilary McQuaide was simple: “What kinds of concerns and complaints have you heard about bullying, racism and other types threatening posts? And how are these concerns brought to you—are parents emailing you, are university administrators reaching out, are students telling you on other social media platforms?”
Even though this question addressed known complaints it didn’t warrant an answer of any substance; referring to the company’s founders she replied,. “They’re aware of what Yik Yak was intended to do and why it’s popular on over 2,000 campuses.” She continued, “…as part of being very committed to our users and trying to create the best experience possible, we’re committed to looking at and listening to all feedback that we get.” The examples she gave exclusively involved Yik Yak users suggesting new, fun features unrelated to hate speech or bullying. McQuaide also declined to say if a parent or school administrator had ever emailed the company.
The conversation then shifted to the changes Droll and Buffington promised Long in their 2014 meeting. Here’s a bit more of our conversation, which is so redundant and ridiculous that it may read as if it’s transcribed incorrectly, but it’s correct.
RZ: The geo-fences; they make it so students can’t use the app when they’re physically on the campuses of high schools, but they can go home and use it. So what do you think about that?
HM: So what we can do for our part is geo-fence the campuses, but what we’ve also done is add into our terms of services that you have to be 18 or older to use the app. So parents have the ability to set parental controls on their child’s phone, so those are things other people can do.
RZ: A lot of parents don’t do that though. When I was 16, my parents definitely weren’t checking which apps I downloaded. Kids are way more tech savvy than their parents anyway, and they’re going to figure out a way to download the app. So I understand that’s a good step, but [the app] is still widely used among high schoolers. It’s not quite working, so what is your comment on that, specifically regarding the geo-fencing?
HM: What we can do on our end is geo-fence around those high school and middle school campuses, and we make it really easy to request a geo-fence correction. And the very first thing is tips for parents on how to manage their child’s usage of apps.
RZ: The problem is though, and please just think about it a little and see where I’m coming from, because I understand you can make it so you can’t use it at schools and parents can stop their own kids from using it, but the bottom line is that even if you’re stopping kids from using it on high school campuses, they’re still going home and using it, and even if one parent of one child who is being bullied prevents their child from using it, so they can’t see the bullying, everyone else is still on it talking about them or saying things that offend them. So even if you yourself are not using it, other people are and you can still become a victim of bullying, and that’s what’s happening. I know you’re trying to make it sound like these changes are working, but I’m researching for this article and these problems are what I’m finding. And it sounds to me right now that you’re not offering any solutions, and that’s what I’m going to write unless we can talk about how you see this improving.
HM: Yeah, so I was answering your first question about age, and that’s what we do about age, is that it’s for 18 and older and it’s in our terms of service. And we geo-fence schools, so that’s what we can do on our end. And in the app we have a bunch of other things in addition to geo-fences. For example, we have filters and pop-up warnings if there’s a detection of harmful content. And there are steps after for if anything makes it through those filters. We make it very easy to report yaks if they are offensive content or target someone. And then the community also has a rule in downvoting content if they don’t think it’s appropriate for the feed
Eventually, we asked McQuaide about the several colleges and universities that have banned Yik Yak:
RZ: A lot of colleges have banned the app from their Wi-Fi networks. Faculty, students and administers have all gone up the ladders at their schools and brought this up as a problem, and some have taken action and said “we’re not going to host this app on our campus.” What is your comment on that? Do you find it troubling, do you support that? Are you trying to prevent it from being banned on more campuses?
HM: So I think it all goes into the same conversation where it’s about enhancing and encouraging good behavior on the app. So we’re thrilled to hear stories everyday about where this is the way students find out about events…
RZ: [Cutting her off] I know, I know about that. But what about the schools where it’s a problem and was banned? Where university administration said your company is causing a problem and they don’t want it on campus. What is your comment regarding that? I know you want to talk about the positive situations. I do too, in my article. But I already know those positives and just want to know your comment on this, or else it’s going to be a “no comment” regarding schools banning the app.
HM: What’s my comment regarding schools banning the app? What is your question?
RZ: My question is: there are universities banning Yik Yak from campus. Administrations are taking steps to prevent students from using this because they see it as problematic. So, do you find this troubling, do you support this, do you plan to take action so it doesn’t get banned at more schools? Are you talking to universities about their bans?
HM: So we are constantly talking with campuses, students and universities as this is part of our part to encourage positive behavior. I feel like I already answered this.
One thing we tried, and failed, to discuss with Yik Yak were the threatening, untrue, targeted, or racist post that reach users on Yik Yak every day. Even though the company might not acknowledge their existence, it’s not a question of debate and furthermore, fellow users are certainly not vigilantes using upvotes and downvotes to effectively regulate the platform. When a yak is posted that targets a specific person, others often join in, upvoting and adding more targeting comments, as happened to Melissa Melendez at Colgate University in 2014. In school, bullying happens in groups, and it happens in groups online too.
Established social networks regularly deal with hate speech, threats, and racism with varying degrees of efficacy. The difference is that Yik Yak, being hyper-local and public is positioned perfectly as a gossip platform. The unique feature that Buffington identified at Tech Crunch, anonymity, also happens to empower hate speech (and all the rest) in a forum where the recipient is the only named party. Without this cover of anonymity all speech, however hateful, may attributed to an individual who then suffers or enjoys the consequences of their actions.
For a bit of context: the owners of Ask.fm, an anonymous social media platform with 150 million monthly users, half of whom are under 18, considered shutting it down after the platform was blamed for a spate of teen suicides that began in 2012. Users now have the ability to block any anonymous content and site moderators now reportedly handle reports of abuse in under 15 minutes. Secret, a third anonymous social media platform, shut down earlier this Spring.
During our conversation there was a distinct lack of honest consideration of what is only a growing problem, making us suspect that this is more a story of corporate incompetence than a story of user misuse. It would only make sense that if Yik Yak had solutions brewing, McQuaide would be excited to discuss them rather than duck questions as is if all of the problems have already been solved. Elizabeth Long was correct when she pointed out Yik Yak’s vast resources. With $73.5 million in funding to date, they could surely improve their systems of moderators, filters and such. So why are they handling this so poorly? Our only conclusion can be that they don’t understand the severity of the problem.
New headlines surface daily about racist, threatening and otherwise problematic posts on the app. More students are speaking out and an increasing number of schools are taking action. In just its first few days, Ms. Long’s new petition gathered more than 13,000 signatures. As of publication, more than 44,000 people had signed and were singing at a rate of about 10,000 a week. People seem to care about the platform is affecting their communities, does Yik Yak?
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