Asleep on the Job Part II: The Universities vs. Yik Yak

Yik Yak: Part 2

By Sage Lazzaro

This is the second installment of a three part series about Yik Yak, Asleep on the Job. Click here for Part I of the story.

Part II: The Universities vs. Yik Yak


Students, Professors and Administrators are Noticing


Although Yik Yak has taken steps to prevent students below the college level from using the app, it is widely used at high schools. After a requested geo-fence around Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious New Hampshire boarding school, failed (it only blocked use in a few of the campus buildings), an administrator e-mailed the entire student body:

“Please stop using Yik Yak immediately. Remove it from your phones. It is doing us no good,” wrote Arthur Cosgrove, the dean of residential life.

Yik Yak uses a system of upvoting and downvoting similar to that of Reddit. Ms. McQuaide says users downvote harmful content, but that is far from the truth. In only 10 minutes, an entire sorority was targeted and slut shamed by dozens of users.

Yik Yak uses a system of upvoting and downvoting similar to that of Reddit. Ms. McQuaide says users downvote harmful content, but that is far from the truth. In only 10 minutes, an entire sorority was targeted and slut shamed by dozens of users.

During the fall 2014 semester, Emory University student and sophomore student council representative Maxwell Zoberman noticed a growing number of racist posts on the school’s Yik Yak feed. “Fave game to play while driving around Emory: not hit an Asian with a truck,” read one. “Guys stop with all this hate. Let’s just be thankful we aren’t black,” read another. Disturbed by the abuse, Mr. Zoberman felt it was important for the school to take a stand and drafted a resolution to have Yik Yak disabled on the school’s Wi-Fi network. This lead him to become personally targeted on the app. “Walkers hate bikers, bikers hate walkers, but everybody hates Max Zoberman,” read one post.

“We think that in the educational community, First Amendment rights are very important,” said Leon Wiles, the school’s chief diversity officer, in The New York Times. “It’s just problematic because you have young people who use it with no sense of responsibility.”

At Eastern Michigan University, a professor named Margaret Crouch approached the administration about Yik Yak after she discovered dozens of demeaning and sexually explicit posts about her and two other female professors. Although disturbed, the administration didn’t do anything. They couldn’tthe posts were anonymous and the app’s privacy policy prevents schools from identifying users without a subpoena, a court order, a search warrant, or an emergency request from law enforcement with a claim of imminent harm.

In October, 72 women’s and civil rights groups came together to bring the issue to the attention of the Department of Education. In an open letter, the groups urged the Department’s Office of Civil Rights to provide formal guidance to colleges regarding Yik Yak and to put such online threats under the umbrella of federal gender and racial equality legislation.

The app has even made its way into academic research. A paper titled “Cyberbullying Via Social Media,” which was published in the Journal of School Violence in July 2015, mentions the app as a part of the problem.

Many universities are banning Yik Yak from campus. John Brown University, a Christian college in Arkansas, did so in the fall of 2014 after its Yik Yak feed was overrun with racist commentary during a march for the school’s World Awareness Week. Utica College in New York blocked the app in December 2014 in response to a growing number of sexually graphic posts aimed at the school’s transgender community. The College of Idaho, St. Louis University, Augustana College, Norwich University and others have followed suit, though, as reported by Gimlet Media, it seems that officially blocking the app rarely works—even when banned on a university network, a user can easily switch to their carrier’s wireless network to use the app.

Promises, Promises:

Elizabeth Long is now enjoying her first year at the University of Mississippi. She has started a club on campus called “Rebels for Suicide Prevention” and, in the face of stonewalling and non-action by Yik Yak, has re-launched her petition.

At their 2014 meeting, Droll and Buffington personally promised her that they would a list of changes to mitigate negative social ramifications of the app:

1. The age in the Apple and Google Play stores would be raised from 12 to 17 years old to allow parents to block underage users

Image via Sage Lazzaro

Image via Sage Lazzaro

from downloading the app.

This happened, however, though the suggested age in the Apple app store is now 17+, this is not an enforceable rule and Yik Yak is still used in high schools.

2. The terms of use were updated to specifically prevent bullying.

However, how many people do you know, let alone teenagers, who read the terms of use on every app they download? Putting “no bullying” unsurprisingly doesn’t seem to stop people from doing so.

3. Primary and secondary school campuses would be “geofenced” so the app wouldn’t work near schools below the college-age level.

Yik Yak has in fact geo-fenced many schools however the geo-fencing technology is imperfect and school students continue to use Yik Yak. Naturally, the app works anytime students are not at school.

4. Natural language filters would be put in place to prevent the names of individuals from being posted, as well as any racially insensitive or insulting terms.

In testing, a pop up screen did appear before a message about a “Bomb threat” could be sent, but nothing prevents a user from simply ignoring the pop up and posting anyway.

5. Moderators would be put in place to review feeds and remove any offensive content that has been flagged for removal.

Though Yik Yak says they employ moderators, posts containing threats and hate speech are often upvoted to the top of the feed, where they often remain for hours or even days, proving that any moderation is partial and ineffective at best.

Given this question regarding if the natural language filters are working, here are some recent screenshots from the app:


Screenshot 2015-12-15 10.14.58

Left: Image via RoomZoom. The filters that are supposed to prevent users from naming people do not work. In this post, a comment targeting another student was still on the post three hours after it had been posted and had amassed 20 upvotes. Right: Post from Tumblr “The Absolute Worst of Yik Yak.”



“There’s so many things they can do that they’re just not doing,” Long says, adding that the founders “blew off” a proposed partnership between the company and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization with which she works.

In her new petition, Ms. Long details her meeting with the founders and the promises they personally made to her. For example, in addition to the security functions they promised that would prevent bullying, Mr. Droll and Mr. Buffington also assured Ms. Long they would never allow photos on the app; photo posting was enabled this past summer.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in Tyler, Brooks and the other leaders at Yik Yak for so blatantly disregarding the safety of their users and the other young people targeted on their app. I am calling on them to immediately follow through on their promises to me and implement basic but essential safeguards to Yik Yak… Last year, Yik Yak was given over $60 million by investors to expand their business, so I know that they have the resources to make these changes happen now,” reads the new petition.


Asleep on the Job Part I: Yik Yak Remains a Haven for Racism and Threats

Asleep on the Job Part III: RoomZoom Talks with Yik Yak