Anonymity is the benefit for University of Georgia students posting to the anonymous mobile social media application Yik Yak, but it is not always guaranteed. For instances of violence threats, such as the one made against students in the Zell B. Miller Learning Center earlier this semester, or hate speech, the app attempts to mitigate posts directed at causing harm.
To learn more about Yik Yak, The Red & Black sat down with Cam Mullen, lead community developer for the app, for a question and answer session.
The Red & Black: Since Yik Yak is anonymous, what are the benefits of anonymity for the app’s users and what are some of the drawbacks?
Cam Mullen: What’s cool is that Yik Yak is the intersection of two things — one is location and the other is keeping your privacy with anonymity. One benefit is that Yik Yak surpasses social circles, so when you are posting on Yik Yak you are posting to people two miles around you and you do not know the identity of who posted or who is reading, and for that reason it surpasses and transcends social circles. Two, when you keep your privacy, you are able to talk about things that you otherwise wouldn’t. On Facebook or Twitter you might be following your parents or professors and for that reason you are a little limited in what you feel comfortable sharing, and on Yik Yak, because you are not necessarily judged off of what you post, you are able to speak a little more freely and get a unfiltered opinion of the actual content that you are writing about. Drawbacks — [UGA has] already experienced them on campus. There is the potential for someone to make a threat, which is not at all specific to Yik Yak. Threats are posted on social networks all the time. It is something that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all these networks experience. It might seem like it is something only for Yik Yak because it is anonymous, but when Facebook was growing they had a full-time employee whose job was to deal with threats and provide information with authorities.
R&B: Speaking of when things go a little awry on Yik Yak, how does the app work with law enforcement to promote safety after these threats are posted?
M: Yik Yak takes threats really, really, really seriously and we are constantly improving our product to try and reduce and limit and ultimately aim at a goal of zero threats. When there is a situation that we consider an immediate threat, such as what we saw at UGA, we cannot provide the phone number, the name or the email address of the individual because our service does not collect that, but we can provide the locations of where the person has posted the other Yaks they posted, and often that information is enough to paint a picture of the student and ultimately identify them. You can see that student was posting Yaks from this dorm room last semester, over the summer went home to this location, and now is living in this location.
R&B: What are some things users should remember when using Yik Yak?
M: Be kind on Yik Yak is one big things. We recognized that with any social app or network there is the likelihood of misuse from a small group of users, and on our end we have put specific algorithms in place to prevent this from happening and provide specific tools to a community to help keep it clean and police themselves. The first one is down-votes. You can down-vote a post, and once a post reaches negative five it is taken off the feed, and we find that gets bad content off pretty quickly. Beyond that, users can report messages and on our end we have a team of moderators looking through this content and from there they can ban the user or they can suspend the user, they can delete the post, and we also have filters running, looking through the actual text of posts. The filters are running to look for race hot-words, racist or homophobic slurs or general inappropriate content, and we find that if a post contains a number of these things that we are looking for it is usually the indication of a bad post. Another interesting thing we just put in is in response to some of the threats like UGA’s threat. We have hot-words associated with threats. An example is the word “bomb.” It is now in our app that if you try to the word “bomb,” as soon as you hit “Post” it will pop up a little message saying “Hold up, it looks like you are using threating language. Yik Yak takes threats really, really seriously. Are you sure this is cool to post?” In a lot of instances it might be someone saying something like “Panda Express is bomb,” and in that case it is slang so it is probably okay, but in another case, it can give the individual or whoever is posting the threat a second chance to reevaluate what they are doing and also limiting these kinds of things. I believe that the UGA student was quoted saying he had no intentions of following through with this and we hope that reminding them that we take these things seriously and that there are repercussions will reduce it and help us fight back.
R&B: How has Yik Yak in general affected college campuses?
M: It is interesting how, when Yik Yak comes to a campus, it is such a powerful tool where people on one hand are trying to figure out if they should switch schools, or trying to figure out if they should embrace it or if they should fight back and ban it. There is kind of a spectrum that has formed with both of these on the sides, and at first some schools will kind of think that this is a tool that could be used for bad and want to ban it. And what we have found is a drift away from that towards the other end of the spectrum where some big schools in the South have actually reached out to us trying to learn more and get more information of how they can use Yik Yak. They think that the students are already using it and are going to be on it and are asking how they can use all the valuable information that is coming in. On Yik Yak you can totally get a sense of your community, whether it is people stressing in the library worrying about exams or rallying behind their football team that just lost or supporting a student that just had a big tragedy in their life, so it is cool for us to see this tool that is getting better and better and policing that is getting the content more positive, and over time is actually being embraced by the school.