The strengths and dangers of hyperlocal social media

I had never heard of the app Yik Yak. It is a Twitter-like app that uses GPS location sensors to allow people to post their views (“yaks”) anonymously within a highly limited geographical area of 1.5 miles, thus making it a hyper-local social network. This enables people to comment anonymously on matters of purely local interest. You can read how it works here. The app is particularly popular on college campuses where people can share their opinions on what’s going on in and outside of class.

But its anonymity and local feature also allows for the rapid spread of gossip and targeted bullying. Its anonymous messaging boards, as one critic put it, “are like bathroom stalls without toilets.” For this reason, many middle and high schools have banned its use.

Although I work in a college, I had never heard of this until a week ago, when all the members of my university got a late night message from the university president. In part it said:

I write today to ask that you join me in condemning social media comments made last night about some of our students. At about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, members of the #webelonghere movement gathered outside the North Residential Village to participate in a National Day of Protest against police brutality. Soon after, a post appeared comparing the group to primates. Another post, meanwhile, expressed the desire that police officers physically assault the demonstrators.

The president’s email did not give more details about what happened leaving members of the university community somewhat baffled as to what exactly had happened. But there was a lot of concern among faculty and staff that such things had taken place because we strive to make all people feel welcome and be respectful towards one another. Ironically, my office had just sponsored a session on how to better create a safe and welcoming community. When I asked around, I learned that the comments had appeared on Yik Yak.

I suspect that the university administration has someone monitoring the site in order to get a sense of what the word on the street is. The issue of whether to make what they learned public must have been a tricky one. By telling the whole campus, you spread the hateful message. But if you ignore it, then it might look like you do not care. I think they made the right call. As the president said:

Inclusion and diversity are essential parts of this place of higher learning because it is in our differences that we are most likely to deepen understanding. Debates and dialogue do not inevitably translate to consensus, but they always carry the possibility that participants leave with greater appreciation of other perspectives. Ad hominem attacks, meanwhile, serve only to enrage, insult and injure. They create distance and distrust, harden positions and close minds—all antithetical to who we are as a university, and what we aspire to be.

Some will say that denouncing these statements only draws more attention to the hateful speech, and may even embolden the anonymous authors. Yet history consistently shows that silence can be mistaken for assent—or, at the very least, lead to more unanswered malicious statements. The single best response to ignorant expression is to engage it directly.

Majority white campuses like ours have a constant struggle to attract and retain students of color and constantly worry that our aspirations to be a place where they will be welcome may not be reflected adequately in the behavior of faculty and fellow students.

Here’s a clip made by the producers of the film Dear White People spoofing the way that some colleges advertise and promote diversity that may not reflect reality.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Soon after, a post appeared comparing the group to primates.

    Yes, and? Did your president consult with anyone in the biology department before calling that one out?

  2. dukeofomnium says

    Then a post compared them to mammals. But when another post compared them to eukaryotes, it became completely outrageous.

  3. Mano Singham says

    While it is technically true that we are all primates, the way it was used was clearly meant to be as a racist insult.

    Intent is important. For example, when someone referred to the pope as a ‘primate’, that was used in the correct sense and not meant as an insult, which should have been clear from the context. But some people got offended anyway.

    In this case there was not doubt that the people using the word meant it as an insult.

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