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Yik Yak

Yik Yak

Yik Yak: The Medium and the Message

Like most universities, Santa Clara has been immersed this year in Yik Yak: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  This new social medium allows everyone within a particular geographic area—like a campus—to post their thoughts, or Yaks, anonymously.  Other users can “upvote” the Yak, which increases its score, or downvote it; after five downvotes, the Yak disappears from the conversation stream.

I’m looking at the app right now and have been treated to such musings as:
“Started off the year with a goal to lose 5 pounds.  Only 15 more to go…”
“Changing “300” to “three hundred” to up the word count on my paper.”
“My partner says he’s too busy to work on our group project.  Is it sad that my first thought was, ‘Great, I’ll finish it faster myself’?”
In other words, the primary uses of Yik Yak seem to be for pop-philosophy, humor, and mild venting. 
But there is a dark side to the medium: cyberbullying of individual students and racist and sexist comments.  In what has been the most egregious example, members of the Feminists United club at the University of Mary Washington received threats of death and rape over the app. (One member was subsequently murdered, although it’s unclear if there was any connection between her death and the Yaks). 
While UMW is the only institution so far to have a complaint lodged against it with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights because of Yik Yak, few universities have been immune to some form of ugliness.  At the College of Idaho, where Campus Safety received seven complaints from students who felt threatened by Yaks, the Student Senate voted to ban the app.
At Santa Clara, we saw several racial slurs. Though they were downvoted off the platform almost immediately, they still occasioned a meeting called by the University administration and titled “When It’s Not a Good Day to Be a Bronco.”
An intrepid reporter for our student newspaper, managed to get an interview—anonymous, of course—with the offensive Yakkers.  Here’s what they told him:
We just started saying things and one thing led to another, and all of sudden we had a bunch of really offensive yaks out there.  But, it’s not like either of us believe what we said. We just did it to get a reaction out of people.
Okay, dumb and no excuse, but the comment that followed was what really caught my attention:  “Though [the Yakker] admits his words were offensive, he claimed that he does not feel that anything should be taken too seriously within the context of the app” (emphasis mine).
As someone who has been experimenting for several years with engaging students on the topic of ethics using various social platforms, I was startled by that comment.  Is real thinking impossible on Yik Yak (or Twitter or Facebook)?  Does the context, as our offensive Yakker posited, mean that any idea expressed on such platforms will be situated in a way that makes serious consideration impossible?
These questions sent me back to Marshal McCluhan and his famous dictum: The medium is the message.  “Any medium,” he argued “has the power of imposing its own assumptions on the unwary.”
In my use of social media, I have been proceeding on the assumption that Yik Yak and other platforms are just tools, which can be used for good or ill, but McCluhan scorns this approach: 
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.  For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of he mind…. The numbing or narcotic effect of new technology lulls attention while the new form slams the gates of judgment and perception.
No doubt McCluhan has a point.  The social media are the message.  Short posts lend themselves to superficiality (though that hasn’t stopped a thousand college professors from using Twitter).  Anonymous posts open up the possibility of cruelty without consequences (though that hasn’t stopped the New York Times or the Chronicle of Higher Education from allowing people to post under pseudonyms). 
But social media platforms are where the conversation is happening. If we want to engage with students, we have to go where they are talking, and this year, that has been on Yik Yak.
During the spring quarter, I worked with SCU students to see if we could enter the stream of conversation on Yik Yak in a positive way.  Every couple of weeks, we put up a broadside in the dorm elevators, which we call “Elevator Pitch.”  In it, we raised the kind of day-to-day ethical issues students grapple with—about relationships, dorm life, cheating, and yes, social media.  Then we posted the same questions on Yik Yak.  Here are some excerpts from the exchange about job search ethics.  (The first post in the sequence is ours.)
“The only job offer I got is from a defense contractor with a shady record on accountability.  I’m against what they do, but I need the job.  And they’ll just give it to someone else.  Should I take it?”
“I think that you should try to work where you want to work.  40+ hours a week is a lot of time to be somewhere you hate and you’ll get burnt out.” 
“Nah, something else is meant to happen down the road and maybe even better.  Maybe cast a wide net on the next round of job apps?”
“No, not if it undermines your morals.  If you’re against it, you’re against it.  Working for them means supporting what they do.  Will you have enough power to change their direction?  Probably not.”
“If the good you can do outweighs the bad your company does…”
“All companies undermine morals, unless it’s a charity.”
“Selling out your ethics in your first job will make it easier later in your career (devil emoji)”
Does this conversation have the depth of an argument about integrity in a philosophy class?  Of course not.  But our project got a group of students talking about ethics—“within the context of the app”—and that’s at least a place to start.
June 22, 2015
Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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