Throughout 2014, students at Colgate University in central New York were outraged by a slew of racist comments. They didn’t know who said them, just that they came from people on or close to campus. That’s because the offensive remarks appeared on Yik Yak, an app that shares anonymous posts with those nearby.
Yik Yak, which allows users to reach other users within 1.5 miles, is the latest social media craze on college campuses, and one that can send a school into an uproar with just a few vicious posts. Students protested at Colgate in September, arguing that the racist messages circulating on Yik Yak were symptomatic of larger diversity issues at the school.
Those posts became even more hateful after students demonstrated in December in response to the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Some students were singled out in the “yaks” for physical threats.
In response, some Colgate faculty members had an idea: to bombard Yik Yak with positive comments attached to their real names and clean up the local forum by example. More than 50 faculty participated during the Dec. 12 experiment. But by the next week, biology professor Geoff Holm said, the posts had returned to their usual tone.
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“The posts are mainly focused on sex and poop again,” said Holm, who helped organize the “Yak Back” effort.
“It’s the Internet equivalent of the truck stop bathroom wall,” he said. “Some of the posts are amusing, some of the posts are about genitalia and bodily fluids, and some of the posts get downright racist. So how do you control that? How do you as a campus community say, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that’ with the posts?”
Nationwide, 2014 appeared to be the year of Yik Yak on college campuses, but the existence of anonymous online gossip sites is far from a new dilemma for universities. For the better part of a decade — since the rise of JuicyCampus in 2007 — colleges have struggled to deal with unruly, reckless and sometimes savage messages spread through anonymous Internet forums.
“I think with these forums, we’re getting a finger on a pulse of how racist many students are,” said Andrea Press, a University of Virginia sociologist who spent two years researching College ACB, a now-defunct gossip site. It’s shocking, Press said, because we’re seeing a side of people that is often kept hidden.
Princeton students protesting in December over the deaths of Brown and Garner were described on Yik Yak as “colored people getting militant.” Demonstrations at Penn State University prompted Yik Yak…