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What’s up with Yik Yak?

If you’re not currently an undergraduate it’s possible that you’ve never heard of Yik Yak. But if you are a current undergrad, it’s pretty much impossible that you haven’t heard about Yik Yak, especially considering its 800,000% growth in certain cities between February 2014 and February 2015. So what is Yik Yak? Who uses it? And can higher ed communications professionals utilize it in their work? The answer to the latter question is a complicated yes.

Yik Yak in a Nutshell

Yik Yak is a social media smartphone application that allows users to create and view anonymous threads – inelegantly termed yaks – posted within a five-mile radius. Users can comment on, upvote, and downvote yaks. This system uses the net aggregate of positive and negative reactions to elevate the visibility of popular yaks while at the same time removing unpopular posts from public view after receiving a net response of five downvotes. Hyperlocality is Yik Yak’s greatest draw so content richness correlates directly to the density of users in an area. This requirement of high user density is why Yik Yak is most popular on university campuses and in densely populated urban centers.

Yik Yak’s hyperlocality allows users to comment on the environment around them and share whatever crosses their mind about people, places and events that are uniquely relevant to a geographical space. In Colorado State University’s case, this can take the form of tip offs about university bike cops patrolling a particular intersection on campus, jokes about the massive flocks of geese that make their winter home next to the Lagoon, or loving platitudes about the beauty of Fort Collins.

However, considering all posts and comments are made anonymously, many yaks deal with topics that probably wouldn’t be discussed in a public setting. A lot of yaks trend in topics like sex, drug use, and shock humor. Extreme cases from across the country have involved students making lascivious comments in real time about female lecturers, bullying individual students and, in one case at a southern university, the racist mocking of the suicide of a black student living on campus.

Because of this potential for bullying, Yik Yak uses geofencing to restrict access in and around middle schools and high schools, but university campuses are still fair game.

Luckily, because of what I like to think of as ‘Colorado chill’, CSU’s Yik Yak landscape tends to more relaxed, empathetic and humorous than it is at other universities. Our most transgressive posts, unsurprisingly, tend to deal with marijuana use, gross-out humor or a uniquely Colorado tension between libertarian and socially liberal political ideologies.

Yik Yak Sounds Scary

That depends on how you look at it.

In recent years, there have been some interesting attempts to deconstruct the meaning of different social media networks through Freud’s structural model of the psyche that divides human consciousness into the id, ego, and super-ego.

The id is “amoral and egocentric, ruled by the pleasure-pain principle; it is without a sense of time, completely illogical, primarily sexual, infantile in its emotional development. It is regarded as the reservoir of the libido or instinctive drive to create.”

The ego is the mediator between id and super-ego. It “separates what is real and helps us organize our thoughts and make sense of them and the world around us.”

The super-ego “strives to act in a socially appropriate manner, whereas the id just wants instant self-gratification. The super-ego controls our sense of right and wrong and guilt. It helps us fit into society by getting us to act in socially acceptable ways.”

Some bloggers have been drawing interesting corollaries between the underlying needs and purposes of these three sections of the psyche and the underlying needs and purposes of different social platforms. One can easily see how LinkedIn might correlate with a conception of the super-ego, while a platform like Facebook could be analogous to the ego, an intermediary space where subconscious ideas and thoughts are tested for social appropriateness in an effort to formulate a public identity.

However, there’s no question that Yik Yak would fall squarely within the realm of the id.

So is Yik Yak the visible manifestation of a university’s subconscious? Some academics think so. Will Mackintosh from the University of Mary Washington writes:

“Yik Yak is actually the id of the university community. It says all the things we probably think at some level down in our brain stem, but which we talk ourselves out of because we know they’re not correct or useful… [Perhaps], we all have these thoughts, but we think them and dismiss them because they’re wrong and beside the point.But people on Yik Yak don’t. That’s why it’s the id of the university. It surely isn’t pretty, but I find it useful to know what’s going on in the brain stem of all those other people I see walking around campus.”

How Can a University Use Yik Yak?

At its core Yik Yak is designed to be chaotic, unstructured, and reactive, so any direct messaging from the university establishment to leverage content would be futile, at best, or brand damaging, at worst. A post pushing a sale at the university bookstore would seem out of place in this context and would likely be downvoted into oblivion.

However, Yik Yak can be a great social media monitoring tool as long as you’re able to approach it for what it is. As Will Mackintosh wrote above, Yik Yak’s content seems to be an extension of the id and it should be viewed as such through that objective lens. By suspending socially-constructed notions of appropriateness, Yik Yak can be a useful tool if its content is interpreted not as a manifestation of reality, but as insight into a student population’s collective unconscious.

This isn’t to say that Yik Yak is a space removed from the realities of legal jurisdiction; there have definitely been instances where law enforcement has become involved when direct threats are made . But through Yik Yak, it becomes possible to see university culture constructed and deconstructed by the collective subconscious of a student body. By peeking into the top yaks at varying university campuses, it becomes easy to parse the general mood of its students – things like a distrust of their administration or underlying socio-economic tensions become easy to identify with a critical eye.

Compared to other universities, what has impressed me most about CSU’s Yik Yak scene is that, between sex jokes and scatological humor, there is a genuine concern for fellow Rams. Some of the most popular posts I’ve seen have involved messages of support for students having a rough time or students who have experienced loss. I feel that this radical empathy is something that sets today’s college-aged students apart from older generations.

Yik Yak waxing poetic

It’s easy to understand the root of this upswing in human understanding when it takes minutes to download an app that allows you to see the unspoken hopes, dreams, and fears of the people around you. Our students live in a world where it’s possible to ask, “Am I the only guy who dances to Shake It Off on repeat whenever my roommate’s gone?” and within moments get a swift and resounding, ‘OMG no, you’re not alone!’