Yakkity yak

New app causes controversy in the classroom

Bits of random wisdom. Anonymous sexual propositions. Advice inquiries about dating. Outbursts of happiness over Giants wins. Slightly ominous possible threats. Comments about annoying professors and students in classes on campus. Rumors—some later confirmed—about someone driving a car into a local apartment complex's pool. Yik Yak is being used locally for a variety of different things.

This app is becoming increasingly popular in Reno and specifically on and around the University of Nevada, Reno campus. The app is meant to be a totally anonymous “live feed of what people are saying around you,” according to its website. Basically, it’s a lot like Twitter, but because it’s anonymous, the topics change slightly.

Although I’m weary of anything anonymous nowadays because I’ve learned many apps can be hacked rather easily by even amateur computer nerds, Yik Yak seems promising. There’s no logging in at all, so there isn’t even a username to identify you. An overview map of your approximate location is shown when you post, but it doesn’t have any pinpoint on it—it just shows a square that, presumably, you’re somewhere in the middle of when you post your yak. Your own yaks can be accessed from “Me” screen, and it gives you an option to protect access to that particular screen by using your iPhone’s Touch ID or Passcode, but you have to be on iOS 8.0 or later to do so. It also gives you an option to sync your account to iCloud so that you can access it on all your devices, so there’s potential for it to be hacked from there as well.

The app can be used anywhere, but it’s tailored for university campuses. Because of this, Yik Yak has been going on a “Ride the Yak” tour to various universities. They visited the University of Nevada, Reno, and just a few days later on Oct. 17, UNR executive vice president and provost Kevin Carman sent out an email alerting students that Yik Yak was not to be used in the classroom because it’s a violation of the university’s code of conduct and could have “serious consequences.” Carman also wrote in the email that the app “does not reflect our values or commitment to an outstanding educational experience at UNR” and is disrespectful to faculty.

“An economics professor had a problem with it and I know of at least one science class, and I’ve heard just anecdotally of it being used in classes," Carman said. "So what prompted us to send this message was that we had concern about maybe this becoming a broader issue for the campus, and we really wanted to reach out to students and encourage them to discourage other students from using it. We’re not trying to suppress any kind of freedom of expression, but at the same time, when it gets to the point where it’s disrupting the classroom—that’s harmful for everyone.”

Any cell phone use in the classroom can be a disruption, but Yik Yak poses additional concerns to faculty, Carman said. Because of the location-based feed that users view on Yik Yak, it’s possible for students within a single classroom to send messages to other users in the class to coordinate audible disruptions. Think back to when you would pass notes in class that said “Cough at 11:15!” Now students can send the message out on Yik Yak and make it almost impossible for anyone to know who posted the yak or who saw it. Disruptions like this sound benign, but they can cause significant disractions in a classroom. There is also the capability of coordinating walkouts.

“We’ve notified faculty that they have the right to ask students to leave class if they’re involved with using Yik Yak or they can dismiss class if they wish to,” Carman said. “I’ve been asked if we are developing new policies or procedures to deal with Yik Yak and the answer is no. The code of student conduct is very clear about activities that disrupt the classroom so that satisfies that need very well.”

Concerns about the possibility of cheating have been brought up, but Carman said he has not heard of this actually happening, and srolling through the feed of yaks has shown no evidence of this either.

The Nevada Sagebrush responded to Yik Yak’s growing presence on campus in a blog titled “Stop yak attacks in their tracks” on Oct. 21. The blog brings up another concern for Yik Yak use—“cyberbullying and emotional outbursts” as well as talk of illegal substance use and abuse.

And when you scroll through Yik Yak in this area, it is popularly used for those purposes. The Sagebrush blog gives some advice to combat this negativity.

“Show other students that you will take a stance against hate language whenever you get the chance,” the blog reads. “In college, students often look to their peers for advice, support and insight on life. Students have the power to lead and redirect social trends as long as they have the bravery to stand against the grain.”

The developers of Yik Yak probably had good intentions, and there are a lot of great uses possible. But giving anonymity to users tends to lend itself to negativity. Luckily, though, users do have the opportunity to change what their feed looks like. Users can upvote or downvote any yak, and if a yak receives five downvotes, it is permanently deleted. This system also serves as a user ranking system. More upvotes, comments, replies leads to higher “yakarma,” which basically exists for users to brag about.

Carman hasn’t heard of any additional reports of Yik Yak disturbances in classrooms since the email and subsequent Sagebrush blog went out and has been pleased with the campus’ response.

“This is more about students deciding for themselves what kind of educational experience they want to have,” Carman said. “We can create all sorts of policies and rules, but at the end of the day, it’s about all of us respecting each other and valuing the educational experience, and I have faith in our students that they will do the right thing.”

Staff at the Sagebrush have put a similar faith in the students at the university.

“While the app could be doing useful things, it is only as useful as the ones who are controlling it,” the blog reads. “Even if the university administration finds a way to stop people from misusing the app it is only a matter of time until another app is created to take its place; that is why we must constantly work to set a precedent of intolerance for apps like these. It is important to recognize that the issue is not with the app itself, but with the people who are using it.”