Don’t Talk Back?: Recent House Chair Discussion Scrutinizes Yik Yak’s Role On Campus

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Lizzy Weal ‘17

During the most recent full-body meeting, house chairs discussed the role of Yik Yak, the anonymous thought sharing platform, on campus, and the various benefits and dangers its usage entails as well as the merits of a potential ban from campus Wi-Fi. The discussion addressed a number of issues specific to Yik Yak’s presence at Bennington, including frequent harassment of named students for personal and sometimes untrue reasons, its role as a potentially empowering space within which to frankly discuss the school’s culture of sexual violence, and the feasibility of anonymity on such a small campus.

The conversation took place in response to concern over a number of different discussions held on the app over the last few weeks, specifically one centered on sexual assault that identified certain male students as predators and alleged that at least one other has serially assaulted female students, as well as other conversations more recently centered on disability that resulted in at least one set of comments telling disabled students to “go gas themselves”.

The variety of arguments for and against Yik Yak on campus is considerable. Many students feel that it plays an invaluable role in guaranteeing a freely accessible space to discuss difficult issues, and that its misuse is indicative of larger structural problems.

Dewey house chair James Moore stated, “Its existence as a platform for anonymous discussion lends itself to being a place for certain important things to be discussed. It’s no question that its being used for more unfortunate things, but my personal take on it is that its widespread use is indicative of a lack of avenues of communication on campus that are student run.”

Others echoed a feeling that it is not the app itself that is necessarily the problem, but rather the lack of accountability that accompanies its usage, and that regardless of cause it still encourages toxic behavior.  Perkins house chair Olivia Judson said that many of the arguments against the app “weren’t really attacking Yik Yak as much as they were attacking the lack of responsibility taken by the student body and the administration to address difficult issues such as racism, Islamophobia, sexual assault or ableism, which Yik Yak seems to be an outlet for.”

Controversy surrounding Yik Yak is not exclusive to Bennington, as the app has periodically generated ire nationwide since its wide adoption by college students more than three years ago. The most recent controversy took place after a slew of racist comments and threats were posted to Yik Yaks on a number of college campuses across the United States in late 2015: last November, a student at the University of Missouri was arrested for posting comments on the app that threatened students of color with violence at the height of what had become an extremely tense debate about the school’s enduring legacy of racism.

A number of private institutions have seriously considered proposals to ban Yik Yak, but fewer than ten, including the military academy Norwich University in Vermont, have actually succeeded. Difficulty of enforcement and free speech concerns are the two most common reasons that schools decide not to go forward with banning the app. Duke University administrators, for example, deemed a potential ban “infeasible” precisely because any student with access to a mobile data connection can simply disconnect from campus Wi-Fi and evade the geofence, allowing them to continue using the app as if there were no external controls.

Even schools that have acknowledged the culture of cyber bullying and bigotry Yik Yak enables, such as the University of Rochester, have refused to ban the app. This past February the university’s president Joel Seligman released a statement stating that the school would not go forward with a ban because of the intolerable threat it would pose to academic freedom and free expression on campus.

Currently there are no plans to ban or significantly alter student access to the app at Bennington, and there are plans for further discussion of the app’s place on campus.