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Yik Yak app raises bullying concerns

Jamie Ciocon, a student at Boston College, used Yik Yak for four days but deleted it because of “repulsive” comments.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Jamie Ciocon, a student at Boston College, used Yik Yak for four days but deleted it because of “repulsive” comments.

Jamie Ciocon recently downloaded Yik Yak, a popular smartphone app that lets users post comments anonymously. A senior at Boston College, Ciocon wanted to keep up with gossip and what was happening on campus, but she was so offended by the “repulsive” posts, she deleted the app four days later.

Ciocon, whose parents are from the Philippines, particularly resented the Asian slurs she read on Yik Yak. “I think a lot of people have those thoughts,” she said, “but now they have a platform where they can release them.”

Yik Yak founders Brooks Buffington, left, and Tyler Drood with the logo for their site.

Yik Yak

Yik Yak founders Brooks Buffington, left, and Tyler Drood with the logo for their site.

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Atlanta-based Yik Yak first caught on at Southern college campuses but has recently spread to the Northeast. It is one of a flurry of hot apps, like Secret and Whisper, that allow users to speak their minds without revealing their identities, and, sometimes, to insult, shame, and threaten.

Initially aimed at college students, Yik Yak has also become trendy with some younger students, leading the company to take the unusual step of blocking its own app at 130,000 middle and high schools across the country after receiving complaints. So far, Yik Yak has disabled the app at about 85 percent of schools and is in the process of blocking the rest.

At North Quincy High School, the site was blocked after administrators complained to the company. “We didn’t want students posting bullying, anonymous comments,” said Aliza Schneller, who chairs the foreign language department. The last post was more than three weeks ago.

Yik Yak creators Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, who are 23, decided to block schools by using GPS coordinates and other measures because they said that their app, created for college students, isn’t appropriate for younger teens.

While “geo-fencing” schools can curtail Yik Yak traffic during the school day, students can still use it off campus. The app is location-aware, accessible to users only within a 1.5 mile radius from their physical location. Those who have downloaded Yik Yak can, from home or elsewhere, post and see feeds within a mile and a half.

‘I think a lot of people have those thoughts, but now they have a platform where they can release them.’

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It’s not just slurs or rude comments that are causing controversy. On March 4, a Marblehead High School student used Yik Yak to send a bomb threat to the school. Marblehead police worked with Yik Yak to identify the sender, who is a juvenile. He was charged with a bomb threat and disruption of a school assembly. A second threat was received the same day via Yik Yak and remains under investigation, according to Police Chief Robert Picariello.

While the app is being blocked at a growing number of middle and high schools, students at more than 200 colleges use Yik Yak, according to the company, which says that 60 percent of those who attend Boston College and nearly 11 percent at Boston University use it.

“I think the appeal is that you can say anything anonymously so there’s no responsibility for your words,” said Katie Greer, whose Vermont consulting company provides technology safety training for schools, law enforcement, and others.

Though its founders describe Yik Yak as a virtual bulletin board, it is used mainly as a gossip site. The app earned wide media attention after a student at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., wrote an essay for New York magazine April 28 about the havoc wreaked by Yik Yak posts. A few of the printable ones: “The cheer team couldn’t get uglier.” “How long do we think before A.B. kills herself?” “J.T.’s gonna get lynched at SMU.”

When the school principal learned of the posts, he addressed the school via loudspeaker, urging them not to look at the site. The reply: off-color posts about him.

At Milton High, principal James Jette said he’d never heard of Yik Yak until a recent presentation by Katie Greer and added that he hasn’t had one complaint about the app. He was surprised when a reporter read him some Yik Yak posts about his students.

“Kids are digital natives,” Jette said. “You always try to be one step ahead of them, but it can be hard.”

Buffington and Droll, who were fraternity brothers at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., say they created the app to give college students a platform.

“We saw on our college campus that only a few people really had a voice,” said Droll. “They’re the people with big Twitter accounts, maybe student athletes, who had thousands of followers. My thought was why can’t everyone have this power?”

The men say they’ve added “upvotes” and “downvotes” to posts, to gauge approval and disapproval of readers. When the downvotes overwhelm the upvotes, the post is automatically removed.

“We rely on our communities to police themselves,” said Buffington. At Boston College, one of the top 10 largest Yik Yak user groups in the country, “inappropriate stuff doesn’t last too long,” he added.

But that isn’t exactly true. There are plenty of racist, sexist, and homophobic posts that stay up, so many that FACES, a BC student group dedicated to talking about issues of racism, power, and privilege on campus, recently posted a Facebook video about Yik Yak. In it, minority students read racist posts, women read sexist posts, and gay students read homophobic posts. Their facial expressions reveal their opinions of the words they are reading.

Nanci Fiore-Chettiar, a FACES member, says the group wants a healthier discussion about diversity. “We want to start asking questions about why so many people on campus think it’s OK to say these things,” says Fiore-Chettiar, a junior from Westerly, R.I.

The campus newspaper, The Heights, published a letter from FACES on May 4 that called out both students and administrators about Yik Yak, citing “a serious problem with the current way Boston College students are being educated.”

The letter cited Yik Yak posts such as, “Does hooking up with a Latina count as fulfilling cultural diversity?” and “It’s hilarious how you can tell which yaks are from black people cus (sic) they text how they talk.”

BC spokesman Jack Dunn calls Yik Yak “the domain of the coward. The comments I’ve read are not reflective of any student at BC whom I know.”

The bad press hasn’t hurt Yik Yak financially. The company recently raised $1.5 million in funding.

Its creators note some good reviews, too: At the University of Alabama, students stayed connected via Yik Yak during a recent tornado. And at Vanderbilt, a student needed a blood match for his ailing brother.

“He tried Twitter and Facebook and got limited reaction,” Buffington said. “He posted on Yik Yak and 1,200 people showed up.”

At Boston College, recent posts are focused on exams. Some were harmless, others hurtful. As one poster recently put it: “Deleting Yik Yak. It’s been a good ride but I don’t need this kind of negativity in my life. Good luck on finals, you’re all beautiful.”

Bella English can be reached at isobel.english@globe.com.
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