Last week, a convention in New Orleans bogged down in controversy over anonymous postings that were mean-spirited, racy, or both. “I’m going to need you to buy that in a bigger size,” declared one user of the gossip app Yik Yak, apparently in reference to an overweight presenter at the conference. “Where,” asked a second user, “are the straight guys at???” A third marveled, “Who knew there were so many gorgeous women in SA? NASPA is looking good these days.”
The thing is, “SA” is short for “student affairs,” and NASPA is a leading professional group for the university deans and other administrators who oversee campus life. More than almost anyone else, they understand the potential for mischief in apps like Yik Yak, where messages are unsigned but geographically tagged, allowing users to talk about their peers — and everyone in the vicinity to read their comments. When malicious “yaks” lead to hurt feelings and damaged reputations, it’s often up to student life administrators to control the damage.
But even when these officials gathered for a conference, the lure of anonymously throwing shade, blowing off steam, and dishing about hotties was irresistible, at least for some participants. “Nothing I could write,” declared writer Andy Thomason, who covered the story for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “would properly convey the irony of this situation.”
Yet the episode also holds a valuable lesson for college administrators: Sometimes it’s worth knowing what people say when they’re not on their best behavior, when no one can call them out personally, when they’re giving voice to pure id.
A belief in the perfectibility of human nature runs strong at universities, sometimes to the point of otherworldliness. Campuses from coast to coast have embraced the idea that students can be protected from any experience that may dredge up uncomfortable feelings, that calculating sexual predators can simply be taught to behave, that harmony is just a diversity seminar or two away. Yet campus policies should acknowledge the rougher edges of human personalities — which come through clearer on gossip apps than in what faculty, staff, and students tell administrators to their faces.
If gossip apps have a best and highest use, it lies in giving voice to dissent in situations when lock-step conformity is expected. Last week, Yik Yak users provided a brutal running critique of Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign announcement, held at a mandatory assembly at Liberty University in Virginia. “To everyone else,” someone at Liberty yakked, “it looks like he has an audience of 10,000 young adult supporters. They don’t know we have to be here.”
The Cruz event yielded some breathless hype: A Yahoo News article last week bore the headline “Why 2016 Could be the Yik Yak Election.” Perhaps counterintuitively, the bad press that gossip apps receive — for their role in bullying and harassment — has a way of further amplifying their cultural influence. From the news coverage, one might assume these apps’ arrival marks one more inevitable step toward a coarser, colder world.
Yet the smartphone-wielding public’s appetite for anonymous gossip, blessedly, has some limits. Despite an early burst of popularity, the app Secret has dropped down the most-downloaded list and keeps pivoting from one business model to the next. (“Pivoting” is start-up speak for “hitting a brick wall and deciding to do something completely different.”)
If gossip apps don’t turn out to be world-changing innovations, they’re still useful as an information source. Yik Yak is like online comment sections; some posts are full of speculation or deliberate trolling, but others reveal useful information that can be verified independently. US intelligence officials monitor jihadist message boards for a similar reason: Knowing broadly what a group of people are talking about can yield intelligence even when it’s not clear exactly who they are.
After the Yik Yak kerfuffle in New Orleans, NASPA issued a statement attributing the offending postings to a “small number of users” and calling for “the continued education of our students and our professionals.” An exasperated convention participant declared on Yik Yak, “SA folk, you are so much better than this anonymous [expletive] on an app we tell our students not to use.” But if schools aren’t using Yik Yak, they should still be monitoring it. When even student-affairs administrators see the world in bawdy terms and make crass remarks in cyberspace, gossip apps aren’t the problem. They’re a symptom — and a diagnostic test.