A Professor Surveyed His Students to Find Out Why They’re Obsessed with Yik Yak

Yik Yak users seem to break with the millenial habit of oversharing.

Oct 6 2015, 12:00pm

Photo: Yik Yak/Facebook

As a historian who specializes in popular culture, I've prided myself on remaining au courant. I believed I knew all the celebrities, memes, and social media applications that interested my undergraduate history students at the University of Texas at Arlington. I dressed the part, talked the part, walked the part; I was, I assumed, as relatable as they come.

Then I discovered Yik Yak, an anonymous sharing app that allows users in close proximity to share information with one another. Or rather, it discovered me, after I had downloaded the app in response to pointed remarks by friends about its popularity among undergraduates.

I began reading Yik Yak before and after my classes, curious to see if I warranted a reference, critical or otherwise. Finally it happened one day just after I had entered one of my history classes. "Here comes coach batemen (sic)," read a yak (i.e., a post) mocking my lummox-y body composition.

This attitude is typical for Yik Yak, where comments span from disparaging professors, to discussing which campus bathroom was the least vile and whether it was safe to have sex in one of the parking garages.

"I'm just so fucking tired of being seen."

As I skimmed through my herd's yaks, which appear one after the other without categorization or censorship (they can eventually be down-voted off the page, but only after some time has passed), I began to feel like a 33-year-old member of a youth movement that had suddenly grown old. Millenials devote considerable effort to grooming their identities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. By contrast, the chittering on Yik Yak is ephemeral, and its anonymity prevents anyone from building a following there. Why would this form of communication appeal to anyone, let alone consume so much of some users' time?

I decided to investigate Yik Yak's appeal by surveying my students, 92 in all, ages 18 to 20, as the basis for a future cultural studies article. I approached the students, asked them if they were regular users of the app (60 of the 92 were, 45 men and 15 women), and then waited while they explained why it appealed to them and their friends.

Two answers emerged from among the responses: a need for distraction that would alleviate boredom, roughly analogous to why many people spend hours poring over Facebook feeds, and an increasingly serious desire for anonymity. The latter was an issue of particular concern to the male respondents, 20 of whom mentioned "privacy" or "being left alone" when discussing why they used Yik Yak.

"I don't know, Facebook and all that is bullshit," one male freshman told me. "Tumblrinas are as bad as juggalos—who cares what you look like all the time? I don't want to see your bits," added another. A female student who had taken three of my courses offered an explanation highlighting the virtues of Yik Yak as well as the ephemeral video messaging application Snapchat. "With Snapchat what you share goes away, maybe you can screencap it, but it goes away," she said, "and with Yik Yak it's like you were never there at all. I just want to be alone sometimes and I want to have control of what I share and see, who sees it, whatever."

In the surveillance-suffused world of the Patriot Act and Facebook-stalking peers, which for many teenagers is the only world they've ever known, such an explanation makes sense. "We want something for us, something that's maybe not just everywhere," she continued. A 20-year-old freshman put her comments in sharper relief: "I'm just so fucking tired of being seen."

I didn't grasp the importance of passing unnoticed, perhaps because I and many other millenials have internalized the notion that visibility equals success. Not so with the students I surveyed, who had been weaned on the instant perma-celebrity of public figures such as Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber, yet wanted private rooms of their own in which to share evanescent sext snaps, which two male students assured me could indeed be "really romantic," and to post angry or inane comments in an anonymous communal space.

"If I'm mad, I can go on Yik Yak and say whatever," said a male sophomore. "It's a way to get it out there but you don't have to see me going off or anything." When I pressed him about the cyber-bullying problems posed by Yik Yak, which have prompted many universities to assign employees to monitor it, he shrugged off those concerns as adult overreactions to perfectly normal behaviors. "Guys say trash about girls and girls say trash about guys and everybody talks shit. I don't think too much about it. Why are [university administrators] even on there anyway?"

"It's just a way I waste time. I waste a lot of time on it, but it's private."

Other students echoed his perspective, wondering why administrators and even lesser authority figures like me had taken an interest in Yik Yak. "You're saying that but it's not even a really big deal," remarked one very skeptical male freshman. "What's a bad thing that has happened on Yik Yak?" asked his friend. Before I could answer by citing various serious threats made over Yik Yak, he continued, "It's just a way I waste time. I waste a lot of time on it, but it's private. It's good on a commute or between classes, or if you're sitting in class and somebody else is, and you can maybe give them a shout and say hit me up, it's just a thing you can do."

It's far too early to know whether Yik Yak represents a genuine shift in communication or merely a passing, fatigued reaction to the burden of identity construction in late capitalist society. In either case, these Yik Yak users appear to invoking two of the most quintessentially American of desires: the right to speak freely, and the right to be left alone.