It cannot be said that anonymity tends to bring out the best in people. The KKK’s slitted hoods, the masks warriors wear into battle, and the lonely basements occupied by Internet trolls encourage depths of nastiness and aggression that their perpetrators would not dare to display if they were individually identifiable. And now we have Yik Yak.
Like most of the Lehigh community, I had not heard of Yik Yak until I received an email about it from the Council for Equity and Community (CEC) on Sunday evening. Yik Yak, it turns out after a quick download, is an anonymous and location-based version of Twitter. People can post short thoughts (Yiks?) without an account or username, which are then broadcast to all other Yak-ers within a certain radius. And like most anonymous things on the Internet, many of the thoughts so broadcast are solipsistic, illogical and intentionally offensive. Some are racist, and a great many more are misogynistic and homophobic. Not to mention scatological.
The postings I have seen on Yik Yak (emanating from Lehigh) are not the products of great minds. Many are, further, hurtful and divisive, and they should not go unchallenged. To best formulate a challenge, it might be helpful to turn to the science of crowd behavior.
The effects of anonymity are actually rather more subtle than a simple “anonymity causes antisocial behavior” storyline implies. Certainly that can be the outcome. A classic study in social psychology, for example, observed that children who were anonymous (vs. identified by name) stole more candy while trick-or-treating, particularly if they were in a group.
It turns out that the nature of the group is the key. Anonymity does not seem to increase antisocial behavior per se, but rather increases conformity to what people believe is normative behavior in that situation. Anonymity reduces feelings of individual identity, but replaces them with a heightened sense of collective identity. As the individual self becomes less influential, people start looking to the behavior of others to determine how they should behave. As a result, anonymity can, on occasion, actually increase prosocial behavior – if that’s what the group is doing and is what the situation seems to demand. In many cases, of course, group norms are more antisocial and anonymity increases asshole-ishness (to use the scientific term).
Anonymity is not, in other words, inevitably disastrous. And the behavior of some of our students – which is currently pretty vile - cannot really be blamed on Yik Yak. I suspect that in response to the CEC’s email, many people have, like me, taken a look. A few find it attractive and have joined in. Most people, however, quickly and reasonably decide that it is not a place they want to be.
There have been calls for a boycott of the app. This is of dubious feasibility and moreover is a lost opportunity. If the effects of anonymity on behavior are driven by conformity to group norms, then the response must be to change those norms. The answer is not to boycott or avoid Yik Yak, but to flood it. To flood it with users who call out the sexists, the racists and the gay-bashers, who mock the stupid potty jokes, and who change the conversation. Two hundred new Lehigh Yak-ers – students and faculty – would drive out the diehard jerks. More importantly, it would change the behavior of the rest who have responded to anonymity by going along with the crowd. It will take some planning and organization, but let’s give them a new crowd to follow.
For further reference see:
Diener et al. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Reicher, Spears & Postmes. (1995). A social identity model of deindividuation phenomena. European Review of Social Psychology.