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Contemplate the role of anonymity in social media

The sheer force with which Yik Yak exploded into our consciousness was largely based on its design; for many, its anonymity was the most intriguing aspect of the application, drawing attention from administrators, educators, and students alike (though these groups most likely had different opinions of the application). As technology evolves and privacy concerns become even more central to our lives as scholars, teachers, and citizens (Buck, 2015; Daer & Potts, 2014; Vie, 2008), anonymity will continue to influence our composing practices, especially as we increasingly use mobile devices as a means of connection.

Though this webtext moves beyond a sole focus on anonymity in order to see the other complex processes unfolding in and around Yik Yak, I must emphasize the importance of anonymity to this project. First, the anonymous nature of Yik Yak (and its network-building within geographic coordinates) allowed students in this study to move beyond an understanding of social media as purely profile-based, instead seeing the interplay between different situational factors like time, place, and feeling (both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness) as they interacted on the Purdue Yik Yak feed. Second, the anonymity of Yik Yak provided its users with exchanges that would not necessarily occur in a face-to-face situation, resulting in some negative and even harmful scenarios. Further, while anonymity was a dominant feature of Yik Yak, anonymity is a built-in reality for any social media platform, which means that we should pay careful attention to how it functions in a range of spaces and applications.

Overall Student Takes on Anonymity and its Influence on the Application

Each student reflection in this study mentioned that a key aspect of Yik Yak was its anonymity, and most linked it explicitly to the application’s appeal to college students. David referenced the potential for the platform to serve as "a good outlet for debate about public policies or controversies," while Jennifer and Colleen, concerned with more interpersonal uses for Yik Yak, argued that the application allowed users to vent their frustrations in a healthy way. Other students, however, explicitly linked offensive posts to the anonymous nature of the application. Logan wrote that this feature of the application "gives students the confidence to post whatever they feel regardless of any potential consequences," and Phil similarly claimed that "…when people are given anonymity, it encourages them to let out all the harsh and inappropriate thoughts that a normal person would usually notice is unfit for society."

The fact that about a third of the students in this study referenced problematic posts targeting marginalized groups (students of color, international students, women, LGBTQ+ students, and others), and engaged in nuanced discussions of the connections between these posts and the anonymous nature of Yik Yak, is promising. Since this assignment was designed both to help students see connections between different situational factors in digital writing spaces and to develop strategies for productive communicative exchange in such spaces, these reflections suggest that students did move towards these goals. Several reflections specifically referenced the pressure of composing in online environments—even under the veil of anonymity. Colton explained that,

Despite the fact that no one would know I wrote a "bad" yak, and that online hate doesn’t really have a huge [effect] on me as a person, it is still nerve-wracking to wait around just for someone to downvote you, or write a comment about how much your joke sucked. This is a very common occurrence on Yik-Yak that if people don’t like what you is saying or don’t agree with you, they will downvote you into oblivion and leave comments saying "you suck."

This fear of disapproval by the larger community speaks to the connection between digital identity and physical identity, and how closely the two are related (Alexander, 2006). Colton’s explanation above links to Sara Ahmed’s discussion of kill-joys, as well—in social environments, we want to share in the happiness circulating in our shared spaces. Colton’s fear of being downvoted signals that he perhaps felt that if he were to compose a lackluster yak, he would be troubled by the fact that he did not add to someone’s enjoyment during their time on the application (even if no one ever knew that he was behind the post). If anonymous users care significantly about the reception of their posts, then surely users experience even more "like anxiety" on profile-based platforms, where content is explicitly linked to its creator. This illustrates that a user’s digital experience has real implications for the user’s emotional status in the physical realm; a user’s sense of self is potentially linked to their interactions online, which is an important connection in light of the posts often found on Yik Yak that targeted particular types of bodies.

Implications for Bringing Anonymous, Mobile Applications into the Writing Classroom

On the Interruptions in Relatedness page, I mentioned my disappointment in a student’s response to racist posts that he identified on the application. In his reflection, after discussing how upset he had been by all the negativity on Yik Yak directed towards Asian international students, Adam revealed his decision to post some similarly-worded posts targeting African American students. He found that the Purdue feed was "sensitive to humor toward African Americans" and "seems to favor racism toward the Asian community." I was disheartened by this response, and worried that the assignment encouraged or even legitimized his contribution to a hostile environment for students of color. I naively had not anticipated this result, as we had discussed ethics and representation in digital spaces throughout the semester; in fact, I had hoped that students would identify these types of posts as a problem (as Adam did), and then intervene in positive ways (which unfortunately did not happen here). Thinking of Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks’ (2010) call for a focus on cultivating a culture of digital stewardship in writing classrooms, I positioned this assignment as a way to begin these conversations and ideally, to foster positive engagements for students. I thought that our conversations about interactions in online spaces woven throughout the semester, and our two readings on the problems within Yik Yak culture, would be enough to prepare students for this work.

However, as what happened with Adam suggests, incorporating these technologies into writing classrooms with this goal in mind requires a great deal of careful and consistent scaffolding beyond what I had done that first semester. Further, we must acknowledge the risk that we ask students to take on when we ask them to enter these potentially triggering spaces. When I assigned this project the second semester, in addition to the practices noted above, I offered the option for students to pick a different anonymized social network to observe, in hopes of providing students with multiple ways through which they could pursue these questions.

If we ask our students to engage in these anonymous environments, which we know can foster negative posts that are potentially unpleasant or even harmful to our students, we must have multiple conversations with them about these realities before we ask them to engage in the environment. I believe that there are a host of benefits of asking students to navigate these digital spaces, as the students quoted in this webtext suggest; however, I think we need to pursue these goals carefully, with the wellbeing of students at the forefront of our pedagogical approaches. This experience has also shown me that anonymity is embedded in our digital interactions, even if it isn’t explicit, as in the case of Yik Yak. Students continually connected their findings with their experiences on other social media platforms: some wrote about how they could see similarities between interactions they witnessed on Yik Yak and exchanges they saw on Twitter or Facebook between users who didn’t know one another in real life, while others wrote about how much more they focused on the timing and content of posts instead of the user who originally posted. We must ask our students to consider how the anonymity implicit in social media platforms shape the ways that we connect with one another, even on platforms that explicitly link physical and digital identities.

In Conclusion

I have found myself convinced by some of the arguments against Yik Yak from both students and critics, pinpointing its major problem to be its anonymous nature. But one question that has continually emerged throughout this project is: Does anonymity really change things? Do people really communicate differently under a different guise (or no guise at all)? The end of Claire’s reflection read, "There are some… ignorant people on Yik Yak. I don’t think it is the anonymity that makes them…ignorant because there are a lot of people that don’t say ignorant things on Yik Yak. There are those people in the real world and they will say those things in real life." If this is the case, then Yik Yak merely mimics real-life discourse; however, even though I think that much of Claire’s statement is accurate, the confluence of the situational factors that users on Yik Yak (and similar platforms) experienced does create a previously unencountered arena of discourse, one that deserves more exploration.

As this webtext argues, introducing anonymous social media applications into the writing classroom has a number of pedagogical benefits; and thus, pursuing these questions about the true impact of anonymity on writing, both inside and outside of the classroom, is a well-intentioned task. The anonymous nature of Yik Yak contributed to its unique way of illustrating the influence of time, place, and feeling (how it helps us to move towards, as well as interrupts those movements) on our interactions with one another. This nature, along with its use of locative media, allowed Yik Yak to craft networks differently than traditional online spaces. These networks "are reflexive: we, the users, are creating them. We are producing the affective networks we inhabit, the connections that configure us" (Dean, 2015, p. 99). A model that acknowledges this instability is valuable, given the mobile, anonymous, digital technologies that we use every day—especially because the different elements of those systems are often rendered invisible to us.

As we try to prepare students for the types of writing they’ll be doing in their professional and personal lives beyond the academy, we must consider the digital spaces that they find themselves writing in—especially those that are accessed by mobile, locative technology. As these spaces are fluid and shifting, an approach informed by ecological thinking allows us to more clearly see the complexities unfolding as we, along with our students, try to communicate with one another. Jenny Edbauer pointed to the importance of "Distribution, concatenation, [and] encounter," forcing "us into a rather fluid framework of exchanges—a fluidity that bleeds the elements of rhetorical situation" (2005, p. 19). Creating sustainable digital ecologies requires that those who inhabit them actually understand how they function. Rather than teaching students to isolate factors in their writing environments, we must encourage them to look for the complex, dynamic, layered nature of these factors. By doing so, we can help them to engage effectively (and ethically) in digital spaces, so that they may ultimately craft more sustainable, productive environments for themselves and others.