Scholars have delved into the theoretical and pedagogical applications of social media, exploring platforms like Myspace (Arola, 2010), Facebook (Amicucci, 2017; Balzisher et al., 2011; Coad, 2013), Twitter (Hayes, 2017; Wolff, 2015), Pinterest (DeLuca, 2015), and Instagram (McNely, 2015), to name just a few. Arguing for a sustained scholarly focus on the writing practices fostered by social media, Stephanie Vie and Douglas Walls (2015) wrote that it is "important for multiple writing studies scholars to focus their research agendas on the new technologies that have so much influence in shaping and expressing our collective and individual worldviews." This influence continues to evolve as new applications are developed and released, producing new concerns for teachers and scholars of computers and writing.
Scholarship on social media focuses primarily on sites in which users craft personalized profile pages that serve as hubs for interaction, like Myspace or Facebook. The importance of profiles is one of the three major aspects of social network sites that danah boyd and Nicole Ellison (2008) provide; the other two are that users can "articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection" and also "view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system" (p. 213). Most mainstream social media sites, like those noted above, possess these characteristics, and have been utilized in writing classrooms because of their presence in our daily lives, as well as the opportunities they provide to discuss identity in digital spaces.
Recently, however, we have seen an increased use of social media applications that don’t require users to create personal profiles or to curate lists of other users. Instead, the dominant feature of these apps is anonymity, which often results in the absence of a stable list of friends or followers. Yik Yak is one example from this group of anonymous social media applications, a group that also includes Secret, Whisper, Rumor, Kandid, and After School (among other applications that currently exist and have yet to be developed). In lieu of personal profiles and pre-existing social circles, Yik Yak determined a user’s network based on the geographic location of the user’s mobile device. Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith (2010) referred to this type of network as a "locative-mobile social network," which operate differently than traditional social networks because of the immediacy of user location in establishing the parameters of the network. Reminiscent of online message boards, Yik Yak allowed users to post and comment anonymously on a real-time feed made up of posts from others in their immediate radius (which ranged anywhere from 1.5 to 10 miles, depending on the population density of the area).
While this combination of anonymity and hyperlocality contributed to the popularity of Yik Yak on college campuses during its heyday, it also created the potential for posts that targeted other users through hateful and un-moderated content, resulting in descriptions of Yik Yak as "the Wild West of anonymous social apps" (Mahler, 2015) and "apparently irredeemable" (Dewey, 2014). The popularity of the application, along with the media attention it received, were undoubtedly the result of the anonymous and hyperlocal design of the application, which provided users with a social network that changed rapidly and without much notice. This created a dynamic and sometimes unpredictable experience for users, a group that included many college students.
It’s important to note that as you read this webtext, Yik Yak is a dead platform; that is, the application and local Yik Yak feeds are no longer available. After experiencing a dip in popularity in 2016, the creators discontinued the application on May 5, 2017 (Kolodny, 2017). Despite its short life cycle (lasting less than four full years), an examination of this platform is valuable for several reasons. First, Yik Yak was incredibly popular on college campuses at the height of its existence, boasting over 2 million individual monthly users in October 2014 (Constine, 2016). Illustrated by official statements from institutions and pieces in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education , Yik Yak captured the interest of not only students, but faculty and administration across the United States. Second, the application created a platform that, perhaps paradoxically (given its anonymous nature), felt intimate and personal for users, creating spaces for discursive exchange that traditional, profile-based forms of social media do not typically provide. And finally, the way that Yik Yak harnessed mobile technology, location-based feeds, and anonymity signaled a shift in the ways that users could connect with one another in order to build networks. Though Yik Yak is now defunct, it gestures to the types of applications that are currently being developed and will be developed in the future, offering us the opportunity to consider how we might engage with new applications that are reminiscent of Yik Yak in our classrooms.
The anonymous nature of these types of mobile applications allows us to look beyond the influence of user identity and profile presence, highlighting the confluence of time, place, and feeling, as these intersections create a highly fluid network for users. As one of these applications, Yik Yak troubles familiar understandings of social media and social networking sites, suggesting that we should take a new approach in analyzing anonymous social media platforms. This project attempts this by employing an ecological framework, which acknowledges the distributed nature of communication, the dynamic relationships between different forces, and the shifting nature of technological advancement. By viewing Yik Yak and the networks it created "as a process of distributed emergence and an ongoing circulation process" (Edbauer, 2005, p. 13), we can more clearly see the interplay between these different forces, so that we might interrogate both the positive and negative effects of such relationships.
This webtext investigates the possibilities of writing assignments that ask students to compose with anonymous, location-based social media applications that fall outside of more familiar, profile-based formats; specifically, I examine the outcomes of an assignment that asked first-year composition students to observe threads on Yik Yak and then compose their own posts in an attempt to influence conversations taking place on the application. In this discussion, I incorporate student reflections and examples of student work from several semesters of a first-year writing course (gathered during an IRB-approved study). Using Yik Yak, this project forwards anonymous apps as one way to engage with the issues of time, place, relatedness, interruptions in relatedness, and anonymity, all of which are increasingly relevant in digital writing environments. Alice Daer and Liza Potts (2014) outlined several goals for social media-focused assignments, including to cultivate student awareness of "how networks and media work over time and across space and place" (p. 31)—a primary outcome of the assignment featured in this webtext.
The purpose of this assignment was not to teach students how to use Yik Yak, but instead first, to ask students to consider how the different factors of time, geographic place, feeling, and anonymity influence interactions in these types of digital spaces; and second, to encourage students to develop the skills required to ethically interact in such digital environments, especially as these spaces continue to be hubs of frequent (if not often troubling) interactions. The authors of Because Digital Writing Matters (2010) argued for bringing these concerns to the writing classroom, writing that, "A healthy digital writing ecology is nurtured when teachers act as stewards, and as they engage their colleagues, administrators, and students in ongoing discussions about the many issues related to physical space, about policy implications, and about responsible use of technologies" (The National Writing Project, DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, & Hicks, p. 87). This webtext explores one effort to cultivate healthy digital writing ecologies, in the hopes that it can fuel the development of others.
This pop-out menu (located in the right corner of the screen) features links to the different pages in this webtext. Mimicking the layout of a discussion on Yik Yak, each page is paired with a randomly-assigned icon used on Yik Yak to represent different users engaged in conversation; as these pages are in conversation with one another. Navigate however you wish, according to your interests. For optimal viewing, please maximize your browser window and use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.