Student Perceptions of Anonymous Applications
by Sara West

Conclusions & Implications

Sections: For Instructors | For Content Creators & Communication Designers | For Online Researchers | Conclusion

I began this project with a broad question: why are students using anonymous platforms, even despite all the backlash and potential negative experiences? Throughout my research, I've sought to answer this question, which I operationalized into my three key research questions:

Ultimately, my survey results showed that most students used these applications for a relatively simple reason: because they were popular. As their friends began to use the applications, so did they. They also enjoyed that many of these applications, like Yik Yak, offered a hyperlocal audience, so they could know that others around them were using and enjoying the application. And since, as we have seen, anonymous applications continue to rise and fall, we'll likely continue to see students using these applications as they rise to popularity.

My interview results offer a more nuanced answer to these questions, showing how users think about the anonymity practices more specifically. The interview participants offered varied perspectives and fell into four different user types, but their responses highlighted three themes in anonymity: anonymity as freedom, anonymity as protection, and anonymity as community identity.

In this section, I want to bring together the results of my project, along with my research process, to provide implications and conclusions to three broad groups: instructors of composition and TPC, content creators and communication designers, and researchers of these or similar online spaces.

Reflective Audio: Implications for Specific Groups

TRANSCRIPT: From this study, I draw implications for a few major groups. Each of these groups has a vested interest in the participants of this study (college students) and/or the subject of this study (anonymous applications). For instructions of composition and technical and professional communication, this project provides implications for integrating and discussing social media in the classroom. For content creators and communication designers, this project advocates for considering how platforming-defining characteristics (like, in this case, anonymity) should be considered when creating content, considering audiences, and (re)designing platforms. For online researchers, my project provides a model for future studies in similar research spaces, but perhaps more than that, it advocates for using critically reflective research practices. But it's important for me to note that the reason I outline these key groups is because I find myself among them. Alhough I acknowledge my position as researcher and the implications for the groups that I am a part of, I hope that other groups might also find this research interesting and see implications of it for their own work as well.

Implications for Instructors of Composition and Technical and Professional Communication (TPC)

Because the users in this case are students in composition and TPC classes, my research yields several implications for instructors of composition and TPC courses. In fact, all the implications from my research, including implications for content creation, communication design, and research, could be applied in the classroom. I seek to answer earlier calls. In this section, I discuss how my research might contribute to instructors' (and students') views of social media spaces and how social media could be brought into the classroom in meaningful ways.

Social Media as Composing Space

One of the primary goals for this project was to answer the many calls for instructors to view and teach social media spaces as legitimate composing spaces (Verzosa Hurley & Kimme Hea, 2014; Vie, 2008 & 2015; Yancey, 2009). As Stephanie Vie (2015) noted, “students expect a technologically enhanced educational experience” in the classroom today (p. 34). Thus, even instructors who do not teach courses with an explicitly technological focus will be expected to understand and integrate some digital tools in the classroom, something that became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social media platforms, because most are accessible from a variety of devices and are free to use, are often the digital tools that teachers first choose to bring into the classroom. This project attempts to “rearticulate social media against fear- and illegitimacy-based narratives,” and to ask students to “think of social media as real texts worthy of their composing talents and time” (Verzosa Hurley & Kimme Hea, 2014, p. 57).

In demonstrating social media's legitimacy, this project shows how student-users employ several rhetorical strategies in their adoption and navigation of these spaces. As Elisabeth Buck (2015) found in her study of students' Facebook use, students did not always identify these rhetorical strategies in a survey, but these discussions were prominent in interview responses. My project shows something similar: when students are given the time to think about and discuss their use critically (as in the interviews for this project), they will certainly do so. This alone has rich pedagogical applications. Buck has advocated for talking to students about their social media use, allowing them to discuss not only the content they post but also their process in determining which platform to use at what time and for what purpose.

My project demonstrates the increasingly complex ways in which students navigate these platforms, especially as platforms privilege certain characteristics—in this case, anonymity. While many students adopt these platforms because of the popularity among their friends, family, or local community, they must learn the composing practices of the platform through their individual use. Often, as my study demonstrates, students do not recognize the influence of the platform on the content they compose: survey participants seemed to think that the platform-imposed characteristics factored in little to their use of these platforms, while interview participants talked at length about how these characteristics influenced their content and their perceptions. Interview participants were, of course, given more time and prompting to explore these characteristics. In a classroom environment, instructors should explicitly ask students to explore and reflect upon how they compose on these spaces and what factors influence their compositions.

After using these platforms (or participating in the platform communities) for an extended period, users begin to learn and leverage posting norms of that site (Pigg, 2014). But instructors may need to make this clear by pointing out examples. More active users of the platforms, such as Isaac and Christopher in my study, seemed to have more nuanced views of the sites and of the other users. Active users can often discuss both the negative and positive characteristics of the applications and how those characteristics influence their individual use as well as the community. Less active users, like Katrina and Trevor, may have a more difficult time articulating their ideas about the platforms, merely because they have had less exposure to the posting norms of the platform.

This comparison is important to keep in mind when thinking about implementing social media into composition or TPC courses. In short, students who have used certain platforms with some consistency can better articulate their composing practices within that space. Too often, courses rely on a single social media assignment or social media unit (see Li, 2012; Melton & Hicks, 2011); however, this project shows that if instructors want students to be able to critically evaluate platforms themselves, as well as their uses of these platforms, students should have some extended exposure to the platform itself. Should an instructor decide to have students join or analyze a platform and discuss its rhetorical characteristics, that instructor should be aware that more critical awareness will develop over time—a single unit or assignment may not be enough time for students to develop a nuanced view.

Discussions about Anonymity and Privacy

In Yik Yak's initial launch and in the 2021 relaunch, the platform employed strict anonymity practices (with a later addition of handles). Throughout my project, I have grappled with the idea of anonymity: What does it mean to be anonymous? What are the different types of or levels of anonymity? Is it possible to be truly anonymous in these spaces? Though several scholars have sought to define anonymity, the more that we talk about it, the more slippery the term becomes.

Likewise, discussions of anonymity in the classroom could reveal some interesting definitions. From interview participants, one of the most the most striking things I noted was how the interview participants grappled with the ideas of public and private social media platforms. To me, a researcher who had grown up in the age of LiveJournal, MySpace, and early Facebook, privacy on social media meant the ability to control access to certain profile information and content. That is, the ability to restrict the people who can see your page or certain information on your page—to make something friends-only or to make something visible to only-me. Public seemed like less of a designation and more of an audience group: when something was public, it could be viewed by anyone.

Reflective Audio: Defining Private and Public

TRANSCRIPT: One of the most interesting things I find from the interviews, the potential differences in definitions of public and private, is something that occurred to me during my analysis of data, long after the interviews had been conducted. I so wish it had occurred to me in the moment so I could have asked my participants more about their thoughts, but this is a reality of data collection and data analysis. Luckily, though, I can continue to develop this thread of inquiry, either in my classroom discussions about social media or even in future research projects. At the moment, I don't know whether my definitions are shared by others, nor do I know if my participants' views, based only on a few comments, are the prevailing views for student-users. What I do know, though, is that this could be a fruitful space for future inquiry.

By my definition, I would consider Yik Yak to be a public platform; despite the fact that users could be anonymous, the content was still open to the public. In fact, Yik Yak's own website calls it “a public forum” where “your yaks are public” ("Community Guardrails," 2021). Through my conversations with interview participants, though, I began to see that not all participants shared this definition. As Katrina said, anonymous applications gave users the ability to avoid being “open to the public,” and she shared that more sensitive content, such as some of the example anonymous posts, should never be “posted on a public social media site.” Isaac also noted that users of anonymous platforms may be using these platforms because they don't want to bring something up to a “public source of people.”

The potential for differences in definitions is another aspect of my project that can be brought into the classroom. Just as social media platforms rapidly change, so do users' ideas and definitions about those platforms. Because of this, it will be important for instructors to establish a shared vocabulary with their students when they are discussing social media platforms, especially when working with terms like “anonymity” and “privacy.” Though most instructors already understand the value of having shared classroom vocabulary, we do sometimes take for granted that our students will share our definition of what we might consider more common terms that are outside of the content of the class. Creating (and re-creating) a shared vocabulary around changing technological platforms and characteristics will allow for instructors and students to be on more equal footing when discussing these concepts.

Incorporating Discussions about Platform Ethics

Instructors may be reluctant to use a controversial application in class, and although Erin Brock Carlson (2018) presented a pedagogical application of Yik Yak, anonymous applications may not be the first choice to bring to the classroom. Because of the popularity of anonymous applications and the implementation of anonymous aspects in major platforms, however, students may well be composing on these platforms daily (Vie, 2015). Because students may have at least some familiarity with anonymous applications or anonymous options, these types of applications can be useful in discussing ethics, particularly after definitions of these concepts have been considered.

The survey results indicated that student-users did not frequently use Yik Yak for the popularly criticized uses. Interview participants, however, had little problem discussing the negative associations of the applications, even when they could dispel some of these associations. That these criticisms exist—and have been shown to be true in many spaces—cannot be forgotten. In addition, we should not forget that BIPOC, women, and users with disabilities are disproportionally harmed by hostile online comments and harassment (see Reyman & Sparby, 2020). Indeed, we can see this reflected just in the four interviews participants: as the only female interview participant, Katrina's initial perceptions about anonymous applications were shaped by negative experiences (other users' using the platform as a “dating site” with too much “perversion” and “nudity”) that caused her to stop using the applications altogether. According to the Pew Research Center's report on The State of Online Harassment, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to experience sexual harassment online; 33% of women under 35 say that they've experienced sexual harassment online compared to 11% of men under 35 (Vogels, 2021).

Students should be taught to consider the ethical implications of participating a space that allows or even encourages negative behaviors in its participants. Likewise, instructors should consider the implications of asking students to use such platforms; however, there are other ways to bring discussions of these platforms into the classroom. Students might engage in a critical history of a specific platform; for example, they could trace Yik Yak's rise, fall, and relaunch with new policies. In addition, students could engage in discussions about the types of behaviors society deems negative and how these views influence platform development. Depending on the nature of the course, students could research how platforms are built, from idea to creation, to consider how platform creators negotiate their ethical obligations.

In addition, students could be encouraged to consider the ways in which platforms are influenced by user biases, both offline and online. Jennifer Sano-Franchini (2017) has described a Professional Writing course that asked students to consider the overlap of feminism rhetorics and interaction design. In this course, students developed conceptual prototypes that would consider feminism in some way. One group developed an application to help younger users have more access to sex education, but they also needed to consider the concerns that users, particularly parents of the younger users, may bring to the application. This group had to negotiate their ideas of adding parental controls with their goal of providing transparent information to users, ultimately arguing that leaving out parental controls, though it might undermine the marketability of such an app, would be more aligned with feminist goals. Applying a feminist lens to analysis of existing platforms—like Yik Yak or other anonymous platforms—could be a useful classroom assignment or discussion, particularly because, as Sano-Franchini noted, a feminist interaction design approach asks designers to "conceptualize users in ways that are inclusive" and consider use over time “in ways that are ideologically and politically reflexive.”

Implications for Content Creators and Communication Designers

My research looks at anonymity that platforms fundamentally prefer or privilege and the impact of that characteristic on the way student-users communicate. Because of the focus on platforms, this research also has implications for content creators and communication designers. These two groups have a vested interest in determining both how platforms operate and how users navigate these platforms.

The multifaceted nature of the term “platform,” like so many of the terms I've discussed, already asks content creators and communication designers to consider outside forces like advertisers, along with inside forces dictated by the platform owners (Gillespie, 2010; Srnicek, 2017). Social platforms must, first and foremost, encourage socialization; in this project, the influence of socialization is shown as student-users privilege platform popularity over the specific platform's characteristics. The platform must then build in or plan for some way of satisfying the need for monetization. After providing avenues for socialization and monetization, however, a platform must have some characteristic or set of characteristics that sets it apart from other social platforms. The key to creating content or designing communication spaces within these platforms is being able to meet goals for socialization (and, for some, monetization) while acting within the platform-imposed characteristics.

Considering Platform-Imposed Characteristics on Content Creation

Interview participants discussed how they adapted to composing spaces with the system-imposed limitation of anonymity. Participants showed that though anonymity might not have figured greatly into their adoption of the platform, it influenced the way students used certain platforms.

It is important for content creators, individuals or businesses/organizations, to understand that because platforms are designed with certain defining characteristics, these characteristics must be adhered to when creating any content for the platform. Before composing on a certain platform, content creators should understand its core characteristics—not only because the platform dictates it, but because that is what other users expect to see. Content creators must also understand how users navigate these platforms, which was a focus during this project, so that they can create content that keeps in mind both the platform and the users. The content creator must first understand the way the platform works before then understanding the different genres at play within that platform. Then the content creator can use the knowledge of the platform and a chosen genre to reach the audience.

Considering Platform-Imposed Characteristics on Communication Design

Potential (re)designers of communication spaces like social media platforms should also consider the ways that platform characteristics will influence the content and users of a platform. In doing this, communication designers should also acknowledge how platforms privilege certain content or certain users (Gillespie, 2010). Designers should consider the impetus for the creation of a new communication spaces and should seek to understand how users will internalize platform-imposed characteristics.

This project took place during the decline of the once-popular application, Yik Yak, which provides an example of the power of these platform-imposed characteristics. Shortly after the platform's decision to remove its core characteristic, anonymity, Yik Yak lost much of its userbase. Though many participants in my project left the application even before this change, the undermining of this characteristic solidified Yik Yak's decline and eventual shutdown. For communication designers, Yik Yak's fall demonstrates a case in which many users left the platform when the fundamental characteristic dissolved, thus confirming the power of the platform's core characteristic for its survival. But even restoring this characteristic was not enough to fight against the momentum of users leaving the application, and, as Adam Pope and I (2018) have argued elsewhere, anonymity may have hindered the application's long-term ability to monetize. It's yet to be seen how the 2021 relaunch will fare in the long term.

The risk in (re)designing a communication space is often that the designer is seen as a heroic figure that employs user-centered design to deliver victimized users from the “unjust tyranny” of bad design, a myth that Spinnuzi (2003) has sought to dispel. My research reinforces Spinnuzi's fundamental argument: that users are already navigating complex systems themselves. Thus, communication designers can learn from ways that users are already adapting to changing technologies and can implement that knowledge in their (re)design of platforms.

To (re)design a communication space, then, communication designers will need to consider how users are already functioning in this or similar spaces. A fundamental concept in communication design is participatory design, or asking users to participate in the (re)design of a space (Getto, Potts, Salvo & Gosset, 2013; Salvo, 2001; Spinuzzi, 2005). To allow for this participatory design, communication designers should understand how users are navigating the platforms, such as through this study.

Reflective Audio: Going Directly to the Users

TRANSCRIPT: As I discussed, a previous project with Yik Yak showed me that data collection in anonymous applications was difficult. If I wanted to know how students-users navigated these spaces, I needed to go directly to the student-users. I had already collected a dataset of Yik Yak posts in that previous project, and though it gave me a good idea of the types of content posted there, it didn't show me how users perceived the space and the characteristic of anonymity, nor did it give me insight into their motivations. As a user of the space, I understood my own motivations, but, as I mentioned earlier, researching the space was my primary motivation—and that was much different than other Yik Yak users.

Implications for Online Researchers

One of the primary goals of my project was to find a way to successfully study student-users' perceptions of anonymous social media spaces, the type of study that Qinglan Li and Ioana Literat (2017) hoped to see. Just as earlier scholars have issued a call for research to more critically engage with social media spaces, I want to extend that call here. Social media platforms, even traditional profile-based platforms, are difficult research spaces due to their continually changing nature (Daer & Potts, 2014). But, as so much research in the past decade has shown, it's certainly not impossible. There are new (or even renewed) and different frameworks through which we can view and research social media. We may also want to consider the implications of researching these changing platforms.

My project should provide online researchers with a model for how to conduct research in areas where content analysis alone seems insufficient. Even if online researchers who do not seek to replicate my study method, however, may still find the critical reflective method helpful in other research projects.

Providing a Model for Future Research

This project acknowledges the ways new and changing applications circumvent many traditional research methods.

Reflective Audio: The Problem with Data Collection

TRANSCRIPT: When I first began my previous project and continued into this project, I did not realize how difficult data collection would be when I relied on methods like content analysis. With Yik Yak, it was possible to screen capture posts for analysis, but this method requires a great deal of time and effort to maintain. Because posts were deleted when they were downvoted by the community, the screen captures could not show the full communicative exchange. Perhaps a more technologically savvy researcher could have written a program to pull posts from the application, but for my purposes, I could only analyze the screenshots that I was able to collect. And if I only used content analysis based on my experience as a user of the platform to answer my own research questions, I would not be adequately acknowledging my position as the researcher. And, even logistically, it would be difficult for me to assume student-users' reasons for using the platform just based on the content they posted there.

Going directly to the users in this situation is not a new idea. But as researchers begin to look at these platforms more frequently, this method of research may need to be considered earlier in the process. In some cases, collecting data directly from the platform is not an option at all. It is also true that sometimes a researcher could not access the users. But in situations where a researcher can access the user audience and users consent to participate in the project, the researcher can gain more insight than from collecting content on the platform alone.

With the mixed methods of project, I could identify users with the survey before seeking interviews. By conducting a survey first, researchers can have a more nuanced view of the research space before conducting interviews. Interviews can then fill in the gaps that the survey will inevitably leave. In my case, I was surprised to see that only a few participants identified anonymity as their primary reason for using the platform. While it should not have been a surprise that users adopt platforms based on their ability to be social with friends on that platform, the survey simply could not answer all my research questions. Luckily, I could use the survey to better inform the creation of my interview questions. Interview participants filled in many of the gaps from the survey and provided some comments about their individual experiences with these types of applications.

A number of social media researchers have employed similar types of studies that incorporate users: Shepherd (2015) employed a large-scale survey to examine students' use of Facebook, while both Vie (2015) and Mina (2019) used a mixed-method survey/interview approach for considering how writing instructors use (or don't use) social media. On the topic of student use of anonymous applications, Black, Mezzina, and Thompson (2016) used content analysis to consider student use of Yik Yak, while Clark-Gordon, Workman, and Linville (2017) combined content analysis with user interviews, in another mixed-methods approach. While my study does differ in content and in structure from the few I have named, each of these could prove useful to online researchers seeking to develop a method for studying their specific research space.

To other researchers who are dealing with tricky research spaces, I would suggest a mixed-methods study, perhaps like my own or perhaps using aspects of some of the others I have mentioned. In particular, I have found that a combination of methods works best to provide a complex picture of the research space, especially when content from the platform is not readily available.

Researching Changing Platforms

Another added wrinkle to this study and to other studies of online platforms is the changing nature of these platforms. The idea that technology is constantly changing is not new; Daer and Potts (2014) noted that social media spaces change “so frequently that it can be almost impossible to pin down for even those of us who study the internet” (p. 27). Indeed, within the span of this project, the platforms I studied and that users interacted with changed drastically. When my project was first conceived, Yik Yak was at its peak, and the Yik Yak bus, along with its Yak mascot, was on a tour, visiting college campuses around the US (Shontell, 2015). By the time my project was proposed and approved by the university's institutional review board, Yik Yak was deep in decline: in September 2014 the application had around 1.8 million downloads compared to 125,000 in September 2016 (Safronova, 2017). Before I'd even completed the data analysis, Yik Yak had shut down, and I thought that was it: I was officially researching a dead platform.

Though many scholars agree about the difficulty of researching online platforms because of their changing natures, there has only recently been sustained conversation about researching a dead platform, particularly in the fields of composition and TPC. Articles from a special issue of Internet Histories, “Dead and Dying Platforms,” became available in late 2021 and early 2022. In this special issue, Kathryn Montalbano (2021) compared the Terms of Service statements of Yik Yak and another anonymous platform, Jodel, to show why Jodel continued to succeed but Yik Yak failed. I've referenced the conclusions this article offers elsewhere, but the importance to this discussion is this: likely while Montalbano's article was in review, Yik Yak relaunched. There is irony that by the time the article was published in a special issue on Dead and Dying Platforms, Yik Yak was no longer a “dead and dying” platform. Montalbano was able to briefly attend to this relaunch and was even able to compare the ToS of the relaunched application to the original application, showing that the relaunched application might have learned from its successor. But even if the article didn't contain conclusions about the relaunched application, the contributions would have been no less meaningful. The discussions of the applications' Terms of Service Statements, particularly that the original Yik Yak's ToS provided few proactive measures to combat abusive communication and little recourse for preventing it, has lasting implications for other platforms.

As I discussed in the "Anonymous Platforms" section, I had a very similar experience just while writing this webtext, as Yik Yak relaunched while it was out for initial review. There's no doubt that we can continue to find value in research done on a platform, even if that platform has since changed, shut down, or relaunched as a new version. Perhaps even before this webtext is published, Yik Yak will have changed or will have died once again. I'm left to wonder how my research or my implications would have changed if I had analyzed data while the platform still existed, or if I had created my webtext while experiencing the Yik Yak interactions in a new city. Are their unknown, or undiscussed, implications to research when the research(er) believes the platform is dead? I don't have the answer, but I think there must be. Even though I don't think concluding about this idea is within the scope of this webtext, the critical reflective researcher in me wants to consider this more, and I hope that future research can consider the implications of researching dead, dying, and greatly changed platforms.

Advocating for Critically Reflective Research Practices

Critically reflective research practices are beneficial to all research projects, but social media research especially, as many researchers must navigate being simultaneously researchers and users of the space. In addition, as Leigh Gruwell (2018) noted, reflective research provides social media researchers a way to discuss the roles that algorithms play in influencing social media content and users.

By following Patricia Sullivan and James Porter's (1997) advice for critically reflective research practices, I looked back at my previous project to help form the foundation for this one. With the critically reflective research foundation, I was about to rearticulate some of my goals from my previous project. Sullivan and Porter have provided a framework for looking at previous projects not just as springboards for new projects, but as part of a larger reflexive research process. Going back to previous research should not be viewed as merely a revision or, worse, a failure. Rather, looking critically at both current and previous research projects can make for a more critically reflective researcher.

Conclusion and Call for Further Research

As I conclude my current project, I am struck by how many questions that each new project yields. So much about anonymous applications is yet to be explored. The difficulty of collecting data on these applications may well be one of the reasons for this.

My method in this project can provide a model for future research, but it is certainly not the only method for researching these spaces. It is my hope that other researchers can use my method, but even more, it is my hope that other researchers can look at their research processes critically and reflectively to establish new ways of studying these spaces. As more studies involving these spaces emerge, content creators and communication designers can begin to think about how to better create and design in these spaces.

In addition, as more instructors begin to integrate or at least discuss these platforms in their courses, I hope that more pedagogical research can point to the best ways to do so. I hope also that instructors can share how their students responded to assignments and discussions that integrated these platforms. Additionally, I hope to see more discussion of the potential for differences in our definitions of platform characteristics and concepts. My own previous research showed that students are sometimes tentative about social media as part of a course (West, 2017). While students may initially be hesitant, the key to more critical understanding about these platforms is using and discussing them critically.

Social media, in general, offers many opportunities for research; platforms are always changing or being built. Users, researchers, and instructors alike must deal with those changes, but much of this is made invisible by our uncritical adoption of new platforms and new characteristics. More research is needed to understand how and why users, or particular user groups, use platforms, how users talk about these platforms, and how users interact with the content, so that we can better instruct students, create content, and understand users.