Dr Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society. She received a British Academy Small Grant to research young people’s views of anonymous apps, and will publish some of the findings of this research in a forthcoming book: “The Platform Generation: Young Lives and Social Media Content Policies” (University of California Press).
The Yak is back.
I certainly didn’t have Yik Yak’s revival on my 2021 bingo card but here we are, the year where anything goes.
First launched in 2014, Yik Yak belongs to the “anonymous app” family: apps that let you send messages to other app users without revealing your identity.* Yik Yak’s USP has always been that it offers a location-based service, allowing you to share “Yaks” with other app users – either privately or on a more public feed – situated within a five-mile radius. In Mashable’s words, content posted to Yik Yak is grounded in the shared experience of living in a certain location. Naturally, the older version of the app was a hit on school and university campuses until its founders shut it down in 2017, after it was linked to everything from bullying to bomb hoaxes.
But the Yak is back, and its relaunch – brought about by its founders’ desire to create an online ‘place to be authentic’, in contrast to heavily curated spaces like Instagram – has reignited longer-standing public debates about the societal value of anonymous apps and anonymity writ large.
Why do young people want to use anonymous apps?
As part of my British Academy research, I work with schools across England to find out how young people feel about anonymous apps like Yik Yak. Something I’ve learned from my research is that young people often use them to keep tabs on what others are saying about them. For example, in one Sixth Form College, a still-unidentified student set up a Tellonym account to ask people to submit “secrets” about their peers. The student then cross-posted all submissions to a dedicated “Confessionals” page on Instagram, which was live for around two months before teachers asked the culprit to shut it down.
During my interviews, all the girls in some way mentioned their heightened anxieties when the Confessionals accounts were launched, particularly in terms of their appearance and sexuality. The following conversation from 16 and 17 year old Charlie and Chloe summarises this sentiment:
Chloe: I just didn’t want to get included in it, I didn’t want to be written about. That week I just wore… you know how sometimes I will wear different clothing, like a red jacket and stuff like that?
Charlie: Yeah, you just wore plain clothing, so no one could slate you.
Chloe: Yeah, I just wore plain clothing and I blended in. […] It’s really anxiety inducing because that makes you feel like everybody’s eyes were on you, everybody was watching.
One participant of an Outreach and Widening Participation (OWP) workshop I ran as part of this project – and whose identity has been entirely anonymised – shared a similar view of secret-telling-style apps:
The consequences of anonymous apps are experienced unevenly across social demographics, though not always for a bad reason. At an all-boys secondary school, 14-year-old Samuel and Lamar told me that:
Samuel: Being able to tell someone about maybe mental health issues or about any other issues that you’re having confidentially and anonymously, it’s good because you can tell people without having to tell people who you are.
Lamar: If you get rid of anonymity, you’re not going to have many people to talk to most of the time, especially if there’s trouble in your home. You’re not going to go complain to your parents about that. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking to teachers and stuff.
Both Samuel and Lamar have benefited immensely from the anonymity and social bonding that apps like Yik Yak afford: Samuel, for example, is unsure about their gender and sexual orientation and has spoken widely on anonymous apps about this. Likewise, Lamar has shared stories about violence and other kinds of instability in his home life. The experiences of kids like Samuel and Lamar are not uncommon, as another anonymised OWP workshop participant suggests:
Even on non-anonymous social apps, the young people I spoke to – especially the younger teens – typically sign up using what they call “nicknames” (otherwise known as pseudonyms) and condemn their peers for using their legal names. They also make use of having multiple accounts for identity play, once again telling us that the ability to hide aspects of yourself is a vital and not-always-scary part of adolescent identity formation.
But what are the risks of anonymous apps?
Anonymous apps tend to dramatically rise and fall in popularity, unable to sustain a steady userbase. Time and time again, anonymous apps – not only Yik Yak 1.0 but Sarahah, YOLO, Fling, Ask.FM, and many others – become too dangerous to exist, either removed from app stores or shut down by their founders. This is usually because they became popular-by-surprise: gaining popularity beyond their founders’ wildest dreams, leaving companies unprepared for the necessary scope and scale of content moderation.
When it comes to anonymous apps, the focus of public discussion tends to be centred on cyberbullying. But hybridised terms like cyberbullying distract us from the bullying that takes place – and has always taken place – in face-to-face settings. In my research, I found that those who weren’t bullied at school largely enjoyed using the apps. When asked about their thoughts on Confessionals, Sixth Formers Bonnie and Clyde said:
Clyde: I really liked it.
Bonnie: I loved it.
Clyde: I proper rinsed people on it though, which I don’t know if I should admit to.
A question at the forefront of my mind during this research has, therefore, been: do anonymous apps pose unique risks of harms like bullying, compared to face-to-face forms of communication? In other words, is there anything new here? I’ve also interviewed parents/carers and teachers as part of my research, and one Deputy Head Teacher at an all-girls’ Secondary School told me a powerful story about YOLO – a now-defunct app to ask anonymous questions to other app users. One Friday evening, one of his teenage, female students used YOLO to rank the attractiveness of her female peers. The game spread across the school and, by the end of the weekend, the student had arrived at what she called The Definitive List of the School’s Ugliest Girls. On the following Monday morning, the Deputy Headteacher – who knew nothing about the list, or what YOLO was – had a queue of angry parents at his office door, demanding action for this blatant act of bullying. The Deputy Headteacher poignantly described this incident to me as “the modern day Mean Girls”.
So, anonymous apps like YOLO and Yik Yak co-exist in young people’s lives alongside other forms of communication. While bullying will sadly likely always factor into young lives, anonymous apps provide new locations for familiar behaviours, albeit with new affordances (such as speed and mobility).
Where do we go from here?
Yik Yak’s relaunch has once again revived conversations about whether anonymous apps – and anonymity writ large – are “good” or “bad” for society. But the apps’ complex histories – coupled with the stories shared in this blog post by young people like Chloe, Charlie, Samuel, Lamar, and many others – reminds us how unhelpful a good/bad dichotomy is. While there are well-documented problems with anonymity, the young people I spoke to simply couldn’t imagine a world without it and, like it or not, anonymous apps are exceptionally appealing to them, even if they have experienced bullying.
Unfortunately, “it’s complicated” doesn’t make a very good media headline, but young people’s experiences of anonymous apps are complicated. Public debate about anonymous apps needs to be, for one thing, far less sensationalised, but also better-attuned to the thoughts and experiences of those who are on the apps’ front lines. This means it’s my responsibility as an academic to both deepen our understanding of this important and emotionally-charged phenomenon, and present a more accurate and nuanced account in public fora.
* To make matters more complicated, there are different sub-genres of anonymous apps; for example, secret-telling apps ask you to submit confessions about yourself; gossip apps want you to share juicy details about other people’s lives; and question-asking apps let you get peer feedback on things you don’t want to ask face-to-face.