investigating the Yik Yak attack

The Chronicle reported today on the abuse of faculty by students in a class via Yik Yak. Steve Krause writes about the event here (it happened at his institution, Eastern Michigan). And, coincidentally, Jeff Rice has a general piece on universities and Yik Yak on Insider Higher Ed.

The basic story in this most recent event is that some unreported number of students in a class of 230 wrote over 100 messages on Yik Yak during a class meeting. Apparently many of the messages were rude, insulting, and abusive.  We’ve seen this story before in the form of tweckling: different app (Twitter), same basic rhetorical effect. Of course Yik Yak allows for even greater anonymity that Twitter does. (Although, as we know, in the end, it’s very hard to be truly anonymous.) Nevertheless, student perception of anonymity certainly appears to have loosened social propriety.

Setting aside judgments of students, faculty, institutions, the designers of Yik Yak, “today’s modern, fast-paced society,” or whatever, what might be investigated in this event?

1. I don’t think we would say that anonymity directs people to free, unfettered action. As such, instead we might seek to uncover the actors and relations from which these rhetorical practices emerge. In my brief forays into Yik Yak, it appears that anonymity does not dissuade users from wanting attention. Users still want to perform and perform well. They want to interact, and they get taken up by the situation. As Latour would say, they are “made to act” or maybe yak in this case. This is not in any way an excuse or defense, but simply a suggestion that it would be wrong-headed to take these anonymous remarks as evidence of what the students “really think.”

2. That said, the web clearly bisects the conventional classroom and deterritorializes its operation. To use DeLanda’s appropriation of assemblage, we would observe that the physical aspects of the room–the orientation of the chairs, the lighting, the chalkboard, etc. etc.–all establish a specific territory which is expressed on a non-symbolic level. These territories are coded further by any number of symbolic interventions from the class schedule to university policies about student behavior, as well as systems that establish social relations between faculty and students. All of these items can also serve deterritorializing and decoding features, as when the lights buzz and flicker in a distracting way, the chairs are uncomfortable, the chalkboard squeaks, class scheduling creates conflicts, or students and faculty decide to start acting in ways beyond their established institutional roles. Similarly the appearance of wifi or cellular data connections in a classroom has the potential to function in a territorializing/coding fashion, when we use the technology toward pedagogical ends, for example. And, in this case, it can deterritorialize the classroom, potentially to such a state that the professor says she cannot proceed.

So what does that tell us about what should be done?  The actions available to institutions are fairly obvious. They can geofence campuses to prevent Yik Yak use. They can prohibit use of devices in classrooms. They can track down and punish offenders. You might say all these actions presume that what the students did was wrong. Maybe, but in this context they reflect the operation of an assemblage in reasserting its territoriality. It’s desire to continue to persist.

Here’s a relevant part of this for me though. Let’s say the same group of students met after the class and made the same comments to one another verbally in private. Or that they used SMS to text one another the same messages, but not in a public forum. Or that they wrote them all out on a piece of paper. These are all very hypothetical situations as part of my contention is that they did what they did precisely because of the environment in which they were operating. Compare those examples with them taking that piece of paper with their comments, making a bunch of photo copies and handing them to their classmates as they left the classroom. Or shouting their comments during the class itself.

Where does this Yik Yak activity fall among these more familiar, mostly “pre-digital,” forms of communication? We can say that it is wrong to say hurtful, sexist things in private, but saying them in public is a different offense, and directing them toward a specific person who is in the audience is yet another. It is likely that the students failed to imagine that their professor would be in their audience. If they had,  we could guess they would have behaved differently, even if they still felt protected by anonymity. Of course that’s only speculation.

Perhaps it would be interesting to “peek” into the EMU Yik Yak community and see if any self-correction takes place or not. Because EMU is not the only assemblage at work here. Yik Yak forms its own assemblage, right? Even though each user typically forms his/her own Yik Yak community based on the phone’s specific location, there is a Yik Yak EMU community. Of course it isn’t nearly as solidified as the college, so it’s hard to suggest that it would operate with some collective intent in the way a college could set a policy. Still I imagine there are many students who would think their peers actions here were unwarranted. As it is, I see back-and-forth on Yik Yak when someone makes a really offensive statement.

So it would be unsurprising for professors collectively or an institution to make some move to reterritorialize their assemblage by geofencing Yik Yak or engaging in some similar move. On the other hand, as Jeff Rice points out, stories like this one are not the norm on Yik Yak, which is typically more banal than anything else, even if the anonymity does lead to a degree of crudeness. Ultimately some mechanisms of social interaction arise to regulate behavior. Even primates demonstrate that!#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(429px,auto, auto,429px);}

4 thoughts on “investigating the Yik Yak attack

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  1. It turns out that while Yik Yak has been willing to do the geofencing thing at K-12 schools, they haven’t been willing to do that at colleges/universities. There have been some schools that have blocked it from their wifi network, but (duh) it’s a smart phone app, so as long as someone has a cell signal, it’ll work.

    Anyway, as I think the discussion EMUTalk suggests, a lot of the problem for me here is a fundamental lack of understanding by folks of the medium generally and of anonymous social mediums like Yik Yak specifically. I can totally understand why the faculty who were the targets of abuse by students are angry about this and want the powers that be to “do something.” The problem is the technology means it’s not so simple to just “do something.” And the point I think you’re making here, Alex, about the lines between private and public (which I also see as a comment on the personas we have/develop in different contexts), is something that I think is correct and frankly too subtle to try to bring up.

    To me, the first step that faculty should take (assuming they care at all about this) is to get a Yik Yak account. When they do that and spend even a few days checking out what’s going on there, I think they’ll see that Rice is right, that 90% of it is so banal that it hardly seems worth acknowledging.

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    1. I’m sure Yik Yak’s view on geofencing is related to their product being rated for adults. I understand that institutions cannot geofence themselves, though that wasn’t clear in what I wrote above. I still think it’s not inconceivable for institutions to put pressure on Yik Yak that way. Of course, I’m not recommending that or even all that interested in pursuing that angle.

      Coincidentally right now, I am reading and writing about DeLanda’s treatment of the evolution of cooperative strategies among primates. In many respects the basic rhetorical decisions about whether to cooperate or cheat in the basic “you rub my back and I will rub yours” situation of primate grooming is applicable here.

      To make that work, classrooms need to begin with a possibility for reciprocal altruism. So to start, students need to see the classroom as a place where cooperation leads to benefit. Then they can weigh that benefit against the benefit of cheating (in this case not literally cheating, like plagiarism, but not cooperating in the communal values of the classroom). Of course the classroom is a complex social space with a number of intersecting communities and obligations (including, in this case, obligations to Yik Yak).

      From this perspective, the strategy involves shifting the weights of the calculations. Since all universities have classroom behavior policies and this activity, if happening during a class, almost certainly violates that policy, the simplest thing would be to identify offenders and pillory them. A more subtle strategy would look to change the perception of other students in the classroom. Right now, it may only be the professor who feels cheated, but if the entire community is impacted then others become differently involved.

      Ultimately though this is about shifting the discourse of Yik Yak itself. At this point, EMU could probably appoint a single person to keep track of all the Yik Yak activity on campus and intervene if necessary. I just peeked at EMU and there’s maybe 50-60 posts per hour. It would be relatively simple for a communications office to overwhelm that and make the EMU Yik Yak community into a university propaganda channel for a couple weeks. That would either drive the users out or change their discursive behavior. If every time someone in the area remarked on getting drunk or doing drugs or made some sexist, racist or otherwise inappropriate comment, there was someone from university life services commenting (e.g. “remember our alcohol use policy”) then things would change.

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  2. My first thought when I read this was, I bet it was a lecture class and the professor was not interacting with his/her students… just talking. The lecture is dead… it does not work…. and never did. I was bored and I went to college the first time 40 years ago. We need to change our teaching…

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