Thoughts 3/6

“Respond to this quote from last week’s reading: ‘It seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer–mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation.’”

A topic that was briefly mentioned in discussion last week was Yik Yak, and I think this prompt is a great opportunity for me to voice my thoughts about Yik Yak as a virtual public sphere. I think I am particularly fascinated by Yik Yak because it is anonymous and location-sensitive. I guess at an institution as renown as Stanford, it has been an eye-opening experience to see how anonymity affects the best of us.

In general, I hate to admit that I believe Yik Yak is serving a cathartic role for the public, or at least not contributing anything new and good to the society. I will focus on three particular features that attribute to this: anonymity, Yakarma, and the 5 downvote process.

Anonymity, though it might provide comfort for users who are afraid of voicing opinions under a username, makes it difficult for users to be accountable for their words and content they publish. Now, instead of being able to flip a laptop screen down in order to avoid hateful comments, you can even avoid people attaching a name to your comment. There seem to be fewer and fewer consequences the user can be subject to because of anonymity, which leads to more extreme opinions. While these extreme opinions might voice a user’s true emotions and opinions, I wonder how much of it is for seeking attention and intent to simply create a reaction.

Similarly, I think the presence of having Yakarma further provides incentive for users to be more sensationalistic or memorable. While that might come in the form of a hilarious comment about the tearing down of Meyer, I think it stymies the potential of Yik Yak, as an anonymous platform, to create a room for discussions and conversations. However, that also bleeds into the original layout of the app: with only limited characters per text, I also think it’s too difficult to have these conversations on this particular platform. Perhaps simply because of the layout of the app, short and spunky “zingers” are the content that are most suitable for this platform.

Finally, the 5-vote process of elimination further blocks any potential of creating meaningful conversations as long as 5 people don’t give you the time of day. I am thinking through the examples of the #blacklivesmatter protests, Tour Guide rollouts, and FoHo articles and how group polarization can occur on Yik Yak: as more and more students agree on the same issue, the opinion of that particular issue grow increasingly opinionated. This inertia seems like an inevitable snowball effect, and as a user who has had some of her comments voted off, I sometimes feel at a loss of what I can do with Yik Yak to inform the greater community or to raise awareness.

Or perhaps I am taking all of this too seriously. Maybe Yik Yak isn’t supposed to help the greater good for the community, and it’s only supposed to provide quick and laughable anecdotes. Perhaps my hopes for this particular app is misguided, and I should be considering these issues for other platforms like Facebook or Reddit.