Sex, Poop and Social Media

Last September, faculty members at Colgate University tried to strike back against racial posts and bathroom wall chatter posted on Yik Yak with a campaign of positive messaging. "Yik Yak Take Back" had the best intentions, but as one might expect, no long-term results. As Colgate biology professor Geoff Holm pointed out, "The posts are mainly focused on sex and poop again."

Holm's statement in many ways makes the perfect Eeyore tagline for Yik Yak marketing: "Sex and poop again." Apparently these biological practices are still taboo subjects to talk about maturely in public, but an open canvas for crude thoughts and fart jokes when anonymously shared.

If that's all Yik Yak was, the Hooters of online social media, it would merely be a trivial, inane distraction. But Yik Yak is much more, which is what makes it so dangerous and hurtful to innocent people. As numerous reports have shown, Yik Yak has become a vehicle for hatred, a forum for cyberbullying, and a venue for harassment.

Let me make one point clear here. I do not believe that this was ever the intent of Yik Yak's founders. Unfortunately though, here we are. By handing the reins of social media to an avid audience and protecting them in a bubble of anonymity, sites such as Yik Yak have managed to bring out the worst in people.

Look at what happened to former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao. She got harassed and bullied to the point of resigning her position. That's a type of community and forum we can all do without, regardless of pro-or-con opinions of Ms. Pao. Free speech is something I advocate for strongly - yet let's add some common sense and critical thinking to the mix - or at least have the integrity to identify ourselves with our positions. According to a Pew Research report released last October, 40 percent of online users have had to endure some form of bullying or harassment. Even worse, in the online equivalent to the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, more than 70 percent have observed the harassment of someone else.

Where did we go wrong? Is it just human nature to attack others from the safety of our own homes or veil of anonymity? I think not. The issue lies with the messenger more so than the message. Sites such as Yik Yak rely on a misguided forum that encourages broken chain privacy. On truly private sites, people can communicate and share in a chain of two-way or controlled privacy where we identify and know each other. On Yik Yak, that privacy only goes in one direction, from the messenger out to the entire world. Yik Yak leaders take a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" attitude as they hand the keys to the kingdom to an unknown audience. That's a tough sell, if you have a conscience. Worse yet, it's a soulless business model if ever there was one.

Despite all the controversy and backlash Yik Yak faces, it continues to forge ahead with outlets for abuse. The company just announced that users can post pictures, asking only for ones your mother would approve. The company claims they'll moderate the photos before posting them in feeds. Furthermore, they won't show faces. Based on the company's track record, where do you think this is headed?

This is real finger in the leaking dam thinking. The company has failed to control the written content, so what makes it think it can control the visual one? Anonymous people with photo capabilities on a college campus? That's more or less like skipping through a mine field.

You would think losing control over your app would motivate Yik Yak leaders to find ways to better control their app's environment, not give it more freedom. But that would be taking responsibility, which I call out Yik Yak for ignoring.

I run a social media site myself: MeWe. I believe there are many positive ways to run such businesses: with private communication, rich organizational tools, easy outlets for sharing. Most important I believe in privacy but not in the way Yik Yak does. The privacy I support is being able to be yourself online without the website company, strangers or governments snooping in. Yik Yak supports the ability to be anyone but yourself online, which is a warped form of privacy that I frankly don't understand. Social media and privacy are allies, but not exclusively with themselves. You have to throw in responsibility and accountability as well, which these anonymous messaging sites never considered.

Yes, many of the Yik Yaks of the world will continue to exist in the near future, but in time only as the seedy side of the Internet, the lawless part of town where law-abiding citizens with conscience choose not to frequent. That's not to say we can't find a way to clean up these online slums, but no one seems to be in a rush to do so. Social media is driving our digital data economy, but it is best to be done with careful design and planning from the get-go. Those types of innovations are the ones that forward society and the ones we should all support. I love my privacy, but YikYak's lofty intentions of democratizing our voices under the shield of anonymity are regrettably hollow.