Against the Anonymous Internet

I do not like this Yak.

I do not like this guy.

When I joined Facebook in fall 2004 (“back in my day, when it was just at some colleges…”), one of the things that seemed most revolutionary about the site was that people were using their real names. To that point, the main online identity I’d had was the AOL Instant Messenger screen name I chose in the seventh grade. That was back when they taught us that using your real name online was dangerous (which, actually, hasn’t changed for kids), so I created a screen name that combined my favorite John Lennon song with the name of the first part I’d had in a play. Being “Tricia Monticello” online for the first time felt different, and it felt exciting to have the digits tick upward as more and more of my real-life friends became my Facebook Friends too. My numbers would never be as high as the people I knew in Student Government, whose profiles were always flirting with the site’s hard cap on 5000 friends. That seemed okay at the time, though. Why on earth would you want to connect with more than 5000 people on Facebook?

In the last ten years, almost everything about using the internet has changed, and Facebook has definitely changed with it. Groups changed (I was proud of the “I Am Spartacus” group I was in in college; all the members were officers, all our titles were “Spartacus”), everyone could join, and brands got their own pages. As Facebook’s algorithm changed, more powerful people and more popular brands got more screen real estate on the site, and social media suddenly felt a whole lot less democratic and a whole lot more like a pay-to-play ad space.

That’s my impression of the environment that Yik Yak‘s creators set out to “disrupt,” to use another overused tech term. By letting users post anonymously, Yik Yak takes away the connection between your name and the things you say. “Share your thoughts and keep your privacy” is one way Yik Yak promotes its product, and their take is that it’s a good thing. The most popular or prominent people don’t get a bigger voice or a larger platform. Everyone has a say, and everyone has an equal voice.

As compelling as that idea may sound to some people, it strikes me as pretty short-sighted. After all, one of the worst places on the internet is one of the main places you can post anonymously: YouTube comments. The hateful things people say in YouTube comments have never failed to astonish, disgust, and upset me. There’s a level of hatred, anger, and vitriol in the comments that I can’t imagine most people saying out loud to another human, but somehow lots and lots of people are comfortable typing such horrible things into a computer when there’s no chance of being confronted or caught. Sure, there are moments of moving self-disclosure and connection out there in the comments too (see this excellent TL;DR episode from the guys behind Reply All for a great example), but mostly it’s the worst place in the entire digital world, as far as I’m concerned.

Yik Yak has turned out to be one of the worst places in the digital world too, but for a slightly different reason. On college campuses, it’s become a tool of choice for cyberbullying. Most alarmingly, sites like Yik Yak and ask.fm (and other sites out there) have become increasingly prevalent and damaging on high school and middle school campuses, and in spite of schools’ best efforts, it’s still been tough to fight back.

So I was thrilled yesterday when The New York Times published a long feature article on the subject over the weekend. Read it to get more detailed info, and to see a photo of the improbably named (and improbably youthful) founders of Yik Yak. The other photo I’d seen of these guys was this one, and I’m convinced that they’re aging backwards.

My take on the whole thing is that these companies and the people behind them are not bad people, and they don’t have bad ideas; it’s not a bad idea to take social media back from brands and celebrities. But there’s got to be a better way to do it. Yik Yak and ask.fm didn’t invent the bad behavior; they’re just one more forum where hateful, hurtful, prejudiced, and threatening words can find a voice without consequence.

What has to change is the culture where it’s ever okay to say things like this. It’s a hard thing to address in American culture writ large — the ongoing civil rights struggles in our country speak to that — but it’s something we can endeavor to address in schools. I’m giving a talk in April about social emotional learning, and I want to talk about this issue then, and I know I want to talk about these sites. I don’t have the last word on this subject by any means, and I don’t know exactly what I’ll advise parents on yet, but I’ll definitely advise parents to talk to their child’s teacher and their school’s administrators about sites like these. If administrators don’t know about the sites, parents can refer them to articles like the one in the Times. If they say “we’re taking care of it, everything’s fine,” parents should probably still refer them to some articles online, because it’s helpful to see the range of schools who are working to combat these problems. If the administrator sighs, shakes her head, and says something along the lines of, “We’re working on it, and here’s how,” that’s the most encouraging response of all. That means your child’s school gets it: it means they know the severity and threat of sites like these, and  they know that no one approach will be an easy fix to make it go away. To me, the best weapon against negative anonymous posts is a school culture that abhors that behavior and makes it clear that it has no place on campus. It’s not enough to block a website on campus; instead, schools have to shift the culture and make it clear that hatred has no place in their community, online or otherwise.

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