Changing the Way We Yak

By Middlebury Campus

Editor’s Note: The following text contains vulgarity.

It seems innocuous. An app where you can post something witty, watch it get up-voted and monitor your karma score changing as people respond. But this seemingly harmless “fun” often comes at the expense of members of our community.  

When Jordan Seman ’16 submitted her op-ed about her experience being targeted on Yik Yak, found on page seven, it hit close to home for many of us on the Editorial Board. As a news organization, we grapple with anonymity constantly between our policies on anonymous op-eds and sources and the steady stream of sometimes hurtful and often unproductive anonymous comments posted on our website. We also grapple with issues of censorship, and, in our staunch shared belief in freedom of speech, we are hesitant to endorse any policies that threaten it. But Jordan sent us a powerful reminder that there are real people behind the screen in these situations, and that anonymity can devastate individuals and communities.

Jordan is not alone. There are many students on this campus who have been victims of anonymous personal attacks or of attacks on the groups with which they identify. For example, one of the most popular threads on Middlebury Confessional at the time of writing this editorial is “Bitchiest Bitches On Campus,” on which students are actively naming people and discussing who among them is “the bitchiest.” Just a few weeks ago we ran a piece entitled “What Middlebury Should Never Forget,” reminding students of the sexually explicit, threatening and homophobic note that was left on a student’s door last fall. And last spring, Dean Shirley Collado sent the student body an email in which she expressed concern over numerous examples of misogynistic behavior on Yik Yak and one particularly abominable instance of homophobia on another mobile app, Grindr, in which a posted message read, “None are safe, none are free,” and included a photograph of a lynching. 

These disturbing comments are not unique to the Middlebury community. A few weeks ago, Norwich University became the first college or university to ban Yik Yak, carrying high symbolic weight but little actual import. Though they blocked Yik Yak from their wireless network, students can still access it with a data plan, as many already do, making it nearly impossible to block this app. Oberlin faced the same dilemmas with Oberlin Confessional, the original Confessional site, which crashed in 2009 and was promptly replaced by ObieTalks, which was equally popular and equally nasty. These two case studies show that an outright ban of these forums do not solve the problem. Moreover, there are still myriad ways to anonymously engage outside of these forums — be it on our website, on Middbeat or even in person as seen with last fall’s note — meaning that banning these sites would be merely a bandaid on a larger problem.

Dean Collado echoed this sentiment in her email last spring, writing that “blocking these sites is not the ultimate answer for our larger community.” But just because we do not believe banning these sites will solve the problem does not mean we can sweep them under the rug. 

Particularly as mental wellness becomes a topic of conversation, in part due to brave honesty and openness found both in Jordan’s op-ed and in Hannah Quinn ’16’s widely read blog post about depression, we must think critically about the way our online actions affect this community. When posting, we must imagine the person sitting at their computer in the dorm room next to ours the same way we would if we were having a conversation in the hallway. Even when no face is attached, cyberbullying leaves lingering damage, though the veil of anonymity often makes that easy to forget.

The question then remains, how do we maintain a community where people feel safe and supported while also acknowledging that anonymous forums are inevitable in the digital age? The answers are not easy.

Both the Campus and Middbeat are moderated websites, and both Yik Yak and Middlebury Confessional offer tools to self-moderate, be it through downvoting or through reporting a comment. We must take responsibility for the hateful words that pervade our community and report these comments rather than scroll past after 10 seconds of outrage. It is up to each of us to make these digital spaces safe for all members of our community and to encourage online accountability — there is no one else who is going to do it. 

To clamp down on damaging online dialogue, we must provide resources and education to incoming students. In the same way that we promote sexual assault awareness and prevention, we should educate the community about the dangers of online harassment. Bystander intervention means looking out for each other, both online and off. Technological literacy extends beyond clicking “I agree” on the terms of use whenever we update our password. We must reintroduce the term cyberbullying into our vocabularies, because it is not an issue that magically disappears when we graduate from high school. 

Being attacked online has direct consequences that result in serious harm. We have all seen news stories of people who hurt themselves or others because of online harassment. We have had countless examples for hateful online comments on this campus — we should not have to wait for Middlebury to become the public face of this problem for us to take it seriously.