When you work in a local newsroom, it sometimes feels like conspiracy theorists, gadflies and cranks have you on speed dial. The phone rings, and it’s impossible to know if the person on the other end wants to have a reasonable chat or, as was the case one December, to complain about an editorial by wishing the staff a “shitty Christmas.”
The oddest caller I remember, though, was a recent parolee who spent his days posting vitriolic comments on our website. He was upset that we had banned two of his online personas from our discussion boards, and he wanted to ask me – the web editor – some questions. How, he wondered, was he supposed to argue with other readers about global warming, gun laws and vegetarianism? Why were we letting other people maintain multiple profiles? And why hadn’t we allowed his third identity to post a particular photo?
My answers were short: Our rules specify one profile per reader, sir. We didn’t realize other users had multiple accounts, but thanks for letting us know. Yes, I understand you really like that photo, but it’s borderline pornographic. The phone call lasted close to an hour. The guy was nice enough, his voice reflecting none of the anger in his online posts, but this conversation tops my list of reasons why I hate the anonymity of the web.
That editing gig ended years ago, but I still think that, unless you’re working to overthrow a corrupt government, you should connect your real name to any opinions you share online. So I was pretty skeptical when I learned about Yik Yak last fall. Yik Yak is the latest in a growing field of anonymous social networks accessed through smartphones. Users – typically teens and 20-somethings – share short posts about homework, food, professional sports, sex, booze, popular culture, the weather, their bowel movements, their roommates and pretty much anything else that floats through their minds. These posts are visible to other users within a 10 mile radius. It sounded stupid but, after some of my journalism students wrote stories about Yik Yak, I was curious enough to download the app. To my surprise, I didn’t hate everything I saw.
I’ve never posted anything myself, but I do occasionally thumb through the conversations Yik Yak funnels into my iPhone. It’s an odd combination of digital anonymity and the intimacy of sharing physical space, similar to the CB radio my dad used to listen to on family road trips. Transient. Personal. Funny. Crass enough that my mom would dive for the mute button every few dozen miles.
Back in my newsroom days, when it was part of my job to monitor website comments, I would spend hours interacting online or on the phone with regulars like that parolee with three personas. It was headachy work. Each day brought hundreds of new comments, most of them filled with rage. Three editors were responsible for filtering out unsuitable posts, recording our efforts in a shared log. Personal or ad hominem attacks were marked “ad hom.” There was a good chance that a post about the presidential campaign of a young senator from Chicago would earn the tag “racist.” Some comments were so stupid that one of my coworkers developed the category “adds nothing.”
Scrolling through Yik Yak reminds me of this old system. There are plenty of posts that deserve to be marked “ad hom” or “adds nothing.” For some reason, though, Yik Yak feels different. It’s a community that, while rough around the edges, seems earnest, maybe even hopeful. That’s not to say that there aren’t real concerns around these kinds of anonymous social networks. They can be venues for racists, misogynistic trolls and cyberbullies and, because they’re popular among young people, they’re worrisome for dorm directors, teachers and guidance counselors.
But hate and stupidity aren’t the only things in this emerging digital space. It can be funny as hell, a window into the minds of tech-savvy Millennials. I’ve also seen something else amid the poop jokes and double entendres: hints at Yik Yak users’ capacity for compassion. This has been true wherever I’ve logged on. A student at the community college near my house posted about final exam stress and received dozens of encouraging replies. In Boston, someone asked for – and got – advice on which library to visit for an obscure book. In New York City, I saw this: “Fellow yakkers, I’m going through terrible heroin withdrawal please try and talk me out of going to score. I’m trying to stay clean.” In a matter of moments, someone had posted the number for a sobriety hotline.
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