Yik Yak app sparks both connection and concern on W&L campus

Some students and faculty say the app breeds cyberbullying and discrimination


W&L users of Yik Yak make annonymous comments about university culture and students. But some say this annonymity allows for more cyberbully-ing and discriminatory content, since posters face no consequences for their words. Photo by Stephanie Chiguluri, ‘24.

Bri Hatch

Washington and Lee University students are using the app Yik Yak to capture and critique university culture. But some see the app as a serious risk to student mental health. 

Yik Yak allows users to anonymously post comments to all other members on the app within a five mile stretch, connecting both Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute students. 

Posts on the app can be “upvoted” to show approval, or “downvoted” to show dislike. The more upvoted comments you make, the higher your “yakarma” score gets. 

The app gained popularity on Washington and Lee’s campus quickly. One senior, who wished to remain anonymous, said she thinks this is because of its local focus. 

“There are a lot of inside jokes, which is really unique,” she said. “It provides a space for people to voice their everyday opinions about something that is happening on campus, and then it turns out a bunch of other people agree.” 

The app also allows students to keep up with current events and trends on campus.

“And honestly, people use it to find out about parties too,” one first-year student, who also wished to remain anonymous, said. 

The anonymous nature of Yik Yak is appealing because it makes popularity on posts universally attainable. 

“[Yik Yak] is a fun way to tell jokes and say funny stuff where it doesn’t matter who you are,” one senior said. “Since posts are anonymous, people can’t say ‘oh, it’s coming from that person, I don’t really care what they have to say.’”

But the university-specific focus and anonymity come with negative effects, some say. Anonymous posters can say anything without facing consequences. 

“It is no secret that W&L students love gossip and the size of our school lends itself well to rumors and gossiping,” one junior student, a peer counselor, said. “And the anonymity of Yik Yak is one of the most concerning parts but also what draws people to it.”

This peer counselor has already heard from multiple students who have been offended by comments made on Yik Yak, or are worried they will be called out by name on the app – which does happen. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the content is hilarious,” she said.  “However, I do think there is a line between humor and cyberbullying and some people on the app have crossed that line.” 

Some posts also include comments that are sexist, racist and homophobic, students said.

“It reminds me of the darker parts of W&L, which I really try to avoid, where a lot of the jokes I see are made at the expense of historically marginalized groups — things against the women here, people of color here and LGBTQ people,” one senior said.  “There’s also been a lot of fat-shaming on there, which can be so activating for people who have disordered eating of any sorts.”

One first-year student said that comments like these, and jokes about COVID-19, have made her see Washington and Lee differently. 

“The COVID comments I saw and also just some calling out of specific people and insults made me think ‘oh, I didn’t know we had that negative of a culture on campus,’” she said. 

Dr. Kirk Luder, psychiatrist at the Washington and Lee University Counseling Center, said that this is the fourth time an anonymous app like Yik Yak has surfaced on campus. And every time, it has sparked this campus-wide divide. 

Luder said he is very concerned about the effects of Yik Yak on student mental health. He has already heard from many students who have concerns about the app, or have been negatively affected by it. 

“It really, in the cases that I’m seeing, has destroyed the basic ability to trust and the basic ability to feel like you belong here,” he said. 

But despite these concerns, there is not much the university administration can do to stop student activity on the app. 

“I think the administration is definitely discussing Yik Yak,” one senior said. “I honestly don’t think it’s fair for them to ban it. I don’t know if they have any justification to, and I don’t even know how they would ban it.”

Dean of Students Sidney Evans said she wishes students would express their concerns and opinions using the appropriate campus resources instead of social media. 

“That is a much more direct and productive way to address issues on our campus and in our community,” she said. 

Evans also hopes students will act on the app in the same way they would in face-to-face conversation. 

“I hope that we will all take seriously our responsibility to look out for one another,” she said. 

Most of the control of Yik Yak’s influence lies in the hands of the students. One senior said that the upvote and downvote feature, and the ability to report comments, serve as productive tools to remove unacceptable posts. 

“You’re not in an echo chamber, you’re with everyone on campus. So at least on there you get different inputs,” she said. 

Luder encourages students who feel isolated or hurt by comments on Yik Yak to come see someone at the counseling center while staying away from the app. 

He also says students should talk to Lauren Kozak if they see content involved with discrimination. 

But the biggest thing students can do to help other students is boycott Yik Yak, Luder said.

“I think we have to appeal to peoples’ sense of decency and honor and empathy,” he said.

Just imagine what it would feel like to be insulted anonymously with a campus-wide audience, Luder said. 

“After that, how can you ever feel like you belong?”