Yik Yak DMs: A new outlet for bullying and harassment

We are all vulnerable to Yik Yak’s newest update. Have you checked your inbox?


Lilah Kimble

Yik Yak is an “integral” part of student culture.

Jack Evans, Staff Writer

In early October, Yik Yak released an update with an anonymous, direct, private messaging feature. This feature allows users to make comments to content posters without the rest of the community seeing it. While this may seem to be an innocuous addition to the application, Yik Yak’s new component has opened Pandora’s Box and left its users vulnerable to harassment and bullying. 

What happens when you get separated from the herd?

There’s no app quite as alluring yet controversial as Yik Yak. Since its resurrection in August 2021, Yik Yak spread like wildfire on college campuses all over the country, Washington and Lee being no exception. The app provides a platform where people can say anything to other users within a five-mile radius in posts called “yaks” – similar to “tweets” on Twitter – all while having their identity concealed. 

The anonymity the app provides is simultaneously the source of its popularity and its opposition. Because students can say whatever they want without being identified, certain stigmas and anxieties are removed, allowing the free flow of thoughts. In the words of the official description of the platform: “Everyone is equal on Yik Yak.” However, because users are unbridled from real-world consequences, Yik Yak has become a dumping ground of hateful comments, racism, sexism, homophobia and more. 

In the face of cyberbullying, it is no wonder why Yik Yak can be so divisive. The vicious posts and comments that were frequently submitted to the platform are the very reason the app was initially shut down in 2017. But Yik Yak is meant to be a reflection of the communities it serves. This is why the app provides a democratic solution to unwanted posts with its own voting system. Yik Yak allows its users to “upvote” good content and “downvote” bad content. 

Good posts increase users’ “yakarma” scores. But when a post or comment’s current vote count reaches negative-five votes, that content is automatically removed. With this system, we are able to combat and mitigate the effects of negative content and reintegrate a form of societal pressure that prevents such content from being posted in the first place.

This brings us back to the issue of Yik Yak’s direct private messaging feature. Users can now directly communicate with content posters while only being identified by a randomized emoji against a colored background. These messages, colloquially known as DMs (direct messages), are not seen by, nor are under the purview of, the community. This means the voting system cannot be utilized, making communal self-policing impossible. 

Of course, many social media platforms allow for anonymous/pseudonymous direct messaging. But Yik Yak provides a particular danger as users are aware that any harmful comments they receive come from their campus community. Especially with a small university like Washington and Lee, bullies and harassers are likely to be people victims know. This could cause a (hopefully) false impression of general hostility from the campus and leave people unsure of who to trust or confide in. 

And there is little recourse for people who are subjugated to mean and/or abusive messages. While they can be blocked and/or reported, all it takes for a blocked user to resume their activities is to create a new Yik Yak account with a burner number. 

In fact, the only guaranteed way Yik Yak users can prevent DMs from perpetrators is to delete the app. But of course, users may be tempted to not delete Yik Yak. After all, the application has become integral to student culture at Washington and Lee. 

People love to brag about their Yakarma scores, obsess over upvotes, and even write articles about the app (like this one). It is more than understandable for users to be trepidatious to delete Yik Yak. 

Besides, is it really fair to be forced to leave your “herd” because of someone else’s transgressions? It most certainly is not.

So far, Washington and Lee has existed without any controversy regarding the new DM feature. There is a steady stream of new yaks every day with moderate engagement. 

However, it’s only been a month. And this very small community is as socially rigorous as it is academically rigorous. 

In other words, this university is a pressure cooker. One 2004 statistic (the latest one we have access to) from the university’s official website states that depression affects nearly 1 in 5 students on this campus. This demonstrates how vulnerable this campus really is. 

It will only take a few nefarious actors to have a deleterious effect on the campus community. How long can we prevent the inevitable, and how will we pick up the pieces when the inevitable comes?