Opening Pandora’s box: YikYak in Higher Education

Professor Simon Lancaster (Communications Officer, Committee of the Association of National Teaching Fellows)

Simon Lancaster NTF


Pandora’s box was a jar in Greek mythology said to contain all the evils in the world. YikYak is an anonymous messaging map in which Yaks (200 characters of text, possibly accompanied by a photograph) are shared to all users within a limited geographical area.

What distinguishes YikYak from social media, like Twitter, is the anonymity: users are identified by simple and varying icons. A very recent experiment by the platform, introducing optional ‘handles’, has received a luke-warm reception. However, the gamification aspect (you receive points for posting Yaks and for up- and down-voting Yaks) means that Yakkers take considerable pride in their Yakarma (accumulated score). Users will exercise creativity and initiative in formulating Yaks. They will also gratuitously plagiarise earlier Yaks or witty epithets from other social media sites. One might suggest a formative role in creative writing. While the zeal with which users call out plagiarism is impressive.

YikYak swept US college campuses about 18–24 months ago amid a storm of controversy. Under the veil of anonymity (but one easily raised by authority if a crime, such as incitement was committed) students wrote appalling and unacceptable remarks about academics and their peers. YikYak has been at the centre of similar incidences at UK Universities. Some colleges tried to act to ban the app but YikYak’s policy is only to voluntarily restrict its use around schools to protect the immature and particularly vulnerable. Its principle user-group is the undergraduate student demographic. It is somewhat difficult to gauge the active population but it is not unusual for an individual Yak to receive hundreds of unique upvotes within a few hours indicating a much larger community. To limit the size of the feed, the longevity of a Yak is inversely proportional to the total activity in a given area. On a typical university campus they will normally be visible for less than 12 hours.

At 11 am one Saturday morning I yakked the message in the figure. It lasted 34 minutes before receiving the net total of 5 downvotes from the YikYak community and was automatically removed from the record. YikYak has an inbuilt self-policing feature: unpopular (racist, misogynist or simply naff) are normally removed within a few minutes. Even overly inquisitive Yaks from someone who does not belong! Of course, the screenshot facility provides a means to capture these ephemeral yaks.

Yik Yak Screen Grab


Focusing on the potential for abuse of YikYak ignores the benefits. The student community tend to be hugely supportive of one another. YikYak is a unique source of 24 h a day advice. It is also now a key part of the blended student experience and, both an indicator of, and a contributor to, student satisfaction.

None of these benefits offset a single incidence of unacceptable behaviour on YikYak. However, we should not be blaming the messenger. Bias cannot be confronted until it is first recognised and exposed. The local community does an excellent job of policing itself but it would be naive for all not to recognise that University’s own social media monitoring teams are on there too.

My interest in YikYak stems not from nostalgia for the bygone era of studenthood but from the potential for instantaneous and unfiltered feedback. We ask our students to fill in countless surveys, our training courses encourage mid-module evaluation, but do we really want to know what our students think, immediately and constantly? If you are in any doubt, the answer is a definite no! In my presentation at the 2016 ANTF symposium I will explore this aspect and present some fascinating examples.

YikYak is not Pandora’s box. Or rather it is Pandora’s box but it is so much more than that. Anonymous social media is here to stay. Eventually YikYak will be replaced by something else. If we try to ban it, we would just hasten the transition and make ourselves very unpopular. At the same time, we cannot ignore or condone offensive behaviour. This is an issue of digital literacy. Nothing is truly anonymous and while the illusion of anonymity might provide additional freedom of expression it is only a veneer. We all need to take responsibility for our actions whether we believe we commit them anonymously or not. It would take a brave, even reckless, agency to integrate YikYak into their routine student support. However, it would be a mistake to ignore its existence and not to acknowledge its role in the student experience.

The 2016 ANTF symposium starts next week on the 21st March. #antf16