Yik Yak is a suddenly surging social media app that is running viral on college campuses. The app allows users to post anonymous messages (“yaks”) that only appear to users within a 1.5-mile radius. The New York Times called it “ a virtual community bulletin board—or maybe a virtual bathroom wall at the student union.”
Yik Yak is unethical.
Yik Yak was created in late 2013 by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, fraternity brothers (and based on their names, escapees from a Dickens novel) who came up with the idea after seeing that there were only a handful of popular Twitter accounts at Furman College, where they were frat brothers, almost all belonging to campus big shots and athletes. With Yik Yak, they say, they hoped to create a more “democratic social media network” where users didn’t need a large number of followers or friends to have one’s thoughts read widely.
There’s a lot of debate right now about Yik Yak. Some high schools have banned it; colleges are tempted to, after episodes of cyper-sniping of women and professors. The app is defended as free speech— fine: I’ll let Professor Volokh tackle that one. Lots of free speech is unethical. The app facilitates harassing, sexist, racist, homophobic, obscene, vulgar and other cruel uses of words. True, they are just words. It has also been used to organize or to threaten riots and illegal activity, and make bomb threats. Still, as the New Republic points out, most messages are harmless, even pathetic. Writes David Sessions:
“A majority of “yaks”—I’d say around 70 percent—are some variation on “I’m alone in my dorm and wish I had someone to talk to and possibly touch.” Yakkers express their anxieties about being away from home, finding a social group, navigating romantic and sexual relationships, and whether they should quit their athletic teams to focus on grades. Commenters respond by giving advice, encouragement, or—most frequently—volunteering to remedy the original poster’s loneliness or lust.”
The ethics question, then, is whether Yik Yak is an ethically neutral app that can be abused, or an inherently unethical app that can be used ethically.
It is the latter, and the reason is accountability. Human beings should be accountable for everything they say or do. This enforces ethical principles and good behavior, and discourages irresponsible and mean-spirited conduct. The absence of accountability creates chaos, and the condition attracts cowards, vandals, con artists, sociopaths, liars and boors like chum draws sharks. It’s a simple principle: if you aren’t willing to stand behind your words, shut up. Yik Yak encouraged the reverse.
“Share your thoughts with people around you while keeping your privacy,” Yik Yak’s home page says. That’s clever: the issue isn’t privacy, it’s accountability. “Rob banks while keeping your privacy” means rob banks and get away with it. Yik Yak isn’t about privacy, it’s about anonymity, and what that lets you say without consequences.
Yik Yak has been compared to JuicyCampus, a previous winner of one of my Unethical Website awards. It was an anonymous online college message board that also generated a lot of free speech abuse. JuicyCampus’s founder, Matt Ivester, ended the two-year experiment in 2009 because he wanted no part of the cruelty his creation was facilitating. He told the New York Times that the founders of Yik Yak are fooling themselves. “You can pretend that it is serving an important role on college campuses, but you can’t pretend that it’s not upsetting a lot of people and doing a lot of damage,” he said. “When I started JuicyCampus, cyberbullying wasn’t even a word in our vernacular. But these guys should know better.”
Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t care: they’ve made millions out of it already.
Their creation fails the ethics test because there is no good that comes out of it that can’t be found elsewhere, and it facilitates wrongful and antisocial conduct that would be much more difficult without it. Accountability is a core ethical value. Removing it from any system is unethical, except in rare and special circumstances.
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