YikYak And The Media Landscape, Whatever That Means, And Only One Sentence About Transhumanism

It’s about 9am, Wednesday, September 17th 2014, and I just downloaded Yik Yak. If you haven’t heard, Yik Yak currently leads the running on controversial post-aught’s social media schemes, and has been winding its way through op-ed pieces and impassioned technophobe tirades all across the internet.

The app was invented by two recent college-grads from Furman University, SC: Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. Their pitch and premise were simple: let’s build a fast, free, completely anonymous chat forum, like “a city’s central plaza or campus bulletin board”, says Droll. The ‘campus’ analogy ended up being a fairly prescient assumption, as Yik Yak has become most infamous for facilitating cyberbullying on certain college and high-school campuses across the nation. A high school in Boston reported widespread instances of bullying through Yik Yak. Schools in Chicago, Connecticut, and California have made similar claims. At some point or another all social media since Friendster has abetted, if not inadvertently encouraged, bullying and slander. It’s the nature of any impersonal medium; people are simply more likely to be cruel if given a certain degree of anonymity. But Yik Yak is interesting because the anonymity here is absolute, and just such absolutism becomes instrumental to the product’s rising popularity. Anyone can simply download and immediately begin using the app without being required to make an account, log in through another social media site, or offer up any information about their identity other than the implicit acknowledgement of their geographic location through the phone’s GPS (or whatever technobabble nonsense actually happens inside our little microchips). Now, more than anything else about the whole Yik Yak controversy, this evolved state of facelessness confused the ever-loving shit out of me.

You see, I always understood the prominence of bullying on social media. Because yes, every expert will (rightfully) state that these websites and apps streamline the rather tricky process of emotional sadism. By separating victim from perpetrator by way of a computer monitor and several million feet of fiber-optics, social networks create a subjective draw-distance between the attacker and their target. The asshole-in-question can choose relative proximity to the victim with a quick set of mental gymnastics, thereby deciding the proverbial ‘rules of engagement’ for the assault. Meaning, the target is only as far away as the attacker intends them to be, allowing this little shit typing mean things on the internet to front passive-aggression and play the pronoun game in order to coyly ‘disguise’ his/her attack i.e. “CERTAIN PEOPLE need to stop acting like little bitches when they don’t get their way,” or otherwise lay all their anger on the table in a gloriously poignant display of surgical-strike derision, i.e. “Ur a fucken faggot.” Keyboards and wi-fi allow for up-front maliciousness or subtle slandering in equal measure.

But no matter which route the hypothetical troglodyte here decides to take, the question of anonymity is far less pertinent than the question of impersonality. Or detachment via desensitization, whatever. There is no anonymity on Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or even 4chan (sorry kids, you’re not as hardcore as you think). Bullies love that. Bullies love being able to take credit for their attack, to see recorded proof of their efforts, and every single thumbnail profile picture popping up next to their respective cruel comments on somebody’s status, or sarcastic remark on Twitter, or passive aggressive hate-speech crammed into an Instagram caption or whatever-it-might-be gives them a little sense of vindication. We’ve been taught from childhood to perceive bullies as insecure, and there’s nothing more attractive to insecurity than positive recognition from the galvanized mob, all saying, “Yeah man you’re right, that kid is a fucken faggot! Let’s get him!”

But Yik Yak isn’t like that. Bullies are not rewarded with mob-approval via public display of their cruelty. Sure, it’s easier for them to hide, and that’s undoubtedly what makes Yik Yak so dangerous, but quite frankly, I’m surprised it has become this popular of a platform. I always thought that the lack of tangible consequence afforded to cyberbullies was far more attractive than the relative ignominity provided by online interaction, if only because social media, at least since the Dawn of Zuckerberg, has geared toward voyeurism; the exact opposite of anonymity. In other words, it was never about hiding from sight, but hiding from consequence. However, Yik Yak poses an interesting sociological question: do these sadists on the internet, often just dismissed as attention-grabbing little fucks missing a few hugs from Mommy, actually represent something far more sinister? Are cyberbullies more dangerous than we have been led to believe? What if it’s not the attention afforded to a cyberbully that spawns so much cruelty on these social platforms, as I and many others have previously supposed?

I mean, there is no way of knowing who posted any particular insulting comment on Yik Yak, and coincidingly, there is no way for the bully to even know if their victim saw the remark, was hurt by the jibe, or had any response whatsoever. No gratification and no accreditation for either side, in this case. And yet apparently we’re witnessing some kind of burgeoning epidemic with this new method of anonymous slander. What if people just get off on the sheer cruelty of it all? What if young people in high schools and on college campuses just love the vitriolic thrill of saying something truly hurtful and cruel and aiming that shit at a person, even if the intended target never reads their barb? Have we in fact raised a generation of true monsters?*

Yik Yak boots up at lightning speed, and without so much of a cutesy introductory prompt or pop-up matte bearing a minimalist ‘how-to-use’ description, I’m thrust into the Yak-Feed (I have no idea if that’s what it’s called or not, all I know is it works exactly like a Twitter feed and is represented by a little mountain-shaped icon in the upper-third menu bar, for some convoluted reason). Remember, there are no screen-names or handles or profile pictures or anything of the sort — just the ‘Yaks’ and the time passed since they were posted. Before I get to the contents of the feed, I check out the other icons available to me in the aforementioned menu-bar. There’s a pair of binoculars**, leading me to some more categories of ‘Yaks’ I can browse, including the Yak-Feeds from other college campuses. Any doubt that Droll and Buffington designed Yik Yak from the outset as a campus-based hashtag-fest just flew out the window. There’s another section displaying my current location. And lastly the obligatory ‘ellipsis’ icon leading me to the miscellaneous page, which options me to read more about the app, follow the app on twitter and Facebook, view ‘Top Yaks in My Area’, etc…

I’m three finger-flicks down into the bowels of the Yak-Feed and I already spot my first gem: “These fucking hoes.” I can see someone prefers the ‘pronoun-game’ school of thought. It seems most “Yak’ers” view this method as dogma, as I rarely encounter any proper nouns, Yaks only employ specifics when discussing a “basic thot”. I pop over to Google quickly to read up on these so-called “thots”, which seem to crop up all over the Yak-Feed. Urban Dictionary (ah, that last bastion of true etymological knowledge) tells me, “A thot is a hoe.” Great.

Of course, you have your classic reactionary misogyny: “Getting a girl at ncc (Nassau Community College, fucking Strong Island, am I right?) is like giving a dog a fucking bone”. No surprises there. You have your straightforward comedians: “I NEED A FAT ASS BLUNT”. Naturally, naturally. More empty misogyny reads, “Sweats on today so the thotties can see my anaconda.” Nice job on the topical pop culture reference there pal, good work.

I have to be honest though, I didn’t see anything resembling the cosmic horror described to me by all these reputable journalists lambasting Yik Yak online. I saw stupidity and immaturity, but no more so than I see on Twitter or even just hear spoken aloud about campus. I thought that maybe my immediate environment was just not as hostile as these hotbeds of bullying that apparently exist in MA prep schools and the like, so out of curiosity, I checked the “Top Yaks of All Time” section. Most of them just read like particularly funny tweets, or even like FML.com posts that I used to read back in the good ol’ days of 2009. And then I came across one Yak, one beautiful little zeitgeist that all at once assuaged all my fears about generational sadism while simultaneously opening up a whole new terrifying perspective on the millennial youth:

“When I send in a yik yak I feel like I’m sending in a tip to gossip girl”.

Now this particular Yak received 4552 “UpYaks”, which seems to be a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. And for good reason — it’s funny, it’s topical, it’s sarcastic and apathetic and pseudo-thoughtful and relatable and all the other components of humor the ❤0yearold demographic strives to uphold. But more importantly, the contextual success of this Yak illuminates a totally unprecedented feature of Yik Yak: self-reflexivity.

Television reached a sort of meta-permanence when it started making fun of itself through sitcoms and overly suggestive commercials.*** Film had been doing it for years prior: Sunset Boulevard stands as one of the earliest and most successful examples, but point to any movie about movies and you get the picture; All About Eve, The Day of the Locust, Synecdoche, etc… Theater did it as early as Shakespeare, at the coining of the phrase “breaking the fourth wall.” It’s a generally accepted fact that once a communication/entertainment medium acknowledges itself and all the tropes it has come to employ, said medium has reached a new level of self-fulfilling importance. To borrow a federal expression, it has become “too big to fail”.

Yik-Yak promises the impending arrival of this exo-mortal sea-change in networking dynamics, assuming it is not already upon us. Now the idea of online self-referential deprecation is not new. Twitter has been showcasing plenty of internet users committed to this “wink-at-the-camera” type of self-effacement, i.e. #hashtag. And some ungodly percentages of Facebook statuses concern the stupidity of other Facebook statuses. Instagram addicts revel in the internet-indulgence known as “the selfie”. There has been a trend these past few years of absolving any sin of vanity by means of pseudo-apologetic shamelessness vis. #sorrynotsorry and the like. If you point out how ridiculous and stupid your social media presence is, then you paradoxically entitle yourself to continuing those same blunders on the grounds that “Oh, I’m smart enough to see how silly this all is, so it’s okay.”

It’s all about that ironic use of memes and linking to the Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life video (if you haven’t seen it, don’t). The recent trend rolling through more avant garde internet communities has fronted an almost fastidious commitment to purposefully making bad content badly and in an absurd or funny or really pathetic sort of way. Transhumanism scares the shit out of nearly everyone, even those who won’t admit it, and a rather ubiquitous response to technocracy is mockery, even if the targets of said chicanery are the perpetrators of the problem themselves, and even if no one acknowledges the solution. It’s a completely normal response to maladjustment, and in some ways it’s a bit of healthy disassociation from the mutually exclusive online personas we all form as soon as we commit ourselves to virtual presence. If that mentality sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one step away from “I can quit anytime I want because I understand how this all works. I just choose not to, which makes me superior and exempt from guilt.” But Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and mostly Tumblr were not invented for the sole purpose of encouraging this concentric meta-posting. The nature of those platforms simply allowed individuals to exercise their right to this cyclical, addictive form of self-effacing excuse.

Conversely, Yik Yak appears to have been expressly commissioned to encourage this sort of mob-pandering by greatly exaggerating the anonymity of social networking. You are quite literally just text on a screen in Yik Yak (yes, you do have ‘stats’ pertaining to your replies and ‘UpYaks’ and the like, but visible only to you), devoid of any form of human emotion. Yik Yak eliminates those last vestigial traces of humanity from the social network, and as such, invites that sort of self-critical attitude which has erstwhile only been latently obtained by platforms, and only in niche environments.

Yik Yak, in a sense, is the postmodern. It is the reframing of modern values into a critical perspective, inviting any and all ‘in-crowd’ sympathizers to bask in the glow of internet superiority. Rather than balk at audience analysis or even populi manipulation of the infrastructure via snarky irony, Yik-Yak encourages deconstruction and “reader-response”, two fundamental aspects of postmodern thought.

Am I blowing smoke out of my ass with this? Of course. I’m sure neither Droll nor Buffington sat around their laptops during a 4am-design-session talking about fucking postmodernism. But just because the author didn’t think of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Yik Yak is all at once voyeurism and anonymity. I’m not saying it’s the future of social media. Yik Yak is a fucking fad if I’ve ever seen one, and it will never be anything but, but it’s absolutely a step in the direction of stagnation, where the ‘new frontier’ of social networking slowly dwindles toward a mere sliver of shoreline. And as we all hurtle faster and faster toward that jaded end of the ‘Facebook Boom’, we’ll see more and more Yik Yak’s rise and fall as trends often do, with each subsequent iteration more and more committed to sacrificing culpability for anonymity.

Ignore all the paranoid critiques from terror-hyped journalists desperately trying to find some sadistic epicenter of the internet. Such a place, where responsibility is null and vaulted cruelty stands as doctrine, might exist (I’m looking at you, /b/, you lonely little pathetic people), but it’s absolutely not Yik Yak. Certain microcosmia might use Yik Yak for shameful purposes, e.g. fucking high school, but treat these incidents as exceptions to the rule. Ultimately, it’s a harmless little app for stupid people spinning classroom ennui into rape-culture jokes, no more nefarious than anything that has come before.

Listen, flipping out over internet misogyny or generalized cyber-bullying evokes images of myopia, or at least missing the forest for the trees. Yik Yak is just another step in the wrong direction, or the right one, depending on one’s opinion of our collective virtual immigration. Anonymity loves company, and it’s the Internet: we can’t all be alone together, but we can at least be unknown together. Just a whole lot of sentences talking to each-other, all with nothing to say, aware of what social media has done/is doing, but perfectly content to do nothing.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying. And isn’t that the point?

*UPDATE (1/27/15): I wasn’t aiming to solve some sociological riddle with this, by the way. This rant was all just some bullshit I pulled during one of my well-chronicled stints through that torturous fluorescent prison known as “work”. It’s a miracle any of this was even coherent enough to salvage now, almost four months later.

**The use of binoculars here only affirms my earlier (and also later) point about voyeurism vs. self-reflection, and while I’m sure the programmers didn’t invest that much symbolic consideration into such a graphical decision, I also know the observational/scopophilic milieu here never feels overt, but rather integrated in this sinister sort of way. The word subliminal comes to mind for some reason.

***David Foster Wallace wrote an excellent essay, “E Unibus Pluram”, about this back in the 90’s that sort of vatically rationalizes the state of entertainment media not only then, but today. It’s radical (and radical, brah), influential, and just generally a really fun read if you enjoy checking wikipedia every three sentences to figure out who in the heck he’s referencing.