By Asa Kowals-Rose
Certain corners of the Internet are well-known to be cesspools of vulgarity and intolerance of every kind. Often, it seems that the root of this nastiness is one’s ability to hide behind a username. This online anonymity can embolden mean-spirited individuals, giving them the courage to type every slur in the English language into a comment thread and press enter. Until recently, I was convinced that this was the only side of online anonymity. I changed my mind when I downloaded Yik Yak. Yik Yak, for those who aren’t familiar, is an anonymous, localized version of Twitter. With it, users can share brief musings and questions with others in their immediate vicinity. The app is popular among college students, many of whom use it as a sort of bulletin board for campus happenings. When I first heard about this, I was skeptical of such a premise; college students sharing their thoughts with other college students, unhindered by fear of judgment, seemed like a recipe for the worst kind of online discourse. I soon discovered that this was not necessarily the case. Because Yik Yak is localized, the app’s content reflects the character of specific communities. For this reason, many middle and high schools have banned the app on their networks; fourteen-year-olds tend to imbue online forums with immaturity befitting fourteen-year-olds. On the other hand, a campus of conscientious and respectful students—a designation I would apply The Evergreen State College—can actually utilize Yik Yak’s anonymity to create a constructive online forum. For one, anonymity helps dispel fears of personal judgment that come with entering a public discussion. Today’s youth have higher rates of social anxiety than ever before, and this can hinder their online interactions as much as their in-person ones. In an anonymous forum, one’s words can be the target of derision, but the lack of a known identity can prevent such criticism from becoming personal. This insulation from judgment makes it easier for someone who suffers from social anxiety to join a conversation they would otherwise fear joining. As it dispels fears of judgment, anonymity encourages candid discussion within an online community. Looking at Evergreen’s Yik Yak thread, one can get an unfiltered representation of students’ thoughts. Sex and drugs are common topics on Evergreen’s thread, just as one would expect from a college forum. While this might not seem particularly constructive, anonymity does create a space for students to discuss these issues freely, and without fear of personal consequences. The most powerful benefit of online anonymity, in my opinion, is its potential for creating emotional solidarity. Scattered between students’ humorous and indecent posts are some rather saddening ones. Users often post to Evergreen’s Yik Yak thread to find support in coping with depression, , and other personal issues. Without anonymity, it’s unlikely that students would be so frank in discussing their struggles. These personal posts are almost always met with an outpouring of support from other students. Some simply share words of encouragement, while others even engage in lengthy conversations with the user in need. By doing this, Evergreen students have been able to make an anonymous online platform a tool of emotional support, not the bastion of hostility it could so easily be. It’s true that anonymity can enable malice on the Internet, but, as Evergreen’s Yik Yak thread shows, it’s not necessarily a source of nastiness. We should all strive to make the Internet a more hospitable place, and I believe anonymity can play a role in this pursuit.