By Sunday, most every Penn State student knew about a threat to the school delivered via Yik Yak, an anonymous social media smartphone app that gives users a live feed of what people within 1.5 miles of them are posting. Yik Yak was released in 2013, but only became very popular in the beginning of this school year, particularly on college campuses.
The creators of the app had good intentions: “with Yik Yak we want to connect people in an open way based on location and experiences,” Droll, one of the creators, told the Today Show. The app clearly lays out certain guidelines regarding what is expected for users and the quality of content they should be posting. Certain posts, however, have contributed to the rampant growth of cyber bullying. Others have even posed threats that have required police involvements.
In fact, Yik Yak threats seem to be trending in recent news. Two California high schools were placed on lockdown after a bomb threat back in March. A University of Southern Mississippi student was arrested after making a threat against the campus over Yik Yak in late September. A male student at a New Jersey university posted a link to sex tape on Yik Yak without the permission of a female student just two weeks ago. An 18-year-old freshman at Towson University was arrested and charged for promising a “Virginia Tech Part 2” on October 4th through a post on the app.
Sure enough, the trend reached Penn State Sunday night. The post pictured below, taken down within minutes of being posted, reads, “I am going to kill everyone in penn state main on Monday. i got 5 beta mags of ar 15 and shoot everyone in the HUB at 12:00. this is a warning.”
According to Onward State, the arrest of 20-year-old off-campus student Jong Seong Shim followed just hours later. University Park Police worked with Yik Yak officials to confirm the mobile device used to post the note, as well as the location. According to a Penn State News report posted Monday night. Shim admitted to posting the threat, claiming that it was a “prank.” He faces charges on multiple accounts, including terroristic threats with intention to terrorize another, terroristic threats causing serious public inconvenience, and disorderly conduct with a hazardous physical offense.
The HUB, understandably, was rumored to be a ghost town Monday afternoon.
As I mentioned, Yik Yak threats are not unique to Penn State. Washington Post reports that in the past week alone, over a dozen high schools and universities have had high-profile incidents with the app.
How does Yik Yak appeal to users? It’s basically the new ask.fm (if anyone can think back to that 2009 middle-school trend). Yik Yak has one main attraction: total anonymity. Virtually no personal information is required upon signing up. Furthermore, the app shows users when other people around them are experiencing similar things. It’s used as an emotional outlet in that sense. Look at the screen shot I’ve posted below of my feed at this very second. Whether you’re currently concerned with this afternoon’s exceptionally crappy weather, the Ebola outbreak, or the reoccurring disappearance of chicken fries, someone is right there with you.
The problem of course arises when people post hurtful slanders (especially personally directed ones) and the types of threats like the one at Penn State. People abuse the power of anonymity and use it for evil, rather than its entertaining intent.
Surely, Yik Yak will meet its death sooner or later, but will it be by school/government banning, or by settling into its place in the social-media’s-past graveyard, right between MySpace and Google+?
If Yik Yak is outlawed, people are going to continue doing stupid things, pulling these stupid “pranks,” per say, somewhere else. Fortunately, none of the threats were followed through with (in other words, they might very well have been bluffs), and sources were able to be easily identified in each case. Maybe the key to preventing this issue is spreading awareness that a Yik Yak post is not truly anonymous. This way, potential offenders might reconsider before pulling such an insensitive “prank.”