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Open secrets

Technology | Anonymous sharing apps have become the Wild West of social media

Issue: "What price conscience?," April 19, 2014

Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak are among a new wave of social media applications for sharing comments among friends or acquaintances. In this wave, nobody knows who’s doing the talking.

The apps are anonymous, allowing users to compose short messages—no names attached—others can read or reply to. You may wonder: What’s the fun in posting anonymously? Some find it lots of fun, and not always the good kind.

This year the creators of Yik Yak temporarily disabled the app’s use in Chicago after it inadvertently became a platform for high-school bullying. Yik Yak is intended for college students, who allegedly make up the majority of its roughly 200,000 users. But it doesn’t require email or password, and has no way of checking age. After downloading the free app, a user can post anonymous thoughts—or gossip, or threats—visible to other Yik Yak users within a five-mile radius.

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I downloaded Yik Yak to my iPhone to see what the fuss was about. Since there was apparently only one other user within five miles of my house in northwest Indiana, I scrolled through top posts (“yaks”) in the Chicago region, several of which referenced high schools. Many yaks contained vulgarities or sexual remarks. Although Yik Yak has a “zero tolerance policy on using people’s full names,” some did: “[Redacted name] is pregnant.” Another claimed so-and-so had an STD. Since everything is anonymous, of course, there’s no way to distinguish truth from a bad joke. You can vote yaks up or down, or report them as inappropriate. (I helpfully reported several.)

“When I send in a Yik Yak I feel like I’m sending in a tip to gossip girl. Xoxo,” wrote one user. “I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school,” wrote a second. A third broadcast an invitation to “smoke weed.” A fourth said her (or his) school had issued an emergency mobile phone ban: “Yak started at my high school and it got really bad. … Don’t tell people about this app.”

Beyond Chicago, anonymous Yik Yak users this year posted false bomb threats at two high schools in California and Massachusetts, prompting a lockdown and evacuation. In March, after high schools began banning Yik Yak, the makers of the app tried to stem criticism by disabling Yik Yak service, via GPS coordinates, at most high schools and middle schools across the country.

Removing names removes accountability, which, for too many, removes respectability. You’d hope the app’s target audience, college students, would behave better, but on an app page displaying “All-Time Greatest Yaks,” sex, drugs, and drunkenness are recurring topics. Maybe this anonymous social networking is a flawed idea.

Ready, aim, zap

John F. Williams/US Navy/AP

This summer the U.S. Navy will deploy a battle-ready laser weapon on a ship for the first time, a defense against guided missiles or enemy drones. The Laser Weapon System (LaWS), attached to the deck of the USS Ponce, will be able to blind imaging sensors on missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles, or heat them until they catch fire. The system, resembling a telescope, has successfully shot down several drones in tests since 2009. The Navy says it costs less than a dollar to fire. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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