Anonymous discussion apps are growing on some campuses—along with calls that they are leading to racist and toxic comments that harm students.
A student at Hillsdale College wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper there in November calling on her classmates to boycott an anonymous discussion app called Jodel, which she says is spreading sexism and hatred.
Meanwhile at Dartmouth College, an anonymous app designed for college students called Librex caused controversy during student-government elections in October, after users of the app posted comments about a candidate that some found racist.
The incidents appear similar to previous controversies around Yik Yak, an anonymous app founded by college students in 2014 that attracted more than $73 million in funding, and some lawsuits, before it shut down in 2017 because of a failed business model. Before that, JuicyCampus, an anonymous website with college-by-college forums, sparked a consumer-fraud investigation and complaints about hosting hateful and malicious comments before it shut down in 2009 for lack of revenue.
The broader social media environment is different now than even a few years ago, though, as the nation struggles with a national reckoning about the role of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, especially after the recent violent riot at the U.S. Capitol that some argue was incited by tweets from then-President Trump and his supporters. Proponents of anonymous apps say that in a world where saying the wrong thing on Twitter can lead to serious consequences, having a safe place for college students to test ideas is more important than ever.
For the latest entrants in the college-focused social media world, the biggest question boils down this: Can anonymous discussion apps possibly be implemented in a productive way on a campus?
Lessons from the Past
By now the situation at Yik Yak is old enough that you can read academic studies of how discussions on the anonymous app played out.
Martin Saveski, now a postdoc at Stanford University working on computational social science, co-wrote a paper back in 2016 called Traking the Yak: An Empirical Study of Yik Yak, which set out to see just how much hateful and abusive comments resided on the app.
“To my surprise, we didn’t find that much negative stuff,” he said in an interview with EdSurge. “But that’s not to say that that small amount of abusive content is to be ignored.”
“One of most important learning points from Yik Yak is that it’s not enough to have this community filtering. You have to have clear community standards and say what is tolerated and what’s not tolerated and how you will be punished if you don’t follow the community standards.”
About 95 percent of the posts the researchers found on Yik Yak were what he calls “mundane chatter,” like talking about traffic or drinking. Of the rest of the posts on the app, a small portion included racist and homophobic comments—as he put it: “all the negative stuff that you don’t want there that’s the stuff that you worry about.”
The final small percentage included confessionals and requests for advice on taboo subjects—in some cases by folks who said they were suicidal—that in some cases helped the user connect with resources in a helpful way. In that way, the veil of anonymity made Yik Yak a “safe space” in some cases, the researcher added.
Yik Yak was founded by Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll while they were students at Furman University in South Carolina, and they did make efforts to keep toxic and hateful comments off the app. Users could upvote or downvote any post, and those with a negative 5 score would get removed, while posts with many upvotes would be given more prominence. In that way, the community regulated the environment.
But Saveski said that such a system isn’t foolproof. In fact, if a large group of users want to see abusive content, the system could even fuel it: “If you think about a community where a majority of people are abusive and tend to demonstrate these negative behaviors, then abusive ones will be rewarded.”
The biggest flaw of Yik Yak was that it did not devote enough of its resources to moderation, Saveski argues.
“They were a small startup that was trying to survive, and they did not focus on trying to have the healthiest conversations on the app. Their goal was how to get as many people as possible to sign up for the app” to make investors happy, he added. “One of most important learning points from Yik Yak is that it’s not enough to have this community filtering. You have to have clear community standards and say what is tolerated and what’s not tolerated and how you will be punished if you don’t follow the community standards.”
Picking Up Where Yik Yak Left Off
One of the largest anonymous apps aimed at college students got its start even before Yik Yak died. It is called Jodel (pronounced like Yodel), and it was founded in 2014 by Alessio Borgmeyer, who thought of the idea while he was studying at a U.S. university as an exchange student from Germany.
The app is more popular in Europe, but it has caught on at several colleges in the U.S., including several military academies. Its leaders say that 57 percent of its users are college students, and that’s mainly who they market to.
Jodel’s head of community, Gustave Sauveroche, said that the app works much harder than Yik Yak did to help enforce its community guidelines. “Our motto is good vibes only,” he says. Officials for Jodel say that a third of the company’s resources are devoted to content moderation, and they’ve mobilized volunteers on the site to enforce the rules as well.
“We don’t want to build a platform that enables cyberbullying,” Sauveroche adds.
When asked about the complaints by the student at Hillsdale College, he said that no moderation system will catch everything, and that another student on the campus wrote an op-ed defending the app.
The problem goes deeper than simple rules, though, according to that student who wrote the article calling on people to “delete Jodel,” Hillsdale junior Reagan Gensiejewski.
“It’s not that I hate the thought of social media. I use social media more than probably most kids,” she told EdSurge in an interview this week. But she says the site ends up poisoning the campus culture at the college, a private conservative institution in Michigan. “We focus on western ideals, and finding the higher things in life,” she says. “Jodel is a way for students to stray away from that.”
She says that even though the app’s rules forbid talking about people by name, users get around that by using the initials of the people they insult or otherwise discuss, or simply describe them or what they were wearing that day. The result of the app’s popularity, she says, is that she has the feeling that “people are watching my every move, and everything I do is under a microscope on campus.”
The Hillsdale student who defended the app, sophomore Luciya Katcher, wrote that the anonymous nature lets students “post without worry of judgement.” She says it’s a place where people make lighthearted jabs at Hillsdale’s culture, to let off steam, and “others started an open dialogue about mental health, asking for advice before a first visit with a counselor and encouraging other students to take care of themselves during midterm season.”
While Jodel is still unknown on many campuses, a newer entry has recently been opening up on more campuses. The app is Librex, started in 2019 by two undergrads at Yale University, and first opening at other campuses in the Ivy League. Just like in the early days of Facebook, users have to have a university ID at a supported campus to use the app.
In October the app started at Rice University and has already sparked complaints by some students that students use slurs and offensive language on the platform. Ryan Schiller, one of its founders, told the Rice student newspaper that the site uses moderators and an in-app system for users to flag inappropriate posts. And he argues that the app fills a need in today’s polarized world where people can be reluctant to share their opinions.
“I realized that it’s really difficult for a lot of people to just ask a simple question on campus, [to] get people’s opinion, express their opinions, or just feel out what other people are thinking,” he told the campus paper. “And I wanted to create a space where people could really have those dialogues in a free way.”
That sounds remarkably similar to quotes by the founder of one of the earliest campus gossip sites, JuicyCampus, which was started in 2007 by Matt Ivester, then a recent graduate of Duke University.
When JuicyCampus shut down after infamy and a failed business model, Ivester had a change of heart, and disavowed his creation. In fact, he wrote a book about how to encourage digital citizenship and prevent cyberbullying. He even started a new app designed purely for positive messages like sending friends compliments, called Kindr.
Where is Ivester, a former king of campus gossip, now? His LinkedIn page says he’s a project manager for another social network wrestling with how to moderate content: Facebook.