New app spurring conversations on college campuses

New London When a fire alarm went off on the Connecticut College campus in the early hours one morning last month, groggy students were begrudgingly forced from their dorms, into the night and onto their phones.

Many took to the anonymous message board app called Yik Yak, where they exchanged tired and witty frustrations in 200 characters or less.

"College communities have essentially made Yik Yak their local college radio," said Brooks Buffington, one of the founders of the app, which he and co-founder Tyler Droll started last year as a way for college students to anonymously share messages with others at their school.

The app has gained national popularity on college campuses and, like other anonymous social media platforms, has been met with some instances of misuse. Although Yik Yak conversations in the New London area around Connecticut College, the Coast Guard Academy and other colleges have generally been positive, university administrators are aware of the potential for cyber bullying.

Outside of college campuses, high school students are using the app. Yik Yak founders have listed it as suitable for ages 17 and older and have included in the terms and conditions that it should not be used by anyone younger than college age. Locally, the app is blocked in some high schools, including East Lyme and The Williams School, but these barriers don't stop students from using it outside of school. In high school communities, comments may insult other students, teachers and rival schools in ways that show the dark side of anonymity in social media.

Connecticut College freshman Emma Gawronski has seen the difference in how Yik Yak is used by high school and college students. Gawronski first adopted the app last year as a senior at Cheshire Academy but found the comments more mean than funny.

"There's definitely a difference. At my high school, they would talk about specific people, so it actually got shut down and everyone got in trouble," said Gawronski. "I think there's much less room for it to be used in a bad way (here) because college is much bigger than high school. In college it's not mean like that. It's much more general and very entertaining."

Among the reasons for the kind of misuse seen in high schools may be the lack of maturity of the students, and the different mindset with which they approach social media, said Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, assistant professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, who studies social media use.

"I think it's just kind of the age difference between teens and college students," said Oeldorf-Hirsch. She said the way 14-year-olds speak to each other will be different than a conversation among a group of 20-year-olds. "In high school … you need more of a place to escape. Teenagers generally feel angst to get out, need to escape. In college, you've already escaped. You've already left home and you're a little bit freer."

Compared to a college or university, the size of a high school community may be relatively small. Droll and Buffington say that weakens the self-policing functions designed for users to monitor the content.

"One option would be to hire hundreds of monitors (to police comments). The other option would be to put it in the users' hands," said Droll.

Self-policing works through the system of downvotes, allowing users to determine what is inappropriate and remove it from view. If a "yak," or comment, is given more than five downvotes, it is removed from the feed of messages and is no longer visible.

Users may also report yaks they find inappropriate to the attention of the small group of Yik Yak conversation monitors.

"One of the strengths is how quickly inappropriate content can get removed," said Droll. "It has worked just like we intended it. As the communities get bigger, they get better. The app gets better as it grows."

Along with the system of upvotes and downvotes, another feature allows only the most recent 100 posts in a geographic area to appear. A large community of users will generate a high volume and frequency of incoming posts, meaning old and possibly harmful comments are pushed out as newer comments take their place. That volume and frequency - along with a user's maturity to identify and remove inappropriate comments - may be lacking in a high school community.

"My entire high school consisted of 300 students," said Gawronski. "It was very small and everyone knew each other very well. Even though Conn (College) is small, it's way bigger than what I was used to."

While bullying comments do come up in Yik Yak feeds on college campuses, local colleges say that their close-knit community of students set standards.

"It's disappointing when you see posts that don't reflect the core values of the institution, and some students have raised concerns about it," said Connecticut College spokeswoman Deborah MacDonnell. "With anything posted anonymously, there are risks. We have an honor code, so there is an expectation here about how people treat each other."

The Coast Guard Academy has taken the same approach.

"We have addressed some issues with Yik Yak here and there," said Public Affairs Officer Lt. Megan Mervar in an email, "but the accountability for its use within the cadet corps has actually come from the cadets themselves. They've used the cadet chain of command as the leadership to reiterate among their peers the standard for respect and professionalism we are all held to as members of the military."

So far, users on both campuses have seen the conversation on Yik Yak serving more to unite their college communities than detract from it.

"A lot of (the conversation) has to do with relationships on campus, or the food or just random, funny things," said Gawronski. "The ones that get the top upvotes are very witty and relatable."

Conn College students joke about the skunk problem on campus, Coast Guard cadets speak in lingo sometimes unintelligible to the civilian population, and students between the two schools interact more than they might have before the app opened the conversation.

The anonymity can provide a place to discuss issues without accountability or embarrassment. Students from both campuses have voiced frustrations over workloads, concern with grades or just come in search of connection and conversation.

"Profiles are non-existent for that reason. It doesn't matter if you're the most popular kid or the shy kid," said Buffington,

"With any anonymous app there are positives and negatives," said MacDonnell. "Any of those kinds of apps where people feel like they can say something they might not be comfortable saying with their name attached to it, they can get help. Students here are really good about referring people to resources that are available."

j.hopper@theday.com

Twitter: @JessHoppa

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