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  • College Students’ Experiences With Anonymous Social Media: Implications for Campus Racial Climate
  • Amanda Armstrong (bio), Jaymi Thomas (bio), and Madeline Smith (bio)

Anonymous social media platforms, such as Whisper and Yik Yak, have elicited controversy within the field of education over the past few years. Through the use of such platforms, students can anonymously participate in cyberbullying (Patchin & Hinduja, 2012; Whittaker & Kowalski, 2015). In particular, Yik Yak, which was released at the end of 2013 (and subsequently shut down in April 2017), allowed yakkers (users of the application) to anonymously post and view yaks (posts by users) within a 1.5-mile radius. The platform had reached a valuation of $400+ million, was used on over 1,600 campuses, and has arguably influenced student suicides, suspensions, and threats of violence (Gismondi, 2015; Koenig, 2014; Shontell, 2015; Wagstaff, 2014).

The use of Yik Yak and similar applications as tools to convey discriminatory and insensitive remarks is a conversation that extends far beyond college campuses. For example, during the 2015 NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education annual conference, several attendees yakked what NASPA determined to be hateful posts, which ultimately resulted in the organization’s release of a statement denouncing the posts (Thomason, 2015). Most recently, Eaton and Gismondi (2016) invited student affairs and higher education (SA/HE) practitioners to consider the repercussions of anonymity in digital spaces and to question what can be learned from Yik Yak, including the ability to gauge real-time climate assessments on campus. This latter consideration draws attention not only to the positive and negative impacts of Yik Yak on students’ experiences and their perceptions of campus climate, but also to the roles of SA/HE practitioners in these spaces.


The purpose of this exploratory case study was to gather undergraduate students’ perceptions of anonymous racist messages found on Yik Yak and to better understand the implications of anonymous platforms on campus racial climate. Given the limited research surrounding students’ use of anonymous social media platforms, as well as the predominant use of quantitative methodologies in measuring aspects of campus climate (Hurtado, Griffin, Arellano, & Cueller, 2008; Rockenbach, Mayhew, & Bowman, 2015), we conducted a qualitative pilot case study with three participants to gather preliminary data on the following research questions: [End Page 1101]

  1. 1. How do students respond to and think about racist messages found on Yik Yak?

  2. 2. What role, if any, does anonymity play in students’ experiences with Yik Yak?


This study was informed by theories of campus racial climate (Bowman, 2010; Gurin et al., 2004; Hurtado et al., 2008; Rankin & Reason, 2005) and hidden discourse power (Fairclough, 1989). Additionally, we defined racist messages as those statements on Yik Yak that suggested slurs, stereotypes, microaggressions, innuendos, or derogatory statements towards a racial group or individual of a racial group (see Sue, 2010; Sue et al., 2007). Although we acknowledge our discernments of racist discourse in this study, it is important to note that we did not describe or define yaks as racist when speaking with participants. Racist remarks have been widely reported on Yik Yak (Ross, 2015), and such discourse has contributed to a campus’s racial climate (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). When considering anonymous discourse, Fairclough’s (1989) theory on hidden power provided critical notions relevant to anonymous platforms such as Yik Yak. Although this theory traditionally referred to discourse occurring outside of face-to-face conversations, such as those found in mass media (e.g., television, radio, film, and newspapers), we expanded this to include social media. Fairclough posited that hidden or disguised discourse holds power in that individuals can “constrain content” to favor certain interpretations (p. 52). Within Yik Yak, students have the “power to disguise power” and “to behave antisocially with impunity” (p. 52). Even though yakkers often engage in conversation with one another and, therefore, may adapt their language through responses, using an anonymous platform allows students to contribute to the campus racial climate without the potential repercussions faced through in-person conversations or online conversations that are not anonymous.


In 2014, students at a midsized public research university (MPRI) led local demonstrations in support of the #Black Lives Matter and the Hands Up...


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