A flick of the finger and you're scrolling through all the musings, witticisms and throwaway thoughts of the people living within a 1.5 mile radius of you. Yik Yak, a smartphone app popular on college campuses in the USA, has now made it possible to virtually read what others privately think.
All of it must stay anonymous, whether it's pointed snark or a secret dislodged from the depths of one’s own subterranean shame. Entries are then upvoted or downvoted; Yik Yak, though functioning primarily as a confessional bulletin board, is also an exercise in democracy.
Recently, the app has become popular among NYU Abu Dhabi students. Opening Yik Yak on Saadiyat Island unfurls a list of short, punchy posts, often edged with dark humor. The tone varies. “The people march ever onward. The drum beats evermore. Spring break is coming,” one person wrote. Another post posits: “Bootybootybootybootybootybootybootybooty.” A third asks pensively, “Hello? Is this the internet?”
Sometimes Yik Yakkers pose questions to each other, asking for movie recommendations, good spots in Abu Dhabi or opinions on current world events. Though it’s not known who exactly uses Yik Yak, much of the humor consists of NYUAD-centric laments and sardonic, prickly quips about the dining halls, Residential Education and other university bodies.
Sarah Kowash is a sophomore at NYUAD who leads Wednesday Wisdom Extremes, a student-initiated group that invites the NYUAD community to discuss the different aspects, representations and interpretations of Islam. Kowash said that two recent WWE sessions have been inspired by Yik Yak posts, one regarding the use of the word haram and another about romanticizing prayer.
“It’s really interesting what people have to say which they wouldn’t say outright,” Kowash said. “I thought it prompted really, really good discussions.”
After these discussions, however, Kowash was surprised to learn that someone had written a post about her leadership of the university’s Muslim Student Association. Though she found the anonymous jab amusing, she pointed out that such posts, if stoked by hostility or pettiness, might not be productive for the community as a whole.
“I don’t think it’s very healthy,” said Kowash. “That’s unnecessary and in such a small [community], it’s just not nice to be called out anonymously.”
As leader of the MSA, which often fields questions about tricky topics regarding Islam, Kowash is conscious of the different conversations that people are comfortable starting. At the Student Interest Group fair, the MSA booth had a list to which people could add their questions about Islam. On another computer nearby, there was a second list for those who wanted to ask anonymously.
“Everyone gravitated towards that [one],” remarked Kowash.
Another anonymous platform for NYUAD students is the Facebook page, “NYUAD Confessions Page,” where anyone, even candidates and applicants to the university, are welcome to submit their secrets. Some posts are accompanied by commentary from the page’s unknown moderators, who refer to themselves in the first-person plural. Much speculation has arisen as to who runs the page, alongside complaints about a perceived slowness in posting.
“I think it's important to have a venue for people to say what they think without fearing being personally attacked for their opinion,” said senior Rabha Ashry on Confessions' role at NYUAD. “But I also think a lot of people use it as a way to make nasty jokes and [the tone] gets sexual surprisingly fast.”
A student who wished to remain anonymous noted how platforms like Yik Yak and Confessions give the community an opportunity to confront people or topics without being accountable for what they say — an attractive notion in a small environment like NYUAD.
“You know this is the bubble of people you’ve got to be with ... and you just don’t want to piss anyone off, you don’t want to be the bad guy, you don’t want to be ostracized,” said the student.
The student also mentioned that Yik Yak has been a way for students to discuss the quirks and frustrations of NYUAD life, resulting in a developed sense of the university’s own idiosyncratic culture.
“I think it’s become more of a forum for people to joke about the campus without being targeted for it,” said the student. “In some ways it creates a language for a very specific group of people that are sharing the same or similar experiences of being within a community, which is cool.”
Zoe Hu is editor-in-chief. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.