Fingers on Laptop

The argument over online anonymity intrigues me, and I was recently reminded of the topic at a meeting about racial disparities in Madison.

The group was told that Tony Robinson’s death had attracted a spate of anonymous “n-word” posts and other racist references on social media websites, several suggesting that the 19-year-old African-American who was shot to death March 6 by a Madison police officer “got what was coming” to him.

Proponents of anonymity argue such comments can be healthy because they reveal that such attitudes exist even here in progressive Madison. They contend that racist, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes have always been around; it’s just that digital channels now provide them a megaphone. Besides, there’s no effective censorship anyway.

Perhaps my reaction is in part generational. In a pre-Internet world, it was less common to be confronted with the dark and mean-spirited — or simply stupid — side of humanity. Now it’s omnipresent, even if advocates use terms such as “authentic” or “unfiltered” or “real” and say it is free of “political correctness.”

In a perverse way, this anonymous spewing fascinates me. I recently learned about Yik Yak, a two-year-old social media app featured in a big New York Times story. The app is popular on college campuses, including at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a nutshell, Yik Yak allows those who comment to post anonymously without user profiles, and the user community is based on geography — often defined by the area on and around a campus.

Like Facebook and Twitter a decade ago, Yik Yak has caught fire in the social media world, taking campuses “by storm,” said the Times. It is the most popular anonymous social app in Apple’s store and has at times been among its 10 most downloaded apps.

You can guess what comes next. It’s been used to issue threats of mass violence on more than a dozen campuses and has been the delivery vehicle for countless racist, homophobic and sexist rants, the Times said. And, of course, there have been scores of personally hurtful diatribes aimed at defenseless individuals.

I downloaded the app and then, briefly, monitored Madison’s “yakkers.” Most appear to be UW students. The home screen icon shows the yak — a horned and hairy animal — on a turquoise background.

A topic that caught fire as I watched was ignited by someone suggesting that students at Edgewood College must feel crummy to be so close to UW-Madison but stuck at a “second-rate” school. About 30 comments ensued as the argument escalated, pretty much to “you suck … no, you suck” in tenor.

There were also lots of posts, I mean “yaks,” profanely lamenting unwelcome spring snow, difficult classes, upcoming exams, bad relationships (often with explicit sexual references), and even bathroom habits. We’re talking gross here.

In February, a story in the Badger Herald campus newspaper said the app had been popular among UW’s Greeks, but less so now. “I feel like it is really an outlet for people in the sorority system to make themselves feel better about what sorority they are in by putting down other ones,” an anonymous female student told the reporter. “It was very disheartening. We’d go to chapter and hear girls talking about what people said” about them.

Yik Yak has been called the Wild West of anonymous social apps. The Times referred to it as a “virtual bathroom wall.” One of its creators said that he and his business partner invented it “for the disenfranchised,” whatever that means.

OK, perhaps I’m underestimating some upside to anonymity, that somehow putting up with toxic content is worth the trade-off.

So I reconnected with Dominique Brossard, a UW-Madison professor of science communication. Two years ago I wrote about how research she and academic colleagues did revealed that nasty online comments on stories about science distorted what readers thought about the veracity of the science itself.

She said she was familiar with Yik Yak, and not in a good way. Brossard had just been discussing online anonymity in a graduate seminar. There are two circumstances in which online anonymity is crucial, she said — in countries lacking press freedoms, or if the writer is a minority on a social media platform and not welcomed by the majority there.

Brossard said a problem is that there is little teaching of socially acceptable online behavior and that, in sum, she shares my point of view on anonymity.

I tried another acquaintance, Kathleen Culver, an assistant UW professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. She’s perhaps less outraged than I am, but far from a full-throated defender.

When I mentioned the racist rants in Madison, she said: “Part of me is glad to know that it’s out there because look at how much more work we have to do.”

And as for Yik Yak? “Now I am not sort of naively defending Yik Yak. Frankly, I can’t even go on anymore because I can’t stand what I see, but it exists. Do I think Yik Yak will last? No, because the vast majority of people don’t want to see that kind of stuff.”

Finally, I interviewed a Ph.D. candidate in communications arts at UW named Andrew Peck, who lists social media expertise among an eclectic list of credentials. A millennial himself, he teaches a course in digital communication. “I think we have done a good job of hammering in the value of privacy to these 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds,” Peck said. “But a lot of them haven’t thought about this issue of anonymity and that’s actually one of the most damaging things.”

He added: “There is this sort of utopist view that by giving people anonymity online we are making everyone equal,” which is flawed in many ways.

Peck pointed to what academics call the online “disinhibition effect” regarding online anonymity, which is self-explanatory. It is linked, he said, to something called the “f---wad theory,” which holds that you take a normal person, add anonymity and audience, and you often produce a jerk.

So, I found no raving endorsements of anonymity and a fair amount of head-scratching about where this all leads.

“If you would have shown me the Yik Yak app, which my students love, four years ago, I would not have seen the point,” Peck said, adding with a chuckle, “Actually I still don’t see the point.”

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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