Anonymous Instant Messaging App Pushes Ethical Boundries
The YikYak app allows localized user groups within a mile and a half radius to post anonymous instant messages to other users on any subject they want. The user agreement is designed to keep the user's identity private, short of a court-issued subpoena or court order.
You see the potential, for harm, embarrassment, harassment and abuse, we're quite sure. Think: Twitter without the profile. If you have the inclination to being a cyberbully, this is your app.
Due to its short microcell radius, YikYak is ideal for the college campus. In one recent episode highlighted by family law blogger Jeanne Hannah, a philosophy professor at Eastern Michigan University was horrified when a teaching assistant with a YikYak account showed the professor what her students thought about her and the subject matter she presented that day.
The professor was so distraught over what she characterized as defamation, verbal abuse, even sexual harassment, she is pondering hiring legal counsel. Forevermore, this professor will be thinking about what her students are up to on their phones as they sit, presumably listening, to her lectures.
The NYT describes YikYak as the "go to" social media feed among college students. Taking the bad with the good, however, the Times also claims the app has been used to issue threats of mass violence on more than a dozen college campuses, including at Michigan State University.
Reaction to the app's basic function of anonymous hyper-local communication has been mixed; among the several petitions floating around on the Internet, Change.org's petition has garnered over 70,000 signatures. This number pales in comparison to the millions of satisfied users claimed by YikYak's board of directors in response to criticism of the company mission.
For our part, we here at the Law Blogger have to wonder about the utility of an app designed to deliver anonymous communication within a hyper-local community. We are all for free speech, but if you decide to communicate threats, real or imagined, should you be able to hide behind the software-engineered walls of privacy?
The real chilling aspect to this is the high value put on such a company by Silicon Valley, knowing that the hyper-texting youth of today cannot wait to spew venom from behind such walls.