A life might have been saved Tuesday night thanks to the immediacy and perhaps even anonymity that the flourishing smartphone application Yik Yak advertises. But before we can delve into the saving grace that the app and more importantly its users might have provided, let’s briefly talk about trolling, because let’s be honest with ourselves: Anonymity and trolling go hand in hand.
To the uninitiated, trolling is the deliberate and typically anonymous posting of inflammatory, derogatory or otherwise provocative messages in public forums such as YouTube’s comments section, Facebook and the infamous message board 4chan. 4chan may not be the first proponent of Internet vitriol, but the anonymous image board is certainly the flagship. With 20 million active users, it’s hard to argue that the concept isn’t working, especially since Yik Yak has ostensibly piggy-backed off its success by taking the anonymous forum framework and making it location-based.
But with success and more and more downloads come the consequences of giving the average person complete anonymity in front of an audience of thousands or more.
Plato, who wrote on the power of anonymity in his parable on the ring of Gyges, and Christopher Poole, the founder of 4chan, would both tell you that if you give someone a mask, they would show you who they really are. Unfortunately, most of us associate this relationship with caustic contempt — perhaps rightfully so — but sometimes anonymity can cultivate the exact opposite in humans: compassion.
Last week, amid the racism, teasing and general debauchery of varying volatility that Yik Yak fosters, there was a cry for help: Someone posted a message saying they would hurt themselves, and it was answered. Cognizant of this person’s vulnerable state, users responded with messages offering support. It was a stark contrast to the typical content you’d find spanning Yik Yak’s pages.
After an outpouring of encouraging messages and posts, an update revealed that the user had been checked into a hospital. Who can say for sure if USC’s Yik Yak users saved someone’s life, but we do know that turned a complete 180. If only for a moment, the vitriol ceased and contempt was exchanged for compassion.
This is where the story comes full circle. It’s easy to dismiss the power of words when we’re hidden behind the guile of anonymity, but now we have testament that indicates otherwise.
There were no faces or names associated with the messages, but if these anonymous posts are powerful enough to show someone that they’re cared for, they’re certainly powerful enough to create harm as well.
Yik Yak has returned to its normal frat-bashing agenda, but users beware: Your words were valuable last week. When you sent compassionate messages, you thought your words could make an impact. It’s worth keeping that impact in mind the next time you post a joke or an insult online.