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Block Yik Yak? UF Health researchers suggest doing the research first

Some colleges have called for the banning of Yik Yak, a social media application to which users centered around a geographic area can post anonymously. But University of Florida Health researchers have found that the decision to ban the app may be a little hasty.

The hyperlocal app has gotten a lot of media attention for being a platform on which students have posted threats and racial slurs. Now UF researchers are calling for a broader, more systematic analysis of Yik Yak’s postings, based on their study of the early days of the app. The UF researchers’ study, recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, is the first to examine postings on the social media site.

“Our analysis was brief and focused on a specific point in time — not enough time to make an accurate representation of postings on Yik Yak,” said Erik Black, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and lead author of the paper. “But the most intriguing finding with this study is we didn’t see what we expected to see.”

That is, the researchers did not find postings, called yaks, that would warrant the site to be banned by college campuses. However, a more thorough investigation of Yik Yak’s postings could build a broader understanding of the kind of discourse happening on the application, Black said.

“I think it’s also important to understand that at the time we conducted our research, Yik Yak had not yet been used as a vehicle for making violent threats to campuses,” Black said. “Since we collected our data, the nature of use may have changed in ways that are not recognized by our analysis.”

The researchers say they did find profanity and other similar language.

“There was definitely profanity and some aspects that would make anyone uncomfortable — but those aspects weren’t in any way worrisome since the profanity wasn’t directed at anyone,” said Lindsay Thompson, M.D., a physician in the department of pediatrics and co-author of the paper. “I think having a healthy skepticism is appropriate. But in this situation, among college students, fears and moves toward censorship would be unfounded.”

The researchers defined “worrisome” postings as any yaks that could cause an individual to be revealed. Otherwise, Black and Thompson felt they could not label any particular posting as worrisome primarily because they lacked the understanding of the yak’s context on that campus.

The researchers collected 4,001 posts over three days from 42 different campuses across the United States. Although users have to be on a particular college campus to access that college’s Yik Yak stream, outsiders can view those posts passively, according to the app’s guidelines.

The researchers found that 45 percent of the posts focused on campus life, announcements and proclamations. About 13 percent of the posts contained profanity or vulgarities, and about 9 percent related to dating, sex and sexuality.

Black said he and Thompson avoided determining which posts could be defined as bullying because that determination would have been made out of context.

“From an evolutionary perspective, we’ve always known we can look someone in the eye and understand the place and setting that we’re talking about,” Black said. “But now, online, we lack the ability to understand context, and when we lack that ability, we tend to invent the context ourselves, which can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.”

Instead, the researchers looked for public disclosure of a first or last name, or combination of a first and last name, that could be tied to a particular campus. They saw only 11 names in the volume of data they collected, five of which included both a first and a last name.

“We’re not condoning the type of rhetoric we see on the application. Profane, racist and misogynistic language is not OK,” Black said. “Yik Yak may provide the opportunity to pull back the proverbial covers on underlying sentiment on campuses.”

The UF College of Journalism and Communications has partnered with Yik Yak to create a customized content feed for local Yik Yak users. The UF researchers' data collection occurred prior to the partnership, and the researchers were not aware of the formal association at any stage during the research.

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