Professors hijack Yik-Yak, spread positive messages

'Take back the Yak' reframes use of social media

Professors at Colgate University were worried about students after a difficult semester marred by racist messages found on anonymous social media, among other controversies.

So they staged a protest, flooding one popular campus social network, Yik-Yak, with words of encouragement on the last day of classes.

'Take back the Yak'

The social network and cell phone application Yik-Yak allows users to post anonymous messages that only people in the same area can read. The network has been gaining popularity on college campuses nationwide, where it has stirred up controversy. The anonymity of the network tends to attract spiteful comments and bullying, leading some campuses to ban the network entirely.  

Racist messages on Yik Yak were one factor that led to a difficult semester at Colgate, spurring students to hold protests and vigils over a perceived lack of diversity on campus.

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Geoff Holm, an associate professor of biology, says he got the idea to "occupy" the network after several colleagues made individual efforts to share positive messages through it—and saw little success. He decided that a group initiative would be more effective, so he organized one. "If this is going to be something that is driving campus culture, it's important for faculty to have a presence," he explains.

A day of action

More than 50 professors participated in "take back the Yak" on Friday, posting everything from simple words of encouragement to quotes from Herman Melville and Voltaire. "Thanks to the students at Colgate for making my job fun. I'm sorry I can't always return the favor, but you know I love ya," wrote a user named Prof Woods.

The professors flipped typical Yik-Yak posts upside-down. The network relies on anonymity—so professors signed their comments with their real names. Most comments take a negative or critical attitude—so professors posted positive messages of encouragement to their students.

Many students joined in. One student's post read, "To all the professors, thank you. What a wonderful, happy thing to wake up to in the morning. You made mine and many other students' days."

Valerie Morkevicius, an assistant professor of political science, says the effort is just one more way to try and connect with students. "For me, what's really great about this idea is it's a way we can reach out to our students where they are. Our students live in this digital world, and we can help them navigate it more responsibly," she says.

Eddie Watkins, an associate professor of biology, says he has heard positive comments from students—but laced with some surprise. "They're shocked. They had no idea we even had phones, I think" (Finney, Des Moines Register/USA Today, 10/6; Mulhere, Inside Higher Ed, 12/15; Koenig, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/12).

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