A new messaging app has some concerning similarities to one of its controversial predecessors, Yik-Yak, Lindsay McKenzie writes for Inside Higher Ed.
Last year, the app Yik-Yak caused a lot of headaches on college campuses. It allowed users to post anonymous messages that could only be read by people in the surrounding area. Hateful comments began appearing in the app, prompting calls from students to have it banned and thrust college leaders into an uneasy debate about free speech and cyberbullying.
Now, a new app called Islands resurrects features of Yik-Yak that may have contributed to its negative tone. Islands allows users to join location-based public and private messaging groups, called islands. For example, a student could join a public island called Undergraduate Library to message people who are in the campus library, McKenzie writes.
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However, Islands founder Greg Isenberg says his team plans to work hard to prevent harassment and empower users to do the same. For example, all public islands are moderated by Island staff members, and private group administrators have the power to kick disruptive members out of their group. And unlike Yik-Yak, anonymity is optional on Islands and users are encouraged to connect an external account, such as an Instagram or Snapchat, so they can find their friends.
Isenberg says he is in no rush to expand the app. Right now Islands is available at eight campuses. Isenberg says his goal is to get to 75 within a year, but he does not believe that "growth at all costs" is a good idea.
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Higher education leaders have mixed reactions so far. Keith Marnoch, director of media and community relations at the University of Western Ontario, says their students are using the app, and administrators do not currently plan to monitor the app's content on a full-time basis themselves. However, he adds that administrators would have a responsibility to respond to future student complaints about content on the app, but the anonymity aspect would make that more difficult.
Eric Stoller, a higher ed consultant and blogger for Inside Higher Ed, says he can see how the app would be attractive to students and thinks it has potential. But he points out that anonymity "has proven to be a conduit of a lot of negativity."
Rey Junco, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, recognizes the concerns about anonymity, but sees it as a force for good as well. For example, he says someone who is exploring an LGBT identity or a non-majority religion may feel safer in an anonymous environment. "Anonymity can allow you explore that without the danger that is inherent in doing that elsewhere," he says.
Junco agrees that content moderation is critical to keeping a positive tone in an anonymous community. "This is Spiderman—with great power comes great responsibility," he says (McKenzie, Inside Higher Ed, 9/12).
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