Few things will give you a better glimpse at total depravity in action than browsing the comments section of an online publication.
Trust me, I know firsthand.
For the last year, I’ve been an editorial assistant for a Christian publication, and part of my job includes collecting the comments, emails, and letters readers send in. Our comments section recently became so bitter and hostile that we disabled it on our website, asking readers to provide their feedback via email instead.
I know I’m not the only one who has noticed how nasty things can get when critics are unencumbered by physical proximity. In Taylor Swift’s recent single “You Need to Calm Down,” the singer tells trolls that airing grievances via Twitter is a “cop-out.” She has a point: there’s something petty about being critical of other folks on a public, online platform rather than confronting them directly. Yet, it’s something we’re all guilty of, isn’t it? I mean, it’s just so easy to type out that scathing reply—and so satisfying.
The ease of shelling out harsh critiques only grows with the power to write anonymously. Few platforms have proven this as unequivocally as Yik Yak, a short-lived but highly influential app used primarily by students between 2014 and 2017. Yik Yak rolled out just as I graduated high school and transitioned to college, and I was one of the over 2 million users checking the app for the latest morsel of local gossip.
Yik Yak was an anonymous platform where users could “yak” about anything they noticed—the cute guy working at the library, the annoying tour group in the cafeteria, or the baby geese on the front lawn. The app only worked within a certain radius; for example, you only saw the yaks of those in close proximity to you, making it ideal for college or university campuses.
Yaks about baby geese sound pretty innocent, and many yaks were. The problem was that yaks weren’t always innocent. Often, the most offensive yaks gained the most traction.
According to the New York Times, Yik Yak quickly became associated with “bullying, discriminatory speech and threats of bomb and gun violence.” A Massachusetts high school was evacuated twice due to bomb threats on the app, and at Clemson University in South Carolina, students called for a school ban after the app was used to spread racist messages. In 2017, former students were part of a group that filed a federal complaint against the University of Mary Washington in Virginia for failing to protect the plaintiffs from “cyber harassment and threats of physical and sexual violence” that occurred on the app.
Anonymity was one of the most dangerous aspects of the Yik Yak—in the case of bullying, abuse, or bomb threats, it put people in physical danger and was the vehicle for severe emotional harm. Yet anonymity was also the app’s greatest appeal. Once Yik Yak attempted to curb its harmful content by requiring users to have public profiles, it quickly became irrelevant, plummeting to 264,000 users by 2017 before becoming defunct.
Unfortunately, recent app developers failed to learn from Yik Yak’s early demise. Yolo is a new app that allows users to anonymously send comments, questions, and pictures in response to other users’ Snapchat stories. USA Today reported the app has been downloaded over 5 million times since its release in early May, and according to BBC, Yolo was the most-downloaded iPhone app in both the US and UK just one week following its release.
Naturally, folks are concerned about Yolo’s potential for bulling and abuse. Andy Burrows, head of Child Safety Online at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, told BBC, “Apps such as Yolo that allow anonymous comments could be easily misused to send abusive or upsetting messages.”
Both Yik Yak and Yolo show that when anonymity is involved, people view it as permission to speak irresponsibly. But, before we scorn these apps’ teen users for their carelessness, it’s important to consider ways that we also harness the power of anonymity to cause harm. True, apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter aren’t entirely anonymous, but the sentiment is the same. These platforms allow users to publicly spew unfiltered critiques at complete strangers, and in many cases have become breeding grounds for cruelty and polarization.
So, what can be done? How do we disrupt the cycle of unproductive, unloving public dialogue and resist the impulse to hide behind relative anonymity? Here are a few guidelines:
“Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent” (Proverbs 11:12).
“Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm” (Proverbs 11:17).
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Transforming hate-filled platforms begins with you. Scripture repeatedly reminds us that we’re called to live holy lives—lives set apart by grace, truth, humility, and radical love, even in the face of cruelty. So, if you’re tempted to reply to an online stranger with words that are venomous, bitter, or severely critical, ask yourself:
What is motivating me to comment?
Is this comment productive?
How do these words glorify my Creator?
Are my words coming from a place of pride, or from humility?
Would I say these words in-person to someone I love?
I encourage you to never shy away from speaking truth, especially truth to power, but also to speak thoughtfully—words are precious and powerful.
And, if you know a teen, please ask them to delete Yolo—they’ll thank you later.