College Conversation: New Social Apps Break With Toxic Past - OZY | A Modern Media Company

College Conversation: New Social Apps Break With Toxic Past

College Conversation: New Social Apps Break With Toxic Past

By Liam Jamieson



They're using anonymity and better community checks to promise an end to the racism, misogyny and cyberbullying that marked earlier apps.

By Liam Jamieson

  • Earlier college-based apps like Yik Yak quickly descended into platforms where hate-filled speech became common.
  • Now, a new generation of anonymous social media apps like Librex, Herrd and Unmasked promises to use better scrutiny and user guidelines — without stifling free speech. Will they work?

If you were in college around 2015, there’s a good chance you hopped onto Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that quickly became ubiquitous at universities. There’s also a good chance you encountered racism, misogyny, cyberbullying or bomb threats on the app. In response, students filed lawsuits against schools for failing to protect them from personal attacks, and school administrators banned the app. A handful of users were even arrested for making terrorist threats. 

Yik Yak’s flameout in 2017 seemed like the end of an era — the app once valued at $400 million sold its intellectual property for $1 million and vanished. But a new breed of anonymous apps is taking hold again, spreading across America’s university ecosystem, promising a more welcoming virtual world. Now students are figuring out whether these gossipy platforms, including Librex, Herrd and Unmasked, will prove uplifting as well as entertaining, or just the latest hate-filled cesspools.

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“It’s interesting to see so many college-focused anonymous apps come on now,” says Dominic DiFranzo, a computer science and engineering professor at Lehigh University specializing in social media. The challenge, as with Yik Yak, will be how to monetize and police these communities without turning them off. But DiFranzo doesn’t think anonymity is inherently cruel. Facebook, he points out, requires a name and a picture, “yet it’s the biggest source of misinformation on the elections, it harbors anti-vax groups and has even hosted revenge porn.” The key, DiFranzo says, is making sure the developers have strong relationships with a well-policed community.

Yale senior Ryan Schiller put the theory into practice in March 2020 when he launched Librex to promote “authentic conversations and discourse.” With more than 15,000 verified sign-ups across all eight Ivy League schools and Rice University, Librex shares the same core features as Yik Yak: Users’ anonymous posts appear in a timeline, which others can comment on — all of which can be voted up or down. 

I saw a clear need for this anonymous virtual space focused on mental health.

Sanat Mohapatra, founder of Unmasked

But unlike its doomed predecessor, Schiller’s app features stronger user guidelines — be legal, be anonymous, be specific, be tasteful — enforced by community reporting and volunteer student moderators. “We ask students to engage respectfully with the community,” Schiller explains. “[Moderators] remove a post or comment that might be improperly categorized, attack a core identity group, bully or dox a student who is not a public figure or derail a serious conversation.” Schiller recalls a Dartmouth student election when he banned personal attacks on candidates. Though controversial at the time, Schiller says this decision has made posts about student elections more productive ever since.

While Yik Yak posts were dictated by one’s geographic location, Librex, Herrd and Unmasked are exclusively for school communities, requiring users to log in with their university emails — like the early days of Facebook. This allows moderators to ban users who violate community guidelines. Megan Davies, a junior at Boston College (BC), says the school email feature on Herrd — the anonymous app currently available only to BC students has grown to more than 1,000 daily users — makes it superior to Yik Yak. “If you post something that’s really hateful on it, they can ban you, which makes the app feel safer.”

Still, moderating comments and conversations even on these apps is challenging. Hateful messages might be disputed in the comments, down-voted by disagreeing users or pinned as “bait” (likely a joke intended to get a rise out of others). But they aren’t always “technically against the rules,” says Davies, “which is definitely frustrating.” And protecting anonymous free speech is important, too. “Some people do hold more radical views, and this is the only place where they can say it without being ostracized,” says Davies.

When asked about the inspiration for Librex, Schiller says, “The more I talked to students, the more I found that they felt isolated and stifled in their ability to express themselves. Students fear the present cancel-culture milieu and hesitate to speak authentically online with their name attached.” 

Schiller has faced criticism for this stance, including when Librex decided not to remove a comment describing COVID-19 as the “China virus.” “While we take down hate speech, we do not believe that censorship is always the answer,” Schiller says. “It is central to our purpose to figure out how to support student voices, both right and wrong. … Where better to have our ideas challenged, make mistakes and realize personal growth than in a community of our peers?”

Posts and comments cover just about anything college students talk about. Some users rally against unpopular administrative decisions, while others post about apartments for rent, restaurant recommendations, and even requests for drugs, sexting partners and hookups. Cece Jotte, also a junior at BC, says her primary use of Herrd is “definitely entertainment. It’s fun because it’s only BC students, so it’s mostly BC jokes.” Davies adds, “Sometimes I’ll use it for information. Like today we got our gas bill, and it was wicked high, so I posted asking what other off-campus students’ gas bills are like to see if ours was normal.”

Another benefit: mental health, particularly during the isolation of the pandemic. Users will post if they are struggling or lonely, according to Jotte, adding that responses often include pick-me-ups like, “It gets better,” or, “Hang in there.” In short, “People are looking for any kind of interaction, whether it’s anonymous or not,” Davies says. 

Unmasked, another emerging anonymous app started by recent Dartmouth graduate Sanat Mohapatra in early 2020, is designed for just those kinds of interactions. “During my freshman spring at Dartmouth, I noticed that a lot of students would use Yik Yak to post about their mental health issues,” he says. “I realized a lot of these students were really busy and unsure about traditional mental health resources like counseling, and I saw a clear need for this anonymous virtual space focused on mental health.” Unmasked now has more than 9,000 users across 45 different schools, and has even partnered with schools’ counseling offices as an additional resource to conventional mental health services.

“The stigma around mental health and those who are struggling is really high,” Mohapatra says. Anonymity diffuses stigma. “It doesn’t matter who is posting. It’s all about what they are saying and how we can help.”

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