Digital sanctuary and anonymity on campus

Higher education is not, in general, too keen on anonymous social exchange. We will do blind peer review and anonymised marking because we accept that in these instances equity and fairness require it. But mostly we prefer to declare who we are, what we believe and why. To profess, evidence, defend and own our knowledge is a core part of what it means to be an academic, and the confidence to do this is something we generally want to enable in our students.

However, in the data society there are new discussions to be had around anonymity, and issues at stake that suggest universities should be broadening the discussions we are having about it. Having the confidence to stand up, be named and be counted works for those in positions of relative strength and privilege, but the capability for anonymity can be enabling for others. Above all, universities need to better understand its value to our students.

There are two kinds of value associated with anonymity online that are worth raising: first, its social value and second, the value it offers as a means of resistance to some of the depredations of digital surveillance, appropriation of personal data and profiling through social media that have been well covered in recent news and opinion.

Yik Yakking and the social value of anonymity

In a recent research project I undertook with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, we looked at the ways in which students had been using the anonymous, geosocial media app Yik Yak. Developed by two undergraduate students at Furman University in South Carolina, Yik Yak launched in 2013, experienced astounding growth and became very widely used by on-campus undergraduate student communities between 2014 and 2016.

It closed in 2017, having experienced a lot of high profile, negative news coverage which reported several cases of victimisation, threats, bullying and abuse at certain US colleges. When we dug into the way it was used at our own university, however, our data suggested something quite different: a community which was for the most part supportive and empathetic. There was plenty that was lacking in taste, but not much that was actually offensive. It seemed in fact to be a network in which light touch, anonymous peer support did a lot of useful work in helping students navigate the difficulties of social life at university, sexual and emotional health, relationships, teaching and assessment issues and isolation.

When Yik Yak made the drastic error of entirely removing anonymity from the app last year, a few months before it closed, one student posted the telling yak “Why is yikyak so shit I need some anonymous help like right now”.

The value of this app rested primarily in this anonymity, paired with its hyperlocality: when the developing team introduced compulsory handles and profiles in an attempt to address its decline in growth, it was its final death knell. Social media landscapes are volatile and the app had lost something of its ‘cool’ some months previously – students moved on to other platforms but many still used Yik Yak for its anonymity function and supportive community.

However, with its closure, universities lost something – a light touch, hyperlocal, ephemeral and low-stakes peer network where students could ask stupid questions, raise difficult issues and support each other through awkward times. Our research, and similar studies (for example this one which analysed nearly 2 million yaks) suggest that the media stories which focused on its undoubted toxicity in some instances, were not at all representative of its social value in most others. As one commentator pointed out, anonymous apps almost certainly surface and amplify problems with institutional culture, rather than create them:

“If we banned every network where harassment and abuse occurs, we’d have to get rid of Twitter, Facebook, and email, too—not to mention city streets, private homes, churches, and college campuses themselves.”

The top image on this post is a word cloud showing the most-commonly used words on the local Yik Yak feed: the main emphasis of talk was on social lives, friends, relationships and general student-life banter.

Choice: an effective life or ubiquitous surveillance?

The second, and more profound, aspect of the value of anonymity online is the possibility of resistance it offers to the now-endemic project of surveillance capitalism enacted through the dominant social media platforms. To live what Shoshana Zuboff has called an ‘effective life’ more or less requires students to be active on social media, and Facebook – as the mother of all social media monoliths – dominates. At our university, 94% of students are Facebook users and it’s the baseline platform for setting up study groups and events: as one student described it, “if you didn’t have Facebook you were just a bit of an inconvenience”.

However as John Lanchester has described, Facebook is to a large extent a surveillance, data extraction machine:

“Facebook is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.

… What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.” 

I’m sure the developers of Yik Yak, and the venture capitalists that supported them, would have monetized the platform if they could have found a feasible and timely way to do so. However it is likely, as the authors of the introduction to a recent special issue on the social productivity of anonymity claim, that “online anonymity is a severe obstacle for those who operate in the data extraction, data analysis, and data trade business”. In this sense, it was the very failure of the app that demonstrated its potential. It opened up the idea that there could be a social network on campus where the signing over of personal and social data was not the price students had to pay for access and an ‘effective life’.

Anonymity, policy and reputational risk

My aim here is not to mourn the death of Yik Yak, nor particularly to praise it. However, I think it is telling that there was once in higher education a large, vibrant, totally anonymous student network which did important social work on campus, and operated in a space apart from the platform monoliths that require the right to appropriate our social lives in exchange for access. Where are those difficult exchanges about depression, sex and relationships that we saw on Yik Yak happening now?

There would undoubtedly be some risks to institutions were we to build and support our own anonymous spaces for students. There would a need to balance our provision of safe spaces for anonymous chat with our institutional duty of care: what level of monitoring would be acceptable? Would community moderation be enough, as it seemed mostly to be with Yik Yak? It would need to be possible to investigate trolling and unacceptable behaviour online, without destroying trust. Such high profile cases as the lawsuit taken against the University of Mary Washington for gender discrimination and failing to protect female students from abuse and threats on Yik Yak would no doubt be seen as representing unacceptably high risk by some institutions.

The General Data Protection Regulations that come into force next year could do useful work for us in this regard, requiring us to think clearly through the ways in which we use and retain students’ personal data, and perhaps help us build a case for better valuing anonymity in certain spaces, and for certain purposes. With growing social awareness of what’s at stake in losing our anonymity online, perhaps this is the moment to look again at institutional policies and resources regarding student wellbeing, mental health, counselling and pastoral support, and think about how these would benefit from a wide and open discussion around the value of anonymity, and of digital sanctuary for our students.

5 thoughts on “Digital sanctuary and anonymity on campus”

  1. vivienrolfe says:

    This is a great piece of work – I wonder about the importance of safe spaces for staff also as mental health issues are also escalating there? I wonder if we can regain our safe spaces or whether it is to late – I recently spent a good day deleting old FB messages and Tweets, and closed down LinkedIn and other academic/research spaces. That was fear of institutional surveillance.

  2. Ghizzi says:

    The question then is are all data you deleted and the accounts you closed really no longer accessible? FB for one doesn’t really delete your account fully they make you jump through hoops to clear it!

  3. Ghizzi says:

    Oops excellent article by the way thank you.

  4. Oliver brookes says:

    Sharp timely and fully engaged, great work, thanks

  5. Ray Land says:

    Thank you. A valuable set of observations in an important debate.

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