silhouette of a man standing alone.

“Have you been on Yik Yak?”

My graduate student friends can attest to the fact that I ask this question of almost everyone at some point. Sometimes more than once, like when you’re excited about something and can’t help but tell the story over and over again to the same audience. Annoying, I know, and I’m sorry to all my friends.

But it’s just because I find Yik Yak absolutely fascinating. I’m drawn to it because, for at least some users, it serves as a sort of technologically cultivated hive-mind therapy session. For the uninitiated, Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app available on Android or iOS mobile devices. Users can post, vote on, and publicly reply to “yaks.” Users collect “Yakarma” based on how many votes their yaks receive and how often they vote on other yaks. Once a post receives more than five down votes it is removed. Rather than following other users or adding friends, Yik Yak shows posts from others within a ten-mile radius of your location, so when you visit the Yik Yak stream you are seeing the anonymous posts of other users in your area. As such, it is particularly popular among college students—a place to gripe about classes you hate, snoring roommates, bad cafeteria food, and attractive people that won’t give you the time of day. Of course, it’s also a place for inside jokes and celebrating particularly rowdy parties, but to be frank, there’s a lot of complaining.

I mean this relatively—Yik Yak strikes me mostly for its absolute rawness and emotional honesty compared with many other social media sites. True, much of it is pretty innocuous and trivial, but other posts are exactly what you might expect a bunch of anonymous bits of communication to consist of: people’s greatest hopes and fears, anxieties and insecurities, and a loneliness that reads like a turn-of-the-century Russian novel. Some recent examples from my own feed include:

Confessions: I fell in love with the wrong person.

That moment when you desperately need a hug and there is no one around and you end up grabbing a pillow instead.

Dealing with soul crushing loneliness… Any tips?

I just have the one friend, and the hope that they’re upvoting my yaks is literally the only thing that keeps me going. 

Okay, it’s not exactly Dostoevsky but you get my point. In between people celebrating satisfying bowel movements and shouting out the red-headed cutie at the farmer’s market are these poignant confessions from people that are simultaneously very close geographically and impossibly far away conceptually. The person next to me in the coffee shop might be yakking about their devastating depression while I’m yakking about the sub-par muffins and we would never know what is in each other’s hearts and yaks. Replies to these tender posts are often as affecting as the original posts. Users reach out to each other, offer advice and resources, and commiserate. Sometimes replies are mean spirited, but often they are removed after users down vote them.

Positive thinkers will likely disagree with me, but I’ve always held the conviction that complaining is good for the soul. It feels good to get something off your chest, and it feels even better to have people commiserate with you. In a society that often feels alienating and impersonal while stigmatizing mental health concerns, Yik Yak allows people to reveal the most intimate parts of themselves without many of the consequences of doing so to people you know in day-to-day life. Judgment, rejection, and ridicule have lower stakes because they aren’t your friends (as far as you or they know) and you don’t have to feel embarrassed the next time you see the person you drunkenly confessed to last weekend.

In fact, one of the oft-stated fears of Yakkers is that someday, somehow, all of our Yik Yak identities will be revealed and everyone will know what we—the named “we”—have posted. You can protect your Yik Yak information via a password that must be entered when the app is opened, and the rules state a “zero-tolerance policy on posting people’s private information.” Repeat offenders—those reported by users for bullying or posting private information—are suspended according the developers.

What can be said about Yik Yak, the Yakkers, and the content of the yaks themselves? There is a sort of double articulation of the loneliness and alienation many experience, and a sense of solidarity and the possibility of meaningful connection that many Yakkers express. It is akin to Sara Ahmed’s work on affective economies and the cultural politics of emotion in which she argues that emotions are material social bonds that work to bind and divide subjects as affects circulate and accumulate value. For Ahmed, emotions are a form of capital that creates boundaries across social spaces and across bodies. On Yik Yak, emotional capital is quantified as Yakarma—the more a yak circulates, the more value it accrues. This value serves to bind or divide communities, even when they are anonymous.

Yik Yak also complicates notions of private and public. My identity is private, but my innermost thoughts are public. I can complain about the people closest to me without hurting their feelings or experiencing their wrath. I can confess my darkest secrets and feel a bit of relief or find out that I’m not alone in my misery. Unlike what Jenny Davis calls the compulsory happiness of Facebook, Yik Yak allows for negative emotions to circulate widely and to accumulate value. While you might feel uncomfortable “liking” a friend’s miserable Facebook status (since you don’t really “like” it), there is no such feeling about upvoting a sad yak. Furthermore, there is something to say about the fact that when posting anonymously on a social network such as Yik Yak or Whisper, much of what gets expressed is sadness and fear. For a generation with both a tendency toward digital exhibitionism and a fierce opposition to surveillance Yik Yak satisfies the urge to “get it out there” without suffering the consequences of making oneself too vulnerable to one’s social network.

There must be something satisfying about Yik Yak since users keep coming back. Maybe it’s the validation of being upvoted for something funny or relatable, maybe the whimsical nature of the app itself, or maybe the hope of making a personal connection with an apparent stranger. Probably all three. Given its exponential growth in 2014 it seems like a compelling mode of communication that’s unlikely to disappear soon.

And no, you absolutely may not see my yaks. Don’t even ask.

Britney Summit-Gil is a graduate student in Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research interests include the relationship between mass and digital media, the intersections of nationalism and capitalism, and media criticism of race, gender, and class representations. She tweets sporadically at @beersandbooks.