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Nudes and Yik Yak in a desensitized culture

| Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nudity. This conspicuous subject was launched to the pinnacle of all social media spheres as September rolled in. The impetus for this was a group of unidentified hackers succeeding in an unprecedented breach of Apple’s online storage service, iCloud. These hackers leaked nude pictures of famous celebrities for the world to see.

Around the same time, I was introduced by a friend to a new social media application, Yik Yak. Unfortunately, the close timing of these events was not ideal. Yik Yak, for those of you who don’t know, serves as an anonymous, virtual bulletin board for fellow users on a college campus. The lack of identification leads to significantly more obscene and abusive content (colloquially known as “yaks”) than other social media outlets. It is similar in some ways to anonymous Facebook and Twitter accounts like ND Confessions or ND Crushes.

Due to the nature of Yik Yak, looking at yaks on my friend’s phone during the early days of September consisted of a tsunami of explicit references to individual’s activities that would have been better kept private. Moreover, I found it to be a haven for unleashing a barrage of insults on others without the consequences of the perpetrator being identified as rude or cruel. Worse yet, although Yik Yak is targeted at colleges, high school students across the country have used yaks for alarmingly hurtful cyberbullying that has disrupted school communities, and in some cases, even spurred death threats warranting multiple school evacuations.

Of course, the yaks from Notre Dame did include many humorous comments, entertaining stories and curious thoughts. Anonymous messages can also serve good purposes for those who need support, but are afraid to ask in person. However, this doesn’t seem to be the goal for many users.

Yik Yak’s designers did incorporate a function for users to vote down a yak until it disappears, but in many instances, the most troublesome yaks seem to be voted up more than any others. Perhaps some users have taken to bolstering this medium to justify their own behavior with a modified, anonymous mob mentality. Popular approval through social media, however, will never be enough to satisfy the heart of a man or woman and, in the end, we still must take responsibility for the lives we lead.

Yik Yak is a powerful application that is dangerous on multiple fronts. Not only can it be a vehicle for hurting others’ reputations or self-image with impunity, it also elevates commentary that degrades human dignity. Psychiatrists are demonstrating that social media can lead to damaged self-esteem, greater loneliness and depression. That said, some yaks are, quite simply, directly traumatic.

Knowing all of this, I arrive at two persistent thoughts. First and foremost, I have resolved to avoid Yik Yak and other anonymous messaging services. In my view, I don’t need those negative thoughts bombarding my mind all day. In the words of Buddha, “What we think about, we become,” and I would rather value my interactions with those I know and love. For those who continue to use Yik Yak, I challenge you to institute the Golden Rule in your yaks – please refrain from bullying and abuse.

My second train of thought explored the cultural reasoning for this phenomena. Is it possible that an impersonal, digital world with such a strong emphasis on holding the attention of others by being distinctive or sexy has damaged our sense of empathy? Have we lost the distinction between private and public? The iCloud hackers clearly violated the privacy of the celebrities in the leaked photos. Closer to home, I remember one yak from a student on our campus who witnessed another student posting a derogatory yak about her. Is it not evident that no anonymous bubble exists? People can be deeply hurt by our inconsideration and we would all do well to remember that.

Furthermore, has a spirit of inevitability pervaded our culture so deeply that we are willing to tolerate individuals unmistakably savoring an opportunity to objectify women? With an epidemic of sexual assaults occurring on college campuses, we should be speaking out against demeaning language like that which assailed social media after the photos were leaked.

Perhaps my vision of a society devoid of gratuitous mistreatment of others is quixotic, but today, on the 13th anniversary of the fateful 9/11 attacks, we should remember the value of solidarity. Community will always be the greatest security for humanity, and if our actions undermine that unity, we alone are responsible for the ensuing pain.


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About Dan Sehlhorst

Dan Sehlhorst is a junior studying economics and political science. Hailing from Troy, Ohio, and a resident of Zahm House, he looks forward to conversation about his columns and can be contacted at [email protected]

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