Stopping Online Harassment Before It Starts

Yik Yak, created in 2013, is a relatively young social network. But it already has a problem with harassment.

As Jonathan Mahler of The Times has written, students at a variety of colleges and high schools have used the app to post anonymous racist, sexist or threatening messages. One professor at Eastern Michigan University found that students had been posting insulting comments about her and other faculty members during their lecture.

Yik Yak’s older counterparts have been dealing with (or failing to deal with) similar abuses for some time.

Dick Costolo, the C.E.O. of Twitter, wrote in a February memo that the company’s response to harassment had been inadequate “for years.” “We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day,” he added.

Yik Yak has an opportunity to act more quickly than Twitter did — and, indeed, it is already taking steps by adding a warning message when users try to post certain inflammatory words and blocking access entirely on the grounds of some schools.

These are all to the good (though students blocked from using the app at school can presumably just harass one another at home). But clearly they haven’t solved the problem.

Whether it can be solved entirely is an open question. Humans of all ages have frequently taken to public forums to say bad things about one another, and no new fix is likely to extinguish completely our instinct to insult. And online abuse often reflects larger problems, like racism and sexism, that need to be fought on a social level as well as a technological level.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing technological to be done. A number of researchers believe that characteristics of a social network like the inclusion of images or a reputation system for users can affect how people on that network treat each other. A 2014 study of online comments found that anonymous commenters were more likely to make offensive remarks than those who had to use their names.

It behooves those developing new social networking platforms to consider the potential for harassment and abuse — not as an afterthought, but as part of the development process. Online networks, as scholars who study them point out, have social norms just as offline communities do. The challenge is figuring out how to create acceptable norms in networks where communication is not face to face.

Yik Yak is all but certain to have successors, as start-ups continue to compete for the attention of teens and 20-somethings. They need to design their interfaces from the start to encourage civility, discourage harassment and make harassment easy to report when it does occur.

The next generation of social networks should learn the lesson of Twitter and face the issue of harassment before it becomes a problem for their users — ideally, before they have users at all.