Recall a moment during which you lost yourself, mentally, in a crowd. At a concert, perhaps, hidden among countless bags of sweaty skin, or possibly walking through a downtown crowd during a summer festival. In these crowded contexts, most of us experience a sense of anonymity, triggering a certain repertoire of behavior, given the situation. This phenomenon has been studied by Western psychology for over half a century; it has become such an interesting facet of the human psyche that we have attributed a term to the phenomenon: deindividuation.

As thrilling as we find losing oneself in a crowd to be, deindividuation has actually been demonstrated to be a cause of an arsenal of antisocial behaviors, including the act of verbally and physically abusing others.

A study conducted in 1979 by Robert Johnson of Arkansas State University demonstrated that when deindividuation was induced by the Ku Klux Klan having participants wear costumes, the participants were more likely than the control group to increase a “shock” level to an individual as punishment for providing wrong answers on a learning task.

Our temporary access to social media has provided us with quite a paradox. Built to help us connect, many platforms lead us to build artificial lives founded on a nearly narcissistic sense of identity.

A new social media platform, Yik-Yak, brought this irony to the forefront of hundreds of college and high school campuses, storming through cyberspace and threatening to change our digitally constructed sense of self.

If you’re unfamiliar with the mobile app, Yik-Yak is essentially an anonymous Twitter, allowing users to post any message under the veil, and security of, anonymity.

Needless to say, Yik-Yak has produced an environment founded on the fertile grounds that anonymity allows: deindividuation. And as such, the application is riddled with the frustrations we have long inhibited within most social contexts. Personal attacks frequent the “yakosphere,” along with expressions of self-hatred and extreme prejudice. Ultimately, Yik-yak provides us with a shattered window of a building left to be vandalized, allowing us to hesitantly peer into the disturbed psyche of the current generation of students, as well as its breeding process.

Yet it has its allure, innocently resting as the Pandora’s Box of our generation that with a few jostles has set loose a platform of destruction that we feel compelled to contend with. And the more we contend, the further we isolate ourselves.

Those that often opt to spend their free time exploiting the yakosphere, expressing their personal disdain through ad-homonyms and unexpected cruelty constitute the population that needs to be most aware of its callous influence. Deindividuation has long been held responsible for the act of cyber-bullying; however, in the sarcastic subculture of Internet memes and social networks, a new form of cyber-cruelty has been hyper-evolving: trolling.

Though it is a relatively new culture, trolling has developed rapidly and ruthlessly, to the point of prevalence that it has grabbed the attention of psychologists interested in investigating the dark tetrad of human personality. A study conduct by Delroy Paulhus at the University of British Columbia last February investigated the correlates of the dark tetrad between those that participate in trolling versus those that exhibit more appropriate online behavior. Strikingly, but maybe not surprisingly, the study concluded that the fourth dark tetrad trait, sadism, was “associated most robustly with trolling, and, importantly, sadism was specific to trolling behavior.”

A brief glance through the yakosphere reveals what makes this application so appealing to bullies and trolls–there is almost infinite ammunition: students expressing stress and worry about coursework, others rejoicing in a new accomplishment, and the few seeking serious life advice, at times underlining their desperation with suicidal contemplations.

Trolls have a field day, every day.

As a platform that literally sets the conditions as perfect for trolls to act freely under the bridge of anonymity, yik-yak invites the entirety of Danville’s populace to observe the cruelty of our College’s students berate the unexpected and taunt the stressed, looking onto what appears to be a casting director piling unrehearsed actors onto a stage with dim-lighting, only to criticize their insecurities.

Now, remember the Arkansas State University study mentioned above; half of the deindividuation group wore nurse uniforms, and interestingly, these participants decreased the shock levels to the “learner” throughout the experiment. This was the first study that demonstrated that deindividuation might actually promote prosocial behaviors, given appropriate social cues.

Albeit rooted in rarity, the yakosphere has exhibited several examples of anonymity’s influence on prosocial behavior.

For example, yaks involving positivity or clever humor are often the most popular. And more importantly, the app has served as a forum of assured confidentiality, allowing students to discuss issues and concerns they find unable to confide with the open public. This all occurs without an identity, making it an underworld free of the veil of the subtle social anxieties, expectations, and constructs that constantly manipulate us into repressing uncomfortable truths.

Although Yik-Yak appears to have so far provided most campuses nationwide with tumult and tension, and even serves as a database of indexed examples of hatred, depression, and insecurities of our fellow students, reality holds that the yakosphere is here to stay. And it is with this reality we should be motivated to utilize the potential of positive social cues to catalyze our capacity for kindness. By being more cognizant of the obvious unhappiness many of us bear, no matter how it is expressed, we may be able to alter the unfavorable course we force yik-yak to construct, and provide an atmosphere in which we can foster mindfulness, kindness, and courage.

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