Resisting the surveillance project: Siân Bayne keynote at #altc

This keynote presentation began by describing the ‘slow death’ of Yik Yak, an anonymous geosocial networking app launched in 2013.  The software allowed people in close proximity to send and receive short, anonymous messages and write posts (Yaks).  It was heavily marketed on university campuses.  Yik Yak was totally anonymous, and was moderated by community voting.  Edinburgh students used the app to ask questions.  The hyperlocality of the app meant that interactions were limited (e.g. discipline specific, location specific) rather than campus-wide.

Between July 2016 and May 2017, 46,637 Yaks were downloaded and analysis.  In addition, two undergraduate research assistants kept reflective diaries, and data was pulled from other studies the researchers were involved with at the time.

The research team assumed that the hyperlocality of Yik Yak was the key element, but in fact anonymity was the the most important thing for students.  The app developers made a similar misjudgement.  Their tinkering with the app eventually removed the anonymity and this was followed by outcry from the user base.  The return of anonymity was eventually restored, and the data gathered by Edinburgh showed that, for their local users, use of the app picked up again.  At a global level it never recovered, and Yik Yak went from #3 in the download charts in 2014 to #447 by 2016.  On 6 May, 2017 the app was closed down and the company sold for $1 million – having been valued at $400 million just two years before. The failure of the developers to understand the importance of anonymity in their app was symptomatic of a more general failure to understand the value of their product for their market.

There was widely reported abuse, harassment, victimisation and toxicity on Yik Yak, and this was to some extent enabled by the anonymity.  To deal with this, the developers tagged the app as for adults on the App Store, and prevented the app from working in schools.  This cut a lot of the user base.  A system of word filtering was also introduced to flag potentially offensive tweets.  The community also tended to down-vote abuse and up-vote positive messages.  Black, Mezzina & Thompson (2016) found that there was abuse on Yik Yak, but not so much as to demonise the platform as a whole.

Bachmann et al (2017) argue that anonymity can enable disinhibition and create safe spaces:  anonymity need not be associated with toxicity.  Students at Edinburgh used Yik Yak as a support network, notably for mental health issues. Bayne argues that we need to stop seeing anonymity as evidence of some kind of deviancy or an unwillingness to reveal.  As Nissenbaum (1999) argues, the value of anonymity is in acting or participating while remaining out of reach and unattainable.  (Compare this with the ubiquity of Facebook and the way that it is practically essential for students who wish to have a social life or join groups.) Lanchester (2017) provides a good overview of worries about Facebook surveillance.  Bachmann et al (2017) make the point that anonymity is a barrier to both platform capitalism and surveillance culture more generally.

Two conclusions:

  1. When designing digital learning environments, we need to allocate space for un-namability and ephemerality.  E.g. designing pop-up tools that delete themselves.
  2. The surveillance project is opposed to our instincts for an effective life.  Zuboff et al (2015) suggest this leads to a kind of psychic numbing that makes us less attentive to the operations of surveillance capitalism.  In designing teaching we should actively educate against ‘psychic numbing’.
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