Researchers are Tackling Online Anonymity

Anonymous-ish app Yik Yak isn’t dead yet, but there are indications that it may be headed in that direction. We think they’ll survive in some form, but the changes they have made since they launched in 2013 speak to to the struggle they have had to outlive their initial burst of popularity.

Rutgers Yik YakWhen Yik Yak started out, all posts were anonymous. The location of the user who posted was and is central to how Yik Yak works – each Yik Yak “community” is defined as all user within a certain radius, regardless of whether they know each other. Since the initial iteration of Yik Yak was totally anonymous, any user’s identity was impossible to pinpoint unless it was offered.

A lot has changed since 2013. Actually, a lot has changed in 2016.

In March, Yik Yak introduced optional “handles” or user names. With that update, users were required to select a user name. The name could be their real name or something else, but they were not required to use that name when posting. From what we saw, few people both chose their real name and used it when posting, so Yik Yak continued to be mostly anonymous.

In April, the company introduced messaging. The world didn’t need another messaging app, but apparently the theory was that now that you have an identity, someone who likes your posts might want to privately reach out to you. We have no idea how much traction they got with messaging.

In August, the company took its latest step in ditching full anonymity, requiring users to post with their handle. Yik Yak is anonymous no more, although people still might not know who is behind your screen name.

Now researchers are digging in to just how anonymous users are, even when they don’t use their real name. Professors at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and NYU Shanghai are presenting research this week focused on Yik Yak’s GPS system. By using Yik Yak and tricking their own devices into thinking they were at various locations on a campus, they were able to use machine learning to pinpoint with great accuracy which building Yik Yak posts were coming from.

By their logic, if their machine learning techniques were able to pinpoint the location of posts, identification of actual users will not be far behind.

We understand that there are some benefits to posting anonymously, including enhanced freedom of expression. We caution social media users, however, that it is inevitable that technology will catch up at some point, and the perceived “safety” of anonymity will disappear.

Whether social media users, especially young ones, are posting online suing their real name or anonymously, there is always the possibility that your identity will be found out.



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