(University of Victoria)
Paper Short Abstract:
This study examines the disclosure of psychological distress by university students on a notorious anonymous mobile application called Yik Yak which allows users to communicate anonymously with other local individuals, creating virtual communities.
Paper long abstract:
Studying online spaces presents interesting challenges and advantages to the ethnographer; this is especially true in the age of smartphones and with the use of applications (apps) as fieldsites because apps are mobile, portable, and in constant flux. In my Masters research, I conducted a study on the use of Yik Yak—an anonymous, mobile, social networking app—by post-secondary students in Manitoba and their disclosure of psychological distress on this platform. Yik Yak is different from other apps because it is geographically bound to the area around a user's location, limited to universities and other "zones", but can be accessed almost anywhere, allowing mobile virtual communities to emerge. Asynchronous communication allows posts to expire within hours and actors within this field are also constantly changing. Because it permits posting anonymously, it is often portrayed negatively in the media for its potential use for cyberbullying. However, through ethnographic analysis, my study found that emotional disclosure on the app fostered the sharing of social and information support. The sociocultural dynamics of the space allowed users to create a unique group identity, belongingness, and community. Thus, despite the liminality of this virtual landscape and the constant movement of text and people, ethnographic immersion in this environment led to the discovery of an atmosphere of reciprocity, shared experience, and solidarity. This study contributes to the growing anthropological literature on online social spaces and the importance of virtual geographies of emotional disclosure as potent sites for ethnographic analysis.