The Social Media Outhouse

When looking for the pulse of the student population, higher ed social administrators may need to pull on a bio-suit and get dirty in the social media cesspool.

4 minutes
By: Andrew Cassel

Put on some hazmat gear and gird the loins for a trip into the smelliest social media sewers of the university student. Ready? Now, go log in to Yik Yak and Fizz.

Both of these social media platforms depend on geolocation. Fizz takes it up a notch and relies on a verified .edu address, but both offer the same general idea: an anonymous place for users to post—well, to shitpost—about their experiences in higher education.

That’s what most users do. However, just like wastewater testing to determine the levels of COVID-19 in a community, these smelly, dark, somehow dripping spaces have value for higher ed social admins who strive to keep track of what’s happening around campus.

Yik Yak was first launched in 2013. It became so toxic that it was removed as a platform from the social media environment, but not everything flushes on the first try.

Yik Yak returned in 2021 with new community rules and stronger content moderation, but still in its basic yakky form. Anyone can create an account, and you can see posts from a 5-mile radius around your location.

More recently, the app added a place-saving feature named “spaceship” (what this has to do with the yak theme is still unknown). Spaceship allows users to set up to three geographic locations for viewing content. “No matter where you are, you can always return to that herd by going back to the location you saved,” as Yik Yak describes the feature.

A “herd” is what users are referred to on the platform. This added a new layer to Yik Yak for universities. Prospective students who visit campus in person can set a spaceship at the location of their potential future school and observe and participate in the herd’s activities. This feature may raise eyebrows in admissions offices.

Fizz takes a different approach. Users have to have a .edu address confirmed before they can join the Fizz community on their campus. This is also quite a valuable dataset for the Fizz app owners, the college emails of the 18-24-year-old demographic can be sold for quite a pile of cash.

Contact May Contaminate

Fizz is also different from Yik Yak in its approach to content and content moderation. Although Yik Yak has some photo-sharing features, Fizz is built for GIFs, memes and images. Fizz also assures potential users that content on the platform will be moderated by members of their community. 

This community content moderation and the reliance on campus influencers, for lack of a better word, to launch the product was described in an October 2022 story from Claremont’s Student Life, the campus newspaper:

Fizz has mainly focused its advertising through student hires at the schools that post content on Fizz [and] promote the app on Instagram. […] The Pomona student moderated the app to see if the posts were free of obscene or other inappropriate content. These responsibilities, especially the frequency with which [they] had to post, prompted her to quit the job. 

Fizz, in its LinkedIn posting, claims “Fizz is on a mission to redefine the definition of a true social network.” 

Yik Yak has a centralized moderation style that relies on AI. On their Community Guardrails site, the company claims, “Yaks that reach -5 total vote points are removed from Yik Yak.” Content moderation is the name of the game for social media and social networks. If people don’t feel safe there, it will not grow.

Safety and moderation are also quite subjective, and it may be harmful to any student hired to look at the community and decide what is and is not appropriate for their peers to consume on a social platform. 

“It’s easy to dismiss a certain amount of negative behavior—complaints, aggravation, the usual low-grade trolling activity—as part of the territory for those working in social,” the Content Moderation Institute wrote in a 2019 blog post. “But trivializing or normalizing this aspect of the job can conceal the real impact it can have on those tasked with handling such negativity for extended periods of time.”

The New Yorker also reported on these concerns surrounding human content moderation. According to the article, sometimes what the moderators saw was innocuous, but the next piece was very shocking and abhorrent.

One woman used to work for MySpace, which used to be a big thing, and she told me that she’s now a bookkeeper. She got as far away from dealing with humans as she could and got into the dealing-with-numbers business. She told me that she wouldn’t shake people’s hands for about three years after she quit her job. I asked her why, and she said it’s because she knew people were disgusting.

These are the lessons Fizz is teaching to the teenagers and young adults who work for them as community moderators. There’s nothing to be done about that.

Yik Yak, Fizz and who-knows-what-else are out there for the community to use, to share and to vent. It’s hopeful to think the platforms were created with the best intentions and that it’s the users that turn them into steaming pools of waste. At least, that’s how it feels, and smells, to higher education social admins. 

It can be difficult to understand how web pages and viewbooks can portray students as the hope for our planet’s future. Meanwhile, those same amazing and inspirational young people are posting the basest, rudest, most infantile content they can create on these platforms. 

Refuse Can Be Telling

Yet, here’s the return to the image of using wastewater as an accurate tool for measuring rates of COVID in a community. In between all the trash circling in these apps, some things have true value. Posts about leaky faucets in a dorm bathroom could be the first report of an issue that an official social admin can forward to facilities services.

The YikYak or Fizz community could start talking about a student’s behavior in concerning ways, which social admins can pass on to their supervisors: “I keep seeing people posting about this person’s actions at a party, and I thought I should make you aware of it.” This quick and preventive measure could be more important than the admin realizes at the time.

The content shared in these awful, harmful, toxic places could lead to information that stops a crisis before it starts.

Although it is rare, these platforms can also provide positive messages about faculty members, such as asking about professors for certain classes and receiving real-world feedback. This is, no doubt, what the platform designers hope will happen versus the posts about hooking up late in the dorms. Truthfully, it’s the latter that gets shared more often and uses language much cruder than I feel comfortable sharing here.

Those posts about sex, drugs, bathroom experiences, broken hearts and expressions of frustration screamed into the void of the anonymous Fizz and YikYak spaces are right alongside suicide ideation, mental health red flags and expressions of profound doubt about a student’s place in higher education.

These location-based social platforms promise authenticity through anonymity and often end up as conduits for sluicing brain waste into the already mucky internet. Sorting through that waste is, for better or worse (let’s face it, worse), a higher education social admin’s job. It won’t happen often, but the content shared in these awful, harmful, toxic places could lead to information that stops a crisis before it starts, provide clues to celebrate a beloved faculty member or show a trail of breadcrumbs that could lead to meaningful and inspiring content.

It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s somewhat necessary.

Andrew Cassel

Andrew Cassel


Andrew Cassel has been creating and curating social media content for higher ed since 2011. Cassel speaks regularly about social media content at conferences and symposiums. Cassel was awarded a best-in-track Red Stapler and is a five-time winner of the Aurora Awards of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America – Alaska. In 2019, he was a host for Higher Ed Live – Marketing Live. His paper “Twitch for higher education and marketing,” based on his HEWeb 2019 session, was published in the spring 2021 peer-reviewed Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing. Cassel is currently the senior social strategist and content producer at Middlebury College.

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