Herd It Through the Grapevine
“Why worry about privacy if I’ve got nothing to hide?” I usually hear this argument in the context of conversations about government surveillance – the sorts of spying done by the NSA, security cameras, Big Brother, and the like. On one hand, it does make sense to focus our attention on surveillance performed by the institutions with the most eyes. But what about privacy on a local level? Does control over our words and actions cease to matter when it’s not some government agent tuning in but our best friend, or the person sitting next to us at a café? Furthermore, why do we care more about a passerby stealing our voice (in a recording) than our likeness (in a photograph)? What makes photographs shared without our knowledge or permission fair game, but audio snippets a creepy breach of privacy? These are the questions I strove to tackle in my impossible project, an imagining of the addition of audio recordings to the social media app Yik Yak.
I intentionally opted to pitch my project as an extension of an existing platform (Yik Yak), rather than a brand new one, for a few reasons. For one, by conceptualizing a fake feature for a real technology, I ground one foot of this project in reality, suggesting that it may be presently impossible, but by no means implausible. Additionally, to fuse my project with Yik Yak meant taking on all of the platform’s current characteristics, from its core features to its interface to its reputation. Without letting this write-up devolve into a survey of popular opinion of Yik Yak, suffice to say the app has garnered its share of criticism for the dangers the anonymous text (and as of recently, image) sharing mechanism may pose. Thus my impossible project figures directly into conversations surrounding Yik Yak and its potential uses and misuses.
I’ve kept a fairly close eye on Yik Yak’s entrepreneurial growth over the past few months, out of curiosity for if and how its creators will continue to introduce new features into the app without compromising its core tenet: anonymous communication between people within a small geographic fence. I was somewhat shocked by the introduction of photos a few months ago, which seemed to uproot the app from its vintage internet aesthetic, a call-back to traditional text-based forums. Even now, only a small minority of posts on the Davidson feed feature images, and these are almost always of objects or scenes, not individual people. A fascinating exception to this trend showed up on the feed just a few hours before I posted my Yik Yak Audio infographic, by way of a candid photograph of Dr. Gil Holland, AKA “Old Man Library,” a frequent li brary visitor and campus favorite. I can only assume that the photographer did not gain permission from Dr. Holland to have his photograph taken nor to have it shared online via a Yik Yak post. And still, the “yak” still received a sizable 65 upvotes. Typically photographs taken without their subjects’ knowledge or permission are considered taboo on Yik Yak, but the herd made an exception here for Dr. Holland because he’s outside the student community and thus outside the predominant Yik Yak userbase
What about audio recordings? Do the same unspoken rules of privacy and consent apply here? Well, if the responses to my own Yik Yak post touting Yik Yak: Audio as a legitimate upcoming feature are any indication, audio snippets wouldn’t have gone over well at Davidson. The first reply to my post, in fact, pointed out that the feature is not just “so shitty,” but “also illegal.” A number of the subsequent respondents followed suit, pointing to the feature’s questionable morality and almost certain illegality. And they’re not wrong: in North Carolina and many other states, audio recordings are protected by a “one-party law,” which holds that at least one participant in the conversation must give consent to being recorded to remain in legal standing – and yes, the recorder can count as the “one party.” It’s some flimsy protection, but it’s there.
Indeed, it’s the fuzziness of laws protecting privacy, from the “one-party consent” rule to the stipulation that you can photograph someone without their permission if they are in public and have “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” that makes me doubtful of how long our resistance will last. Audio recording technologies will likely progress along a track similar to the camera’s, allowing for higher quality recordings to be captured at a greater distance from the subject. Once it’s possible to eavesdrop on our peers with ease, the only question left will be whether or not we still care.
Apart from its relevance to topics of privacy and surveillance, this project was also a personal lesson in how easy it is to create a design fiction that just as easily be mistaken for design fact, and how thin the line between these two genres really is. I used an image editing tool called Pixelmator to splice together the entire infographic, and while the program rivals Photoshop in terms of its complexity and suite of features, I didn’t venture much outside of the elementary paintbrush, select, and eraser tools. Yik Yak’s user interface follows modern design standards perfectly, so its clean lines and limited color palette were easy to emulate and build upon. I found and downloaded their app’s signature font on Google in minutes, and nabbed their own iPhone-framed mockups from the front page of their blog. A few command-C’s and -V’s later, and I was well on my way toward making a highly convincing Yik Yak advert.
Thus the convincing (though clearly tongue-in-cheek) presentation of my Yik Yak Audio graphic, along with its not too far-fetched potential to be the “next step” for the company, work in unison to cement this concept as currently impossible, but hardly implausible. A few legal hurdles and faintly lingering privacy concerns are all that keep Yik Yak Audio from becoming not just a possible project, but an actual one.