#46 Yik Yak Returns
November 18, 2015
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Yik Yak is an app that allows users to communicate anonymously with anyone within a 10-mile radius. In the first part of this week's show, we revisit a story we did in January, about how the app brought out a particularly vicious strain of racism at Colgate University. And in the second half of the show - The past month has seen a flood of similar stories at colleges like University of Missouri, Yale, and Georgetown. So we go beyond Colgate and talk to Jamil Smith of the Intersection podcast to try to understand Colgate in the context of these recent events.
Our theme song and episode music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
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Jamil Smith at The New Republic
PJ VOGT: Last January, my co-host Alex Goldman reported a story about racism, harassment and the internet set at Colgate University. This past month we’ve seen a flood of similar stories at colleges like the University of Missouri, Yale, and Georgetown. And so this week we’re we’re returning to our story from last year to try to understand it in the context of everything that’s happened since. So first we’re going play Alex’s story, and and then after the break we’ll follow up with further reporting from this month. Alex’ll take it from here.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Colgate University is a tiny private liberal arts school – just 3,000 students, way up in the mountains in Hamilton, New York. It’s the most beautiful college campus in America, according to the Princeton Review, located in the 11th friendliest town in America, according to Forbes. But not according to Melissa Melendez, who is a student at Colgate.
MELISSA MELENDEZ: One of the first things I saw about me, was like, it was like, “Bash that bitch’s head in.”
ALEX: Melissa saw that comment — and much worse — on an anonymous social media app called Yik Yak. Yik Yak lets you see posts, or “yaks” as they’re called, from users within a 10-mile radius. So it’s no surprise that it’s really popular at college campuses. People can post anonymously on Yik Yak about lame frat parties, or hot RAs or boring classes. But at Colgate last semester, the site also became a screen onto which the student body’s ugliest, most bigoted and violent thoughts were projected, for everyone to see. And Melissa Melendez and her friends were the target of those thoughts.
ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m Alex Goldman. Melissa Melendez was a senior at Colgate last semester. And as Colgate students go, she’s pretty unusual. She grew up poor in The Bronx, the child of first generation Puerto Rican parents. She attended Colgate on a scholarship. Even for a private east coast liberal arts college, Colgate stands out as being very white. It has half the black and Latino students of your average university. I interviewed Melissa at a studio in New York City, and she told me that she still remembers what it was like seeing the campus for the first time.
MELISSA: Well, it was a culture shock. I’ve never seen so many people who look similar to each other. I grew up with like Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, I hang out with people who speak different languages. When I went up there, a lot of people, they spoke English, they wore the same clothing, a lot of them were rich. It was nice. There wasn’t polluted air as much as there is here. But it was weird.
ALEX: Melissa got the impression that as new as all of this was for her, for a lot of the students she was meeting, she was a novelty as well.
MELISSA: Every day, there was a different stereotype, or a different battle that I would have to fight or correct.
ALEX: What kind of stereotypes did you have to correct?
MELISSA: Oh my goodness. So people, they would be like, “Have you ever been shot before?” “Do you know J.Lo?” People would ask how many baby daddies my mom has.
ALEX: Were they being serious?
MELISSA: They were so serious. Sometimes people would reach for my hair, and I’m like, “What are you doing… if your hand gets stuck in there, I’m not liable! You can’t just do that!”
ALEX: Melissa was never quite sure what was just people being sincerely curious, or being sincerely bigoted. Although some cases were way more clear cut than others.
MELISSA: There were other people who, in the classroom, they would talk about welfare, they’d talk about students like myself who are on scholarship as not deserving, or not belonging. I think my first year I was very angry because of it and then after that, you know, you got to do something about it because you can’t just sit around and be angry, that’s how you know, get headaches and die.
ALEX: So instead of getting headaches and dying, Melissa found the handful of other students at Colgate who were in the same boat as her. They formed clubs, volunteered, and became a support group for other younger minority students coming onto campus. And pretty soon they noticed something:
MELISSA: We kept seeing all these younger kids who were not doing well, who were crying, who were asking for transfer applications, who were not getting work done, who felt unsafe. And we were just like we can’t, it came to a point, like the four of us could not hold down all of these people. We were getting behind in things, and we were constantly worrying about the younger kids, so we were like yeah we have to, we can’t leave them behind like this.
COLGATE STUDENT 1: I’ve been here four weeks and I’ve never felt so much — I’m sorry but — hatred.
ALEX: Their solution was a sit-in. It began on the 22nd of September and it lasted five days. Melissa and her friends formed a group called “The Association of Critical Collegians.” And they went old school, and occupied the admissions building. And there, individual Colgate students, shared their stories.
COLGATE STUDENT 1: There was this group of white guys in the back, and apparently they were like calling me all the really ghetto names like, “Hey Shaniqua, hey Shanaynay.” All this stuff. Oh my goodness.
MELISSA: Students went up and shared their stories for about six to seven hours.
ALEX: I mean if there’s six to seven hours worth of stories. That’s a lot going on.
MELISSA: Yeah, and those are just the people who decided to go up and talk in front of hundreds of people. So. Brave souls.
COLGATE STUDENT 2: [crying] You think we want to be here and tell these personal stories? You think we want to spend the night here, instead of spending the night in my bed? We don’t, okay? None of us do. And so for you to push us to these extremes needs to tell you something.
ALEX: The sit-in felt at first like a massive success to Melissa and her friends. Some estimates said a quarter of the entire school was there. Melissa and the ACC presented the administration with a collectively agreed upon 21-point list of demands. Demands like diversity training for the staff of the financial aid office. Hiring more diverse faculty. Building a discussion of privilege and systemic power dynamics into the core curriculum. The university put up a webpage that responded to the list of demands point-by-point. But meanwhile, on Yik Yak, the sentiment was quite different. And pretty disturbing. While Melissa and her friends were occupying the admissions building, there was a parallel protest going on online — anonymous Yik Yak users protesting the very existence of this sit-in. Here are some Yaks that Natasha Torres, one of the founders of the Association for Critical Collegians, screencapped.
NATASHA TORRES: “In honor of today I will only hook up with a minority tonight,” “I love black people, my maid was always nice to me,” “Stop being attention seeking and go home,” “Well then maybe leave if you don’t want to deal with the realities of living in a white world.”
ALEX: There were others like: “It’s not my fault the most noteworthy thing your people have done is convince us not to enslave you anymore,” or “White people won at life, Africa lost. Sorry we were so much better than you that we were literally able to enslave you to our will.”
It’s important to note that these Yaks weren’t just isolated racist voices shouting into the void. Instead, they were upvoted by dozens of people, meaning that other users wanted to drive these Yaks to the front page of the app. Yik Yak was doubling as a direct pipeline to the racist id of the Colgate student body. And Colgate is far from the only school that’s grappling with this app. Anonymous abusive posting on Yik Yak has become such a problem that some high schools have worked with the company to create what are called “geofences,” where the app just won’t function within a certain radius of the school, but Yik Yak doesn’t honor those requests from colleges. To try and slow Yik Yak down, some colleges have tried banning it, but can only limit its use from the college’s network – all a student has to do is switch to their wireless provider’s network, and they’ll still have access. And so Colgate is stuck with something in real life that we all hate on the internet: a trolly, anonymous comment section. Here’s Charity Whyte, a student at Colgate and a member of the ACC.
CHARITY WHYTE: So it’s really, really annoying and frustrating to see my peers hiding behind anonymity.
ALEX: How does it affect your offline life? Does it make you less trusting of people here because you’re like, oh maybe this is one of those horrible racist people that I see on Yik Yak?
CHARITY: Yeah. Honestly, sometimes, I walk around campus sometimes and I think who posted that terrible thing on Yik Yak? Are they in my classes? Are they my friends? Do I hang out with them at parties? Is that the person who said “black girls are hot, just not at colgate?
ALEX: After the sit in at the campus admissions office, the Association of Critical Collegians continued to organize political actions on campus. And the ugly, racist chatter on Yik Yak continued apace. And on Thursday, December 2nd, after the Thanksgiving break, everything exploded. It was back during the protests in Ferguson when the ACC coordinated a “die-in.”
MELISSA: We laid our bodies down in the dining hall. And then that’s when the flag thing happened.
ALEX: The flag thing. For the die-in, the ACC went and got an American flag at Target, hung it upside down, and wrote “black lives matter” on it, along with the names of people like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And suddenly that constant hum of anti-minority sentiment on Yik Yak, took aim at one person. Melissa Melendez.
MELISSA: I went on Yik Yak, and I saw that they were talking about ACC, but they were also talking about “the bitch with the flag,” and that would be, that would be me.
ALEX: On Yik Yak, Melissa came to be known as “Flag Girl.” She was the subject of Yaks like, “If someone punched flag girl in the face, I don’t think anyone would mind.” Or:
MELISSA: “Bash that bitch’s head in.” So I try to brush everything off, which is a problem sometimes. But at the moment, at the time, I couldn’t brush it off. Like I was really upset. I was like crying, I was like, “You see! Look at the world!” To see seventy or eighty people like something that says I deserve to die. It was disheartening.
ALEX: Disheartening, and, for Melissa, terrifying. These were minority students on a mostly white campus protesting the targeting and murder of minorities, and suddenly they themselves were being targeted. Anonymously. After the threats, the core members of the ACC began traveling in groups. They felt unsafe, unable to focus at school, exhausted. Several of the ACC members already lived together, but many more began crashing at the house – partly out of solidarity, and party out of safety in numbers. But Melissa continued to feel threatened. And it came to a head the next day. Melissa and her friends had seen some talk on Yik Yak that some students were going to show up in the dining hall with right side up american flags to protest the ACC’s protest. Melissa and her friends said we’ll show up too, and protest your protest of our protest. College. Anyway, when they arrived, they didn’t find any protestors, they just found two members of campus safety. And those campus safety officers were videotaping them.
MELISSA: And so I was like, “Okay, are you surveilling us or are you protecting us?” And he said both. And then he was like, “I used to support you, I used to support the ACC and I went to your other demonstrations,” he’s like, “but this I don’t support.” And so…and he’s the head…he’s in charge of campus security, so to see him say, “I don’t support you, I’m surveilling you.” I was like, oh, I see what’s happening, I’m actually not safe, because the people who I would assume are there for me are not. Like who’s there for me, who’s there to support me, like I was exhausted, I am angry, I am sad. And on top of that I don’t know who to trust. And I’m in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have my family here. And this bubble is toxic. And so I think like, I was giving up.
ALEX: That weekend, Melissa and her friends went to meet with the dean of the college. They told the dean how unsafe they felt, and the dean gave them a bunch of options: she invited Melissa and her friends to stay at her house. She offered to stay herself at the house where all of the ACC was crashing. She also offered to have campus safety check up on them. And she said, if you really feel unsafe, you can leave, and finish up the semester off campus. Barbara Brooks, Colgate’s Director of Public Relations and Marketing, said that the intent was to take the students concerns as seriously as possible. But that’s not the way Melissa heard it:
MELISSA: When the option of we can leave came up, we understood what that meant. We were like, “You brought this up because someone wants us to leave.” Like we are the problem and so to make everyone happy, you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, you can go.
ALEX: Barbara Brooks said she couldn’t speak to Melissa’s characterization, but she says that the school took all of this very seriously. Colgate contacted both the local and state police and asked the Madison County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether a grand jury subpoena could be issued to compel Yik Yak to disclose information about some of its worst Yaks. Independent of the police investigation the school and its lawyer sent separate requests for identifying information to Yik Yak, but both the requests to the district attorney and to Yik Yak were denied. The school won’t make the number public, but I was told by multiple sources that over a dozen students ended up leaving Colgate for the semester, after the option was made available. Some went back home, and Melissa and eight of her friends just moved to a different town some ways away from campus. A group of students moving off campus because they didn’t feel safe — that had a profound effect on the Colgate faculty. And some professors decided they had to do something, fight back. And it was clear where the battleground was: it was on Yik Yak. Associate professor of biology Jeff Holm came up with an idea to at least temporarily counteract the negativity on Yik Yak — something he called “the Yik Yak Take Back.” Essentially, attacking all the bubbling bigotry with relentless, utterly mundane cheeriness and civility.
JEFF HOLM: Wish students well on the finals, joke about how hard you were going to make the final exam. Broadcast out some congratulations to students that were finishing their theses and things like that.
ALEX: It was a little like sending Ned Flanders to post on 4chan. The only rule he gave faculty was that they had to sign their names to their Yaks, which sent a small, but powerful message – “We are here. And we see you.” I asked another biology professor, Eddie Watkins, if he could share a post with me.
EDDIE WATKINS: So, I posted a couple things, and one of the things that had the most upvotes was a posting I made about a student that same day who told me he got into a great medical school, he applied to several medical schools and he got into the one he wanted to get into. And that one received, at this point, 237 upvotes, and that was a very positive thing. Something positive that is happening on campus.
ALEX: As a way to counteract racism, this seems totally ridiculous. The faculty were violating one of the cardinal rules of the internet — Kindness never works. But to see these older professors making cheesy dad jokes and offering good-natured and unironic congratulations to people, and getting way more upvotes than the racist stuff, it had a surprisingly strong effect on their students.
MELISSA: I love it! I love it. I thought it was so cute. Cause I knew why they were doing it. Like, they were making a statement. And I liked how a lot of them sign their names. I thought that was powerful. They were like, screw being anonymous. This was Professor Thompson.
ALEX: All the students I spoke too echoed this sentiment. Professor Eddie Watkins noticed the effect as well.
EDDIE: At some point during the day, around lunch, I went up to the coop, the student union for lunch, and I ran into a young woman who had been a very important member of the ACC movement, and she really struggled this semester. You know, she um, [crying] sorry, I saw her and she burst into tears, and she said, “You have no idea what this means to us, we felt so alone.” You know, it seemed like a silly thing that we were doing but it really impacted some of these people. You know, she was greatly moved by that. We are so helpless in some ways against this.
ALEX: The take back helped. But it didn’t make the problem go away. I visited Colgate on the last day of the semester to do some interviews, and I tried Yik Yak out for myself. And even then, in the dwindling hours before the break, I was seeing Yaks about how users hoped the ACC would dissolve, how awful its members were, how happy they were that the ACC had been driven off campus. Despite those Yaks, the students who left Colgate are all returning this spring. Melissa graduated last semester, but actually, she’ll be going back too. Not as a student, but as an employee of the college. She’s choosing to return to the leafy, pondside campus where a lot of young people agree that her head should be bashed in. Partly, because she needs a job. But also, because she feels like if she goes back, she’ll make it harder for Colgate to forget that it still has a problem with race. As for Yik Yak? Look. At this point we know that a piece of technology can’t make people better or worse. Google isn’t making us stupider, Facebook isn’t making us lonelier. All technology can do is give us new options for how to behave. Melissa thinks Yik Yak’s offered a lousy option to Colgate kids: say whatever you want, no matter how hateful, and say it publicly and anonymously. But when I gave her a call back on campus, she had one positive thing to say about the app. Before Yik Yak showed up, Colgate was a place where Melissa saw people express racist ideas all the time. But no one admitted that they were racist. Or that their friends were.
MELISSA: I think that before, people just felt crazy and by people I mean like people like me. I feel this way, I feel uncomfortable, people say these things but I don’t have any proof that this exists. It seems like people can just brush it off: “That’s not a big deal, someone put their fingers in your hair. That’s not a big deal.” But with Yik Yak, because the Yik Yak posts were so explicitly racist and so violent, it forced a conversation on this campus that a lot of people were trying to avoid having.
ALEX: So before you went to Colgate and you lived in the Bronx with a bunch of people from many different backgrounds who spoke multiple languages, did you imagine that there was a world out there that existed that was like this? There were people who were like just crazy racist? Was that something you even thought about before you went to Colgate?
MELISSA: Not really. I knew that there were racist laws but it didn’t feel as real for me. Because everyone around me looked different, so I didn’t feel that. But when I got to Colgate and I saw a lot of rich people, white people, I never experienced that in my life. I didn’t think places like this existed.
ALEX: Everybody at Colgate now knows the terrible things people say to each other when they’re alone in a room with just the people who agree with them. They’ll have to reckon with something ugly and deep-rooted that they used to be able to just pretend didn’t exist.
PJ: Coming up after the break, what’s happened since, both at Colgate and in the rest of the country.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So a year later, what’s changed at Colgate? Most of the students you heard from have graduated. They’ve moved on. But the group they founded, the Association of Critical Collegians, that still exists. And it’s still organizing protests, trying to make Colgate a more inclusive place to live. This fall, the group expanded its platform to include sexual assault issues. They organized a big protest, calling for better resources for survivors of sexual assault, and an improved process for filing grievances. And the same thing that happened last year, happened again. People anonymously went on Yik Yak, and accused survivors of lying about their sexual assaults, using the survivors’ full names. The outcry that we saw at Colgate against this kind of everyday harassment -- now we're seeing versions of it all over the country. At Yale, the fight started over stereotypically racist halloween costumes. At Georgetown, it was over two prominent campus buildings bearing the names of slave-holding former presidents of the University. And then there’s the University of Missouri. On September 12th, student government president Payton Head wrote on Facebook about multiple occasions when people had shouted racial slurs at him on campus. He wrote quote, "This is my reality. Is it weird that I think that I have the right to feel safe here, too? If you see violence like this and you don't say anything, you, yes YOU, are a part of the problem." By the end of October, after students felt the administration had done nothing to address his concerns, there were protests and some clashes with the police and the administration at the homecoming parade.
ALEX: On November 2nd, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler declared a hunger strike in protest of the lackluster response to racial incidents on campus, saying he would only end his strike only when the President of the University of Missouri system, Tim Wolfe, was gone. Students started confronting Wolfe on campus… sometimes on tape.
STUDENT: What do you think systematic oppression is?
TIM WOLFE: Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.
STUDENT: Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame us…
ALEX: Students protest and demand change all the time, and they rarely get their way. And this is probably how it would have played out in Missouri too. But then, on November 8th, the football team got involved.
NEWS FOOTAGE: In a tweet posted by Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians, more than two dozen football players have joined the calls for the university system’s president to resign. Players said they will not be part of any practice or game until he does so.
ALEX: According to USA Today, the University of Missouri's athletic program brought in $83.7 million dollars in revenue last year, and football is a huge part of that revenue. The national press picked up the story. The protests were looking like a serious financial and reputational liability to the school, and within three days of the football team striking in solidarity, the President and the Chancellor of the university had resigned. As these protests were going on and resignations were taking place, students were turning to Yik Yak to say awful things
NEWS FOOTAGE: This morning, students at the University of Missouri on edge after a series of alarming and anonymous posts on social media overnight, sparking fears for their safety. One Yik Yak user writing, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.”
JAMIL SMITH: We were all studying for midterms, it's late october, and hanging out in my room, and the phone rings, and the first question out of the guy's mouth is, "Is this the nigger dorm?"
JAMIL: And I said, "Excuse me?" and he said, "Is this the nigger dorm?" Recounting that visceral experience of being called a nigger is… I'm forty years old and it happened when I was 18, and I still think about it regularly. When that happened to me at our dorm, and it was later followed with a bomb threat by the way that put us all out of the building at one in the morning. Had we not gotten a bomb threat, I think it may have been a situation where a lot of people would not have believed us. I would have said in class the next day to a friend or, you know, to a university administrator, “Hey. We had a bunch of calls last night at the Dubois College House that told us that we were the nigger dorm. And all this stuff was said to us.” Did anyone record it? Well, no, because we don’t have phones that we can record stuff on in 1993. We don’t have any kind of mechanism to do that. Oh, well, what do you want us to do about it?
ALEX: The students didn’t protest, and Jamil wrestled with his experience privately. And then, publicly. His first op-ed for the school paper was about this incident, and he credits it with kickstarting his career as a writer. And today he’s spent over two decades having big, public conversations about race. And he’s glad the Yik Yak didn’t exist when he was in college.
JAMIL: Frankly it's, I think it’s a dangerous application in a lot of respects. Not just because it encourages this kind of violent speech, but also it helps embolden those who are courageous only when they’re online, and what I mean by that is, there's a lot of folks who are just, anonymity of the internet has helped them embrace their true nature. And I think that's helped radicalize a lot of people who normally maybe encouraged to keep those emotions in check.
ALEX: It also creates a space where you can find a lot of people who are sympathetic to your milder views and help ramp those views up.
JAMIL: Foster a sense of community so to speak amongst the bigoted. The idea that these people are able to build community online and understand that there are just as many cowards who are just like them and that they’re not alone, it is not a healthy thing for a university environment. And to some level, I don't think Yik Yak wants to become synonymous with anonymous racial threats, and frankly that’s what’s happening. The immediacy of Yik Yak is what's so frightening. These people are nakedly racist and we're able to see it, and they're on this campus, and people know that racism lives here.
ALEX: Jamil is no fan of Yik Yak -- but he sees a potential flipside. Yeah, the app might facilitate racist conversations, but it also makes those conversations visible to everyone. And so in this way, Yik Yak becomes something like a racist paper of record, providing evidence of racist acts even at a national level. And as we heard in the Colgate story, evidence is more important than you might think when talking about racism in the US. Look at Missouri: part of what spurred the protests was a swastika that was smeared in feces on the wall of a dorm bathroom. But the critics of the protests refused to believe it even existed. It wasn’t until the police department finally released the police report and photos of the bathroom that they backed off.
JAMIL: There are a lot of people I think that don’t even understand what racism is. They understand racism as a Ku Klux Klan member with a white hood, burning a cross. Or police spraying black protesters with a firehose in the 60’s. They understand the iconography of racism, they understand what it quote unquote looks like. Because they’ve been taught that in school. But they don't understand what racism looks like today. And the sooner we can help them recognize it, whether in a Yik Yak post or a swastika painted on a dorm wall, I think the better off we’re going to be. I think to a lot of americans who don’t understand what racism looks like in the 21st century, the things that are happening at Mizzou, the things that are happening at Yale and Georgetown, and a number of other schools, are incredibly illuminating.
ALEX: And Jamil says that he sees a substantial effect from these protests: powerful people and institutions are starting to acknowledge even more nuanced aspects of racism in the U.S. For example, at Georgetown, students protested buildings named for former school presidents that sold slaves, and it took just few days for administrators to agree to change the names. The Georgetown buildings have been temporarily renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall. And even in the monotonous drudgery of the presidential race, Jamil saw something surprisingly heartening.
JAMIL: Saturday night, Hillary Clinton was asked about the Missouri protests during the Democratic Debate.
HILLARY CLINTON: ...and I do appreciate the way young people are standing up and speaking out…
JAMIL: And not only did she give credence to the protests, which frankly they needed, there’s too many people out here saying they’re protesting over nothing. And getting an administrator fired just because he’s white. So it matters to see still, unfortunately, a white leader validating black pain. But also what she did, was that she put the onus upon white people listening and watching to be a part of the struggle. To be a part of the solution.
HILLARY CLINTON: Every single one of our children deserves the chance to live up to his or her god given potential, and that’s what we need to be doing to the best of our ability in our country.
ALEX: But Jamil says ultimately, the thing that’s driving this national conversation - it’s not the presidential debates, it’s not university presidents. It’s this new generation of students. They seem different than his generation.
JAMIL: You know, these are the students that we’ve been waiting for. Whatever the status quo has been, they’re not just gonna go through their collegiate experience anymore when they see black lives matter and these other protestors on the news making real change on a national level. Why should they accept it on the microcosmic level on their campus? And also, I think frankly maybe we just need to face the fact that these students might be a little bit more organized, a little bit more radical, and a little bit more daring than we were. And that’s why I say that these were the students we’d been waiting for.
ALEX: Jamil Smith is a senior editor at the New Republic, and the host of the podcast Intersection, which covers race, gender and identity. You can find both at newrepublic.com.
ALEX: Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Lina Misitzis. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Kalila Holt. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to Rachel Drucker and the Association of Critical Collegians. Matt Lieber is a conversation so engrossing, the only thing that snaps you out of it is the sun coming up. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at itunes.com/replyall. Our website is replyall.diamonds.