Back in 2007, I went undercover to Liberty University, the ultra-conservative evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia that was founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell. I was there posing as a student, while secretly taking notes for the book that would eventually become The Unlikely Disciple.
I remember a lot of things about Liberty—the insanely strict disciplinary rules (no drinking, smoking, kissing, dancing, R-rated movies), the odd classwork (creationist biology, "Christian ethics,") and the genuinely fascinating, kind and odd people I met there.
But mostly, what I remember is how hard it was to get honest answers from people. Even though I was nominally an insider at Liberty, and even though I was taking the same classes and obeying the same rules as my classmates, getting them to say anything even remotely unorthodox (even in the privacy of their own dorm rooms) was excruciatingly hard. They didn't want to step out of line, to say something that could make its way to a campus pastor and get them into trouble. They didn't want to break the façade of lockstep belief that nearly everyone on campus seemed to hold, and separate themselves from the devout, praying, Jesus-is-my-BFF campus mainstream.
Eventually, though, I made some headway. Once they felt comfortable having me around, the Liberty students began disclosing deep doubts about the theology and strictures they'd been forced to live under. People told me that they hated Liberty's rules, that they didn't always believe in God the way their friends did, and that their political views were less conservative than those of the Falwellian mainstream. (One friend on my dorm even admitted that he didn't think gay marriage was a sin—which, at the time, was almost as shocking as if he'd declared allegiance to Allah.) I got the honesty I was looking for, but it took months of agonizing prying, all the while trying not to out myself as an interloper.
I thought of those late-night dorm conversations today, when Ted Cruz announced his presidential bid at Liberty's morning convocation. Cruz chose the bastion of social conservatism in Virginia for the announcement rather than his home state of Texas. From the outside, Liberty looks like a cultural monolith—its marketing materials make it out to be a place filled with "Champions for Christ"—and the presidential candidate wanted it to look this morning like a place full of "Champions for Cruz." Once, the press corps might have swallowed that line unquestioningly. But this time, out-of-town reporters seized on Yik Yak—the anonymous gossip app that is popular on college campuses—to look for the backchannel student conversations about Cruz's visit. And they found them:
It occurred to me that if Yik Yak had been around in 2007, when I started my undercover semester at Liberty, my job would have been much easier. Finding those backchannels of doubt and dissent would have been as simple as opening an app, and it would have taken me all of five minutes to discover what I only learned in four months of on-the-ground reporting: that Liberty University, despite its appearance as a unified front in the conservative cultural wars, was actually a diverse mixture of the devout, the disillusioned, and the downright rebellious. (I'm still glad I went, of course, for myriad reasons, but Yik Yak would have been a nice addition to my toolbox.)
All communities have internal disagreements, of course. You could no more expect every Liberty student to agree on Ted Cruz than you could expect all Bay Area residents to agree on Bitcoin, or all Catholics to agree on abortion. We know this, intellectually, even when we forget to apply it.
But Yik Yak, and apps like them, have made it easy to pull back the veil on our most homogenous-seeming cultural monoliths, and expose the diversity of opinion lying beneath them. The picture of military life that emerges from government-approved marketing materials, for example, looks far different from the picture that emerges on social networks.
There is no way, in the age of democratized, anonymous communication, to conclude that every member of a given group believes one exact set of things. Broad-brush stereotypes can't survive Yik Yak. And these apps allowed us, this morning, to know that the students at Liberty University may have been cheering Ted Cruz with one hand, while using the other to text their disapproval.