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Yik Yak’s Growing Pains

  • AuthorNora Dunne
  • Published Friday, December 5th, 2014
  • Comments10

If Facebook is the king of social networks and Twitter the queen, then Yik Yak is Twitter’s immature younger sibling – ambitious, but with no hope for a seat at the throne.

Like Twitter, users of Yik Yak post and view very short messages: 200-character “Yaks” instead of 140-character “Tweets.” Users can reply to posts and even “upvote” or “downvote” posts they like or don’t like – a feature likely inspired by its cousin Reddit. Yik Yak, however, is a mobile app with no functionality as a website. But that’s not the only distinction from its relatives.

First, Yik Yak is location-based. Users write posts and reply to those from others within a 10-mile radius. They can also drop a pin elsewhere on a map and “peek” at Yaks within a 1.5-mile radius of the pin. However, they can only post to their own location.

Second, Yik Yak is anonymous. There are no usernames, passwords or profiles. People sign up with their cell phone numbers and provide no other personal information. Users don’t collect followers or friends – all their posts are automatically available to everyone.

Third, right now Yik Yak has a specific audience: college students. While many over the age of 25 have not even heard of the app – let alone used it – it has spread to more than 1,000 college campuses since its launch in November of 2013.

For that reason, the live feeds tend to revolve around sex, drinking, studying, and dorm life. Some are funny, others sad. Many are profane or mundane.

The Yik Yak website features a few samples, cute quips such as:

“Hey teacher. I’m not asking you to spoon feed me, but don’t give me one chopstick and tell me to eat chili.”

“There’s a kid in the library using Christmas Lights as an extension cord.”

“Spooning my boyfriend. Out of the container. It’s ice cream.”

But for a more authentic assessment, download the app and look at a real feed. Some recent examples from the North Side of Chicago, likely penned by DePaul or Loyola University students:

“Am I the only girl who would love the idea of a three way…”

“I just want weed and someone to make me laugh.”

“Damn. I’m hungry.”

Yik Yak’s founders – two fraternity brothers who graduated from South Carolina’s Furman University in 2013 – have secured $11.5 million from investors this year to expand their brainchild to a wider audience. They told Forbes that they want to make it a source for serious, on-the-ground breaking news. But one of its key features – anonymity – stirs up ethical issues that will obstruct that goal.

In fact, anonymity has already hurt the app’s reputation by making it a venue for cyberbullying. Vicious gossip and cruel lies about specific people surfaced last spring, especially among young teen users, prompting outcries from parents, school administrators, and the media.

Though the app’s terms of use bans those under age 17, Yik Yak has little ability to enforce that rule on an individual basis. In response to protests, the company’s support team now builds geofences, virtual perimeters surrounding real geographic spaces, around high schools and middle schools that prevent the app from functioning on their property. That solution does not protect those of age from victimization.

Users can flag inappropriate posts for the support team to remove, but the app does not promise to respond to flags within a particular timeframe. A defamatory Yak sent at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night would likely have plenty of time to fuel gossip before tech support steps in.

The company has made good efforts to combat the bullying problem, but it hasn’t stopped users from turning to the app to spread unsavory content like sex tapes or from posting bomb and shooting threats. Call it “shouting fire in a crowded theater” 2.0. Yik Yak does not collect personal information, but in cases like these it has and will hand over GPS coordinates and IP addresses to law enforcement to help track down people who use the app to break the law.

It’s important to note, however, that the majority of Yaks do not harass specific people nor provoke public alarm.

Two college students interviewed for this story summed up their perceptions of the app.

“People just post dumb stuff,” said a female senior at the University of Iowa over the phone. “It’s like a low-brow version of Twitter.”

What’s the point?

“There is no point,” she said.

A male sophomore at DePaul University said he’s “obsessed” with Yik Yak. He struggled to explain why.

“People post stupid stuff,” he said. “It’s funny.”

Does that entertainment value outweigh Yik Yak’s potential to harm?

Because it’s anonymous, users feel comfortable writing statements they would not say if their names were attached to the sentiments.

There are certainly situations where anonymity is necessary. Many newspapers give journalists permission to reference anonymous sources in a story in order to protect their source’s jobs – or even, in extreme cases, their lives. There are everyday examples, too: Advice column readers send letters about personal problems and sign them “Lonely in Chicago” or “A Nosy Neighbor.” In both of these scenarios, the nameless remain so to protect themselves from harm – or at least embarrassment.

The same rationale could, of course, be the motive behind some Yaks. But in practice, the app users more often use anonymity to say something crass. They wouldn’t want all their Facebook friends – mom included – to know they hooked up with three guys last night, so they post it on Yik Yak.

Those who truly seek catharsis through this app have other outlets. They can mail in a Post Secret or talk to a trained mental health professional. And those who simply want to disseminate a clever quip should not feel uncomfortable associating their name to the message via Twitter or Facebook.

Ignoring the actual content of the messages, there are a couple of practical perks to anonymity. It’s quick to sign up for the app, first of all. No need to fiddle around with combinations of letters and numbers to find an available username. Users don’t have to pause even a minute to type out their personal information – name, date of birth, and so on. But more noteworthy than a few precious moments saved is the fact that Yik Yak can’t sell users’ personal data without their permission. The company doesn’t have them in the first place.

What Yik Yak has that other prominent social networks do not is an easy, automatic location feature. (Twitter can filter by location, but it requires opting in and an advanced search.) On Yik Yak, users can quickly find out what’s going on where they are – or anywhere else they want to snoop.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the founders of the app want to use this location feature to grow their product. After all, people are already turning to social networks for news. Thirty percent of adults in the United States get news from Facebook, according to Pew Research analysis.

But Yik Yak may need to sacrifice some of its anonymity to fulfill ambitions of becoming a source for reputable news coverage. Users who value truth may demand to know who is providing the information they read because, naturally, people who attach their name to their words are more credible.

By forgoing anonymity, however, Yik Yak will likely lose the audience that has made it a contender in the social network family in the first place. Perhaps the solution is creating two versions of the app: one where users must provide their name and contact information and one where they don’t. The identified – let’s call them Yiks – can write about news from the frontlines while the nameless – Yaks – can stick with dorm room hookups.

Or maybe the easiest, and most lucrative, solution for Yik Yak is to sell their GPS technology to Twitter.

Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.

10 Responses to “Yik Yak’s Growing Pains”

  1. Natalie Piepsny says:

    I agree with everything that this essay has to offer. I appreciate that it presents both sides of the ethical issue of anonymity with the app Yik Yak. Being a college student, I enjoy Yik Yak because people do post funny, pointless thoughts that I like to read after a stressful day for some lighthearted humor. However, I also hate that sometimes posts are rude or inappropriate, but I think that seeing as the app is geared towards college-aged individuals who have the opportunity to be anonymous, that is to be expected and just comes with the territory.

  2. Jane Manwarring says:

    I find this essay really interesting because of how prominent Yik Yak is on my college campus. Coming in as a freshman this year I had never heard of Yik Yak, but I downloaded it because it seemed like that’s what a lot of people talked about. Similar to what Nora Dunne writes about, I was pretty quickly disgusted and bored by the app. It seemed like all people did was talk about hooking up, asking random people they didn’t know to come to their rooms. While Dunne writes that most people do not use Yik Yak for cyber bullying, I think there’s still a serious risk for this with the anonymity that comes with the app. It seems ridiculous to me that the founders of Yik Yak said they wanted it to turn into an app for news — it seems like they are just trying to cover up their real desire, which appears to be simply entertaining college students.

  3. Dora Bialy says:

    I think the most appealing aspects of Yik Yak are the ability to post anonymously and the fact that it essentially has no point. Yes, the anonymity factor leads to crass, rude, or irrelevant commentary, but I think the funny and entertaining content somewhat makes up for it. It’s a pointless app that most of us college students only check if we’re looking to kill time. It’s entertaining, and it acts as a nice addendum to Twitter and Facebook. I think taking it too seriously detracts from its intended purpose—which is to share for the sake of sharing.

  4. Andrea Stacy says:

    I was not surprised at all to learn that the creators of Yik Yak are two recently graduated fraternity brothers. This app does serve its purpose of providing cheap entertainment, but at what cost? Personally, I have never been inspired or positively effected by anything I have read on Yik Yak. I don’t believe the “stupid and funny posts” on the app can outweigh the numerous negative effects such cyber bullying and attacks of reputation. The general rule I think we should all stand by is if you want to post something on the internet, you should feel comfortable with your name attached to it.

  5. Kelsey says:

    Like comments above, I agree with Dunne on her analysis of Yik Yak. As a student who has downloaded the app and deleted the app, due to the idiocy present and boredom ensued, I am disconnected from the Yik Yak community. The talk of Yik Yak has spread on my college campus recently. A graduate student created a blog, whattheyak.org, where he explored the ethics of anonymity, and went further to cast a positive light on it all. This perspective was new and refreshing to hear. Yesterday, during meeting where dining services were being discussed one student shared a yak. The yak said to not go to one of the dining halls because a worker was crying since her manager would only let her leave to visit her mom in the hospital if the dining location was empty. This got over 250 up Yaks. It showed a moment of solidarity online among students where people understood the worker’s rights were being violated. The last instance also happened yesterday. The student newspaper released an article where the recently elected student body president talked about potentially banning Yik Yak on our school’s wifi servers. The president himself mentioned this to me and we further discussed the ethics around this topic and much of what was said above is what we gathered. As that discussion was occurring yaks were posted saying that the new president’s administration would be a “reign of terror.” While a rational being can often see different perspectives surrounding Yik Yak, it is truly tough to decide whether this app should be cut off from student accessibility. I personally am not a fan of the app but do see the potential in it. It is currently not being used in such a manner and will it in the future? I truly don’t know, but I would not be quick to ban it from my college campus because that spirals into another discussion of ethics. Does bullying happen, yes. Does bullying happen outside the Internet, yes. So does that mean we ban talking? Is that a sound logic to an argument, eh. But does the good I’ve recently seen out way the bad? There is a power to anonymity, but I believe since digital natives grew up with this idea, through sites like formspring, we are cowardly in expressing our ideas outward and that is the appeal to so many. Why couldn’t students go to administration and request a peace vigil or stand up to the manager for mistreating a worker? We know what we say can be traced back to us but at the end of the day shouldn’t we be intentional with our language and say only things we’d be proud of?

  6. Mackenzie Morris says:

    My main issue with Yik Yak is perhaps the road Snapchat has already gone down: trying to become an actual news source. These apps are wildly successful due to their simplicity; too many sites and apps fail because they try to be everything at once. One could argue that Facebook is losing credibility for being stretched too thin and no longer appealing to younger users. College students like simple, trendy, fun apps like this because they’re entertaining without little attention or effort. As for my personal use with the app, I have occasionally seen disturbing content but it gets “downvoted” 5 times fairly quickly on a regular basis (which eliminates the Yak). Yik Yak shouldn’t be taken too seriously; in fact, I would predict its popularity will phase out rather soon.

  7. Karol Nowak says:

    I only started to use the Yik Yak recently, but I mainly use it just to check other user’s posts. I am particularly drawn to Yik Yak because it lets me follow what college students are current trends in thinking and actions amongst Loyola students, and I was surprised to learn that Yik Yak’s audience is indeed meant for college students. This further comes into light with the fact this social network was created by recent college graduates.

    Perhaps what really intrigues me the most is the fact these college graduates created the network in order to “make it a source for serious, on-the-ground breaking news” according to Dunne. Whenever I check Yik Yak, I notice that Yaks tend to be updated more frequently than those from everyone I follow on Twitter. Speed is certainly a key factor when updating the news. During the past semester in my Ethics and Communication, I learned that news reporters that were able to publish their stories first achieved so because they checked the hashtags used for a current event, allowing them to follow current updates behind what people experiencing that event had to say. With Yaks being posted every minute, this can be important an source in order to follow a breaking news update within a given area.

    But Dunne brings up an interesting point about anonymity, an integral feature of Yik Yak that sets it apart from other social networks. Because Yaks are anonymous, users will likely discuss things they normally wouldn’t talk about on websites like Facebook or Twitter, such as drinking or threats. In news reporting, credibility is especially important to ensure readers believe a particular set of details. If a source is anonymous, it wouldn’t achieve as much credibility compared to one that acknowledged who mentioned certain details to an incident. The fact anonymity allows users to freely post about silly things is also worth noting. If most people describe Yik Yak as being a site where “people post dumb things” to the point “it’s like a low-brow version of Twitter”, then it’s pretty clear why news reporters haven’t been using Yik Yak in order to follow breaking news updates. When the network’s creators wanted Yik Yak to be “a source on-the-ground breaking news”, they may’ve not achieved their original objective considering most news reporters still use Twitter over Yik Yak for such a means instead.

  8. V says:

    I agree with this essay. Although Yik Yak is prominent on college campuses anonymous, I do feel it can hurt a persons reputation if other people know it comment is about them. I feel Yik Yak will never be able to overtake Twitter and Facebook, but new and inventive apps are always catching the eyes our generations and future ones

  9. Patrice V. Pirpiris says:

    credible place for news. I have only seen it used as a place for gossip and a spot to anonymously post thoughts and ideas that people do not want associated with their names. Other social media platforms have the same risk of cyberbullying and gossip spreading, but they also have a little bit more accountability associated with them. Everyone that I know who uses Yik Yak reads the pointless thoughts posted as a source of entertainment. This platform cannot be anything more than a place for useless thoughts and gossip, and I would prefer to have Yik Yak erased as it has greater potential for harm than anything else.

  10. Patrice V. Pirpiris says:

    I completely agree that Yik Yak is quite useless; I do not see the potential for it to become a credible place for news. I have only seen it used as a place for gossip and a spot to anonymously post thoughts and ideas that people do not want associated with their names. Other social media platforms have the same risk of cyberbullying and gossip spreading, but they also have a little bit more accountability associated with them. Everyone that I know who uses Yik Yak reads the pointless thoughts posted as a source of entertainment. This platform cannot be anything more than a place for useless thoughts and gossip, and I would prefer to have Yik Yak erased as it has greater potential for harm than anything else.

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