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Yik Yak’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Yik Yak, an app founded in 2013 by two students, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, of Furman University in South Carolina, has recently been shut down. The app was famous for the anonymous messages people could send to the community around them who also used the app. The app became well known and widely used throughout schools, especially across college campuses.

At the app’s height in 2014, the company had just raised $73 million dollars in capital funding and downloads in September 2014 spiked to 1.8 million. However, by early 2015 the downloads started to decline until September of 2016, only two years after the company’s height, the app was down to 125,000 downloads. By the end of 2016, Yik Yak had laid off 60 percent of its employees before its eventual shut down in April 2017 and sell-off of property and employee contracts to Square Inc. for $1 million.

The app’s popularity was due to its ability to create a community and let people be open and honest about their thoughts due to its anonymity. This is also the reason for its eventual decline. What people choose to due with the power of anonymity is up to them. Some chose to use it to give shoutouts to others and say nice things or inform others about what was happening in the community. Others hid behind anonymity to bully, use discriminatory speech, and threaten violence.

Those who used anonymity to terrorize are the reason that in 2014 Yik Yak began to create virtual fences around some schools nationwide in response to complaints from parents and educators. The misuse of anonymity continued on into 2016 when Yik Yak decided to allow users to have profiles and handles and eventually required them. Due to backlash of the required profiling which rid the app of the anonymity that many users turned to it for, the identifications went back to being optional.

Yik- Yak was community monitored and each post could be given an up or down by other users. The threatening and discriminatory posts were usually given enough downs that the posts were removed from the app. Although this might get rid of the harmful material, the app’s privacy policy made it difficult to bring about justice. The policy “did not allow institutions to identify users who posed a risk without a subpoena, court order or search warrant or an emergency request from a law enforcement official with a compelling claim of imminent harm.” In the meantime, the anonymous person continued posting to the app and causing or threatening to cause harm to individuals.

There are numerous examples of the misuse of the Yik Yak app. In November 2014, Matthew Mullen of Michigan State University was sentenced to two years probation for posting on Yik Yak and threatening a shooting. At the University of Missouri, Hunter M. Park was arrested for his posts on Yik Yak threatening violence against black students. A former Virginia Tech student pleaded guilty to using Yik Yak to threaten a repeat of the 2007 campus shooting. Several high schools in Massachusetts and California were evacuated after bomb threats were made on the app. These instances became so common that Yik Yak added filters that recognized certain words such as “bomb”. The app would then display a message reading:

Pump the brakes, this Yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and you’re probably an awesome person but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this Yak cool to post?

A study on anonymity at the MIT Media Lab compared the posts on Yik Yak to Twitter posts, where users are not anonymous, and found that Yik Yak was only slightly more likely to contain vulgar words. They also found that when vulgar words are used, they are met with negative feedback.
Although the app did receive some bad press surrounding the violence caused by anonymity, some users point to other reasons why the app might have failed. Morgan Hines, a student at Northeastern University, remarks on how the app created a sense of “camaraderie between students” and let others know what was happening around campus. However, when students left school and went back home, there interest in the app declined. There was less going on in the area and people were less involved with the app. This points to the hyper-localization of the app, not its anonymity, being its downfall.


Featured Image via Vimeo/WCN247

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