Of the new social media apps that have sprung up around connecting anonymously, Yik Yak might be the most toxic. Or the most misunderstood. Perhaps it's both.
The app lets its users post to a local feed without their names or any profile attached. The company, based in Atlanta, has 18 employees and has raised more than US$10 million. Following its launch last year, Yik Yak was active in middle schools, high schools and colleges, but now its developers are focused on higher ed institutions, after cyberbullying and abuse took over the app within grade schools. Still, abuse and violent threats have also played out at colleges using the app, and all the while it's unclear how much "connecting" the app really supports through the sophomoric humor of some of the posts on it.
During a Q&A interview with the IDG News Service, Yik Yak co-founder and CEO Tyler Droll and co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Brooks Buffington explained how they're trying to eliminate abusive content, how they see the app being used, and the role anonymity plays today in social media. They also think Yik Yak could become the next Twitter.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IDG: How would you describe this app to someone who's never heard of it before?
Droll: If we were to use as few words as possible, we'd call it a local, anonymous Twitter. We show you the 100 most recent posts within a 1.5-mile radius. But you don't have to friend each other or follow each other. It's an open network. It's like a bulletin board for your area.
IDG: Roughly how many colleges are in the app now?
Buffington: Last Christmas break we had two: Furman University and Wofford College in South Carolina. We spent this past spring trying to plant it in schools. We started at Georgia Tech. We'd go on the school's website, find all the student organizations and the leaders of them, and send them emails like, 'Hey, Yik Yak's awesome. Why aren't you using it yet?' We did that to about 20 or 30 schools. And then spring break happened, and it spread across the nation. Spring semester we ended with about 200 or 300 schools as a result of organic, word-of-mouth growth. Now it's in well over 1,000 colleges and universities. Now it's filling in the cracks with the technical colleges and community colleges and stuff like that.
Droll: Mainly we're at colleges, and that's who we've been targeting. But the app works anywhere. I know it works well at Walt Disney World, airports, sports stadiums, music and arts festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. Anywhere where there's a collection of people, it works.
IDG: What about middle and high schools? You were in them previously, but then came the reports around cyberbullying and other abuse.
Droll: We're actively not in those types of schools anymore. We gave them a chance with the app, and we quickly realized they're not psychologically ready to handle something with this much power. So we've blocked the app at almost every high school and middle school campus. If you try to open it within a high school or middle school campus, it will say, 'You can't use it here. It's for college-age and up.'
IDG: How do you know where all the high school and middle schools are to block it?
Droll: We found a company with a list of all of them, and we built geo-fences around the campuses. We tinker with them every day. Sometimes a campus will be a big private school, and have a huge campus, and we have to make the geo-fence bigger. Sometimes we miss a random school somewhere.
IDG: What company do you use?
Buffington: I think Maponics brought us around 85 percent of American high schools and middle schools. Now it's tinkering with them and adding the few that aren't on that list.
IDG: Your app has also come under fire at colleges and universities due to abuse, even some death threats. What, if anything, are you guys doing to combat abuse?
Droll: Anonymity can sometimes breed not the best behavior online. We err on the side of 'take stuff off as quickly as possible.' First, we have 'down-votes.' You can down-vote posts, and once it gets to minus-five, it's deleted. That gets bad content off very quickly. Beyond that, users can report messages. And on our end, we have a team of moderators working and we have filters running in the background. They're checking for names, comments, cyberbullying, racist and homophobic slurs, and general inappropriate content.
IDG: How quick are you to jump on a flagged post?
Buffington: We have moderators who review flagged posts. But we err on the side of, pretty much when something is flagged, it's almost always taken off, if it contains a lot of these key things we're looking for. That's usually an indication it's a bad post.
IDG: Will you be ramping up your anti-abuse efforts?
Buffington: A lot of what Tyler and I focus on on a daily basis is, how do we get communities to act as constructively and positively as they can. Colleges are great. What we do have a problem with is people posting threats. It's always going to be hard to stop. It's more of a factor of us becoming a large social media network. People post threats on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Obviously it's our job to try to mitigate and lessen it as much as possible. But it's a problem.
IDG: Can you give the breakdown between male and female users?
Droll: I wish we could, but we actually have no idea. There's no sign-up process for the app. You open it up, and you're in. Because there's no sign-up process, we don't collect any user data. We don't know guy, girl, what grade you're in, where you live, stuff like that.
IDG: What do you think American teenagers and millennials want today in technology and/or mobile apps?
Buffington: A big thing is ephemerality. They don't want everything to be so long-lasting. That's why Snapchat has done so well. Yik Yak is ephemeral too, because it only shows the 100 most recent posts. Here in San Francisco it's a few hours old, but if you're on a very active college campus, it's like 30 minutes worth of posts. And, I don't think people like the idea of being anchored to a profile. It's more in-the-moment to be part of something where you don't have to constantly be curating your profile.
IDG: What interests both of you about the larger social media space right now?
Droll: It seems like there's a changing of the guards. There's these new apps coming that people are flocking to away from Facebook. And it's cool to see that happen. We're just doing our best to be a part of that.
IDG: There's an argument to be made now that the rising popularity of apps built around anonymity, like Secret and Whisper, is causing established sites like Facebook to think more about anonymity. What do you think of that?
Buffington: It's good for the space. If Facebook wants a slice of the pie, it's probably a pretty valuable pie.
IDG: Why do you think we're seeing more of these types of apps pop up?
Droll: There's cycles. When the Internet first came around, there was a lot of anonymous stuff. And then came the real identity on Facebook, and now maybe we're going back into anonymity. On Yik Yak, people can post a joke, and if it's not funny, alright, it's not funny. But the whole world doesn't think I'm not funny. It's the content that's not funny, not me. It crowdsources humor. We made Yik Yak because we saw these five parody Twitter accounts on our campus, and the thought was, there's more than five funny kids on our campus of thousands. Why not crowdsource that humor -- let everyone have a chance to throw in a little witty comment about what's going on around us?
IDG: What do you think of Facebook now?
Buffington: Their popularity is waning with the high school and college crowd. If Facebook is trying to do something anonymous, I think people are going to take a step back and say, 'How anonymous is this really,' with all the privacy and user data issues.
IDG: What's next for Yik Yak?
Droll: Twitter started out silly, like, 'What am I having for lunch?' Now it's one the world's best news sources. I think we could challenge that. And the way we'd do that is through the feature Peek. As it works now, it allows you to look into [posts from other schools]. But what we'll be adding is, you would be able to create your own location, and search anywhere in the world. You could type in 'Paris,' now I'm in the middle of Paris, and I see this feed of yaks in Paris. And then you can save the feed as "Paris." Imagine there's newsworthy events happening somewhere in the world, and the whole world is using Yik Yak to look in while it's unfolding. Peek's been out since last spring, but this new feature, to look in anywhere in the world, should be out within a few weeks. And the fact that it's anonymous protects people's privacy.
IDG: Any plans to bring ads to the service?
Buffington: That's way far away. Right now we're focused on growing the user base and improving the experience. If we ever did, we'd be prime for local ads.
IDG: Do you wish you were based in Silicon Valley or San Francisco?
Buffington: I think there's an advantage being in Atlanta. It's easier to get more loyal talent. Who would you rather work for, Coca-Cola or Yik Yak? A lot of people come out to California because there's fun things to work for. But I think being separated from all the hoopla that goes on out here has been good in terms of keeping our heads down, and, up until now, flying under the radar.