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Yik Yak’s Growing Pains

December 7, 2014
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

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.

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