In August 2021, Yik Yak, the once-popular anonymous social media platform on Android and iOS, made a comeback after shutting its doors in 2017. Six months after its return, it’s started to gain attention once more, as a result of cyberbullying—the main reason why it declined years ago.
However, this new Yik Yak has a new commitment: the new owners say they will make it “a fun place free of bullying, threats, and all sort of negativity.”
Background: Yik Yak’s success and downfall
Yik Yak was the brainchild of two Furman University graduates who decided to put their careers on hold—one was supposed to go to medical school; the other was already in finance—to give starting a business of their own a shot.
Aimed at college students, it didn’t take long for the Yik Yak app to take off after it began spreading from one campus to another and then on to high schools. What made it so popular among students was its anonymity and hyper-local context (Messages posted on Yik Yak can be viewed by people using the app within a five mile radius). Within a year of its official release in November 2013, Yik Yak secured $75M USD from investors. In 2017, it was valued at $400M USD.
But as quickly as popularity came, the social media platform also promptly nosedived. Many attributed its demise to the growing number of cyberbullying, harassment, and threat incidents within the app fueled by the very features the platform thrived on. Such incidents brought about a lot of complaints from parents and school administrators, which led to schools eventually banning the app from being accessed using school networks. Not only that, Yik Yak cut off its high-school users—its second largest group of users—from using the app while on campus.
In 2015, Yik Yak was caught automatically downvoting posts containing names of competing brands like Fade, Sneek, and Unseen, a tactic that Techcrunch noted was entirely against its mission of providing “organic, unfiltered feed of news.”
Amid all the challenges and a painful decline of 76% in its userbase, Yik Yak made changes to save its business. In January 2016, Yik Yak introduced a web version, but probably the most notable change happened in August 2016 when the company did away with anonymity entirely while keeping the hyperlocality of the app. However, the changes weren’t enough and by the end of 2016, the company had laid off 60 percent of its team. Then, in May 2017, the inevitable happened: Yik Yak founders said their goodbyes, and servers were shut down a month later.
Reactions to the Yak being back
Then, after nearly five years, Yik Yak made an unexpected comeback, with a $6.25M USD seed funding to boot.
In the comeback announcement, “Team Yik Yak” introduced themselves as the new owners, saying that they purchased back the rights to redevelop Yik Yak after it was sold to Square, Inc (now called Block, Inc).
“We’re bringing Yik Yak back because we believe the global community deserves a place to be authentic, a place to be equal, and a place to connect with people nearby. We’re committed to making Yik Yak a fun place free of bullying, threats, and all sort of negativity.”
Yik Yak appears to be staying true to the mission of the original platform, which is to make Yik Yak a place for people within five miles of each other to connect, free from labels and risk. The company re-affirmed its stance against bullying and hate speech, saying it has a “one strike and you’re out” rule if someone violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service.
But with anonymity still in place on the platform, people are still concerned.
“It is time to have that conversation with kids about online behavior and etiquette. Again,” wrote Director of Technology Josh Sumption for the Southwest West Central (SWWC) Service Cooperative, a Minnesota-based educational service agency, in an article entitled, “Yik Yak, Yuk.”
Sumption points out that, unlike its previous version, the current Yik Yak doesn’t have geofencing enabled, so anyone with a phone in school can use it, may they be college students or not. On top of that, he also revealed that Yik Yak’s downvote feature is being used to eliminate the positive statements school administrators and student champions post to overpower negative conversation in their area.
Some of those who were around when Yik Yak made it big have some public Twitter thoughts to share about its comeback, too:
Anonymity isn’t bad
Not everyone is against the anonymity that Yik Yak has to offer. In fact, some argue that being anonymous might encourage people to step in when they see something horrible happening.
“Bullying will unfortunately always happen online and offline, however, being able to remain anonymous helps motivate people to aide victims of harassment,” wrote Rey Junco, Harvard alum and currently a senior researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, in a Wired article in 2015. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult for bystanders to remain anonymous in offline spaces; thereby making it less likely bystanders will intervene when they see someone being bullied.”
Junco also argued that an anonymous space gives students the ability to “take creative risks” and develop their identities. “For instance, a student who is exploring a gay identity often feels more comfortable exploring the coming out process anonymously in online spaces because of an increased feeling of safety.”
People have been abusing anonymity before the dawn of social media, and ending it is not the solution (Techdirt highlighted three reasons why in a post last year). Many, many studies have also shown that anonymity alone isn’t the reason for people behaving badly online. There are many cases on Twitter, for example, where users post harassing replies under their real names with real photos of their faces.
Going about with Yik Yak and anonymous apps
“Instead of being afraid of Yik Yak, campus professionals should embrace it as not only a way for young people to explore creativity and develop their identities, but also as a way for professionals to learn more about the campus environment through students’ eyes,” Junco advised in the same article. Great advice, if you ask me. It is wise for parents and carers to take heed as well.
Things may have been different seven years ago, but it stands to reason that the upsides of anonymity remain the same. That being said, everyone in the community and not just parents and school administrators could shape the conversation exchanged within their five mile radius.
There will always be negativity in online spaces we frequent, no doubt, but there are several ways it can be combatted. As we’ve already seen, talking to our kids about Yik Yak and anonymous apps, in general, is essential. Parents, carers, and school administrators can start by saying that one is never truly anonymous on Yik Yak. Posts are tied to accounts linked to phone numbers. And numbers can be traced, especially by law enforcement. That alone should make a student think twice about posting threats of bodily harm online. Take the case of a Louisiana State University (LSU) student who was arrested for terrorizing by falsely warning of a campus shooting, even though he used someone else’s phone to post on Yik Yak.
Regularly posting positive posts, offering genuine help to those who need it, showing support to someone who decided to be vulnerable and share their testimonies, and starting conversations with interesting topics could also shift the conversation away from the negative. Foster empathy within your herd and promote bystander intervention should they encounter incidents of cyberbullying, hate, or other nasty yaks aimed at one person or a group.
And if some Yik Yak users are actively downvoting such tone-changing posts, then report it.
Yik Yak could have been better then. Now it’s back, if you’re a Yik Yak user and stand behind what its for, the opportunity to make this platform the way it was designed to be is here now. Own it, Yak responsibly, and together with your herd, shape it into a space that benefits everyone.