Yik Yak is an anonymous location-based social media application developed by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. Yik Yak serves as a local bulletin board, showing the most recent and popular posts from users in the surrounding area. Yik Yak was created with the goal of "[creating] a way for people to instantly connect with everyone around them". Users are able to upvote or downvote posts on the app, and view popular posts separately from recent posts. Photo sharing, the "herd" feature, Yakarma, peeking at other Yak feeds, and usernames known as "handles" have all been implemented since Yik Yak's inception.
Yik Yak is now located in over 2,000 college campuses across the United States". Although heavily concentrated in college campuses all over the nation, Yik Yak is beginning to emerge outside of these communities. However, as of late 2016, there has been a sharp decline in the use of the platform, particularly within the college community, due to unpopular changes in how it functions. In order to make the platform more personal, Yik Yak removed the option to allow users to remain anonymous, requiring the use of usernames on all posts. A number of similar applications designed around anonymity have drawn users away from Yik Yak during this decline, driving Yik Yak back to its original position on anonymity.
As one of the most popular anonymous social applications on the market, Yik Yak has issues with people abusing this platform by posting threats to the public and cyberbullying other users. As for many other anonymous apps, the ethics of anonymity on the internet is hotly debated, and it has presented many issues involving law enforcement, integrity, and accountability.
- 1 History
- 2 How It Works
- 3 Features
- 4 Similar Applications
- 5 Ethical Implications
- 6 See Also
- 7 References
Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington first came up with the idea for the Yik Yak app when they were attending Furman University. They met each other in a programming class and their friendship only built up from there. Droll and Buffington were intrigued by anonymous Twitter accounts that were catered specifically to the Furman campus, and they wanted to recreate this experience in a phone application. However, it was not until they graduated when they decided to take their idea more seriously. Doll and Buffington released the first version of the application to the Apple App store in November 2013. Yik Yak quickly gained popularity, and in January 2014, Atlanta Capital, which is an investment firm, decided to invest $20,000 into the app. In April of 2014, Yik Yak closed a $1.5 million investment deal and later a $10 million dollar investment deal with Vaizra Investments, with participation from DCM, Azure Capital Partners and other angel investors. Within one year of the applications release, Yik Yak was one of the top ten most downloaded social media applications of the year. Yik Yak has had tremendous success in US colleges, but its growth in popularity and support outside of the US is still very small. Yik Yak's rapid rise to popularity lead them to winning the fastest rising startup award at the 8th Annual Crunchies Awards.
In March 2016, Yik Yak introduced the "Handles" feature, which allowed users to attach a username to their Yak should they choose to forgo their anonymity. This allowed others to chat with the poster of the Yak. In July 2016, Yik Yak introduced "Profiles," which subsequently made once-optional handles a mandatory element to posting a Yak. The Profile element of the platform aimed to continue fostering local connections and hoped to reduce the incidence of hate and bullying on the application. Composing of a profile picture, some details about the person, and the option to specify links to other platforms (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc), Yik Yak profiles eliminated the fundamental characteristic of anonymity, hoping to foster more personable community . From late 2015 to late 2016, Yik Yak downloads had decreased 76 percent. Users were dissatisfied with the application and longer wished to use the app based on the lack of anonymity, forcing Yik Yak to reinstate optional handles once more . In December 2016, Yik Yak announced that they would be laying off the majority of its staff .
How It Works
The proper term for posts made on YikYak are titled "Yaks" and each posts thrives off anonymous submissions from users within a 5-mile proximity. The main page is viewable in two different formats. One consists of the most recent feed of Yaks users have made. The second feed showcases the most popular recent Yaks, based on Yik Yak's upvoting system. Registered users are allowed to post new Yaks, upvote, downvote, and comment on existing Yaks. If a Yak gets enough upvotes, it will be moved under the "Hot" tab, where the most popular Yaks live. On the other hand, if a Yak gets 5 total downvotes, the Yak will be removed from the public feed. To incentivize interaction, Yik Yak uses a reward system through "Yakarma", which means that the more interactions a user participates in on the application, the more Yakarma will be rewarded. Every post, upvote, downvote, and comment will add to a users Yakarma. Users can also choose to read "Yaks" made in different locations of the world by choosing the location from a map. When using this features, users are unable to contribute but may browse through the most popular "Yaks".
Photo Sharing. While posting a picture, users are still allowed to post a comment along with it so the text does not have to be overlaid on the photo. Many users had been asking for this feature for a long time. Before they actually released this feature, they gave a few communities the ability to share photos earlier in order to provide feedback and ideas that they could use ".
In October 2014, Yik Yak released a feature allowing users to view other Yik Yak community feeds. Particularly, users would be allowed to see into other US and international college's Yak feeds. Giving the users the ability to search what area they want to see yaks from allows users to get an unfiltered look at what is happening in a certain area at any given time. Brooks Buffington, the COO and co-founder of Yik Yak said, “We’re building Yik Yak into a technology that fulfills a higher purpose of delivering organic and unfiltered truths, which cannot be said for other news mediums” .
On May 15, 2015, Yik Yak released the ability for users to set a basecamp for their Yak feed. This feature allows users to set their Yak feed to a certain location, which they can access even if they are not actually in that area. Once a user sets up their 'herd', they have the capability to switch between posting in their local feed or their "My Herd" feed.". Users only have the capability to set their herd once, so users have to choose their location wisely. This idea was inspired because many users wanted a way to remain a part of their campus herd, even when they were studying abroad or away for the summer. In addition, this update allows users to see trending herd locations, allowing for exploration of herds both locally and around the world.
Yakarma points are used on Yik Yak. When a user first downloads the app, they start off with 100 points.  This is the breakdown of Yakarma points:
- New Yak Post: +2 points
- Yak Reply: +2-6 points
- Upvote a Post: +1 point
- Upvote a Reply: +1 point
- Downvote a Post: -1 point
- Downvote a Reply: -1 point
There are no real benefits or rewards for having Yakarma points; however, users can see how much they interact with the app. Yakarma points are a way to track behavior and engagement, taking into account all user activity in the application including posts, comments, replies, upvotes and downvotes. If desired, a user can email the Yik Yak team to have their Yakarma reset.
Starting on March 8, 2016, users have the ability to create handles. Handles act as a username for users on Yik Yak. Users do not have to create a handle if they choose to remain anonymous. Also, users that do create a handle have the ability to choose when they post with that handle. If a user posts with their handle, all other members of the Yik Yak community can see the handle with the corresponding post. No two users can have the same handle and handles are given out first-come, first-served. Yik Yak has stated that they hope that handles will give users an option to express their own personality, providing “a new way to establish their unique voice in the community”, should they choose to use a handle.
SecretSecret was an iOS and Android phone application that was created on January 30, 2014. The application was designed to allow users to share messages anonymously with their friends, friends of friends, or publicly. This anonymous sharing feature is very similar to Yik Yak, and Secret also modeled their newsfeed to be almost exactly the same as Yik Yak's newsfeed . Although this Silicon Valley application's initial launch and reception were successful, Secret was faced with some legal issues in Brazil that halted its development. A prosecutor brought a bullying issue to court after being bullied while using Secret. The app allows for people out of the United States to address an issue of bullying by sending a letter to an American judge, which basically renders international users powerless. According to chapter 5, Article 1 of the Brazilian constitution, the article states that "the expression of thought is free, anonymity being forbidden." . Consequently, the judge ruled Secret's promise of anonymity unconstitutional. Due to people misusing the application like this, Secret's founder and CEO David Byttow decided to remove the application from the app store..
Nearby is an iOS and Android phone application that launched in June 2010. The service has over 2.5 million users. Nearby was designed to help people connect with and develop friendships with people located nearby. Using the user's GPS capabilities on their phone, the app would compile a list of other nearby users. Through the app, users could send private text messages, photo messages, virtual gifts, and view other users' profiles. Unlike Yik Yak, Nearby is not an anonymous social networking application. However, Nearby users can choose to display as much information as desired, including providing a fake name. There is also a public “Live Stream” feature, which is very similar to Facebook’s news feed where users can see other' profiles. This differs from Yik Yak because users do not actually post to a public feed, but instead send individual messages to other users.
Branch is an iOS and Android social community app designed around anonymity. It aims to bring people from a specific area together in a safe environment. The platform utilizes "Spots," which are specific locations in a general vicinity where people can check-in to and communicate with others. For example, on a college campus, a user can post anonymously in the Spot corresponding to the student union or the football stadium. Unlike Yik Yak, however, a user's ability to reveal any sort of identity is solely at their discretion. When privately communicating with others on Yik Yak, the user must disclose their handle and profile in order to do so .
Branch was acquired by Facebook in 2014, and has been designed to foster community and discuss hot topics in a forum-like setting. Previously, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had stated that "having two identities for yourself", which anonymous apps fundamentally set out to do and Facebook aims to eliminate with their use of personal profiles, "is an example of a lack of integrity." However, when asked about his stance on the issue of anonymity shortly before the acquisition went public, Zuckerberg respond "...I definitely think we’re at the point where we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity things. If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden," affirming the industry trend towards favored anonymity .
In 2014, SilverSky Labs, a computer security firm, discovered that hackers could obtain full access to a Yik Yak user’s account given only the user’s ID. Yik Yak was sending this information to a third party user analytics API, Flurry, over plaintext HTTP. This transfer method made it easy for traffic sniffing software, like Wireshark, to capture the private information and use it to identify Yik Yak users. Although Yik Yak was able to provide a security patch to fix the problem, this instance intensified growing concerns about the safety of user information on the app. In 2015, researchers from New York University and East China Normal University performed a study which found that users messages could be localized, putting them at greater risk of de-anonymization.
Since its conception, Yik Yak has been infamous for the cyberbullying that occurs between its users. In 2016, the anonymous aspect of Yik Yak was revised in an attempt to alleviate this problem. Users are now required to create handles that will be attached to all of their activity within the app.
Bullying & Cyberbullying
ThreatsMissouri University of Science and Technology where two students posted violent threats to targeting black students at their university. This was a news headliner during November 2015, but there have been plenty of other instances similar to this at universities across the United States. On the topic of the Missouri University incident, Brooks Buffington said, “Let’s not waste any words here: This sort of misbehavior is not what Yik Yak is to be used for. Period. It is not condoned by Yik Yak, and it violates our Terms of Service". Another school that had a similar issue is the University of Mary Washington. Anonymous Yik Yak posts targeted the Feminists United on Campus group, some were even threatening to the members. Once the threats were reported to police, debates had arisen on whether the site should be banned from the campus indefinitely.
Although Yik Yak is anonymous, when law enforcement is involved with a situation involving Yik Yak they comply on a "case-by-case" basis. Yik Yak can give into law enforcement subpoenas, court orders, search warrants, or emergency requests for information. Once that is approved, law enforcement can track down anyone that uses the application.
Mental Health Support
On April 25th, 2015, a student at the University of Michigan posted a Yak about his planned suicide, prompting a large response and discussion about mental health at the University of Michigan . The original post titled "Thank You & Bye" read:
"Goodbye, Wolverines. As stupid as it might seem, 4/30 will be my last day of existence. It is much easier to tell this anonymously than to my friends directly. They'll figure it out later. Thank you." 
It was reported that the original Yak was taken down, but several students were able to take screenshots of the original post. Some students, however, even went so far as to reach out to the anonymous poster to meet up and talk. While these one-on-one meetings never made it to fruition, a large gathering was organized at the University of Michigan's Central Campus Diag. Approximately 15-20 students gathered at 2 p.m on April 26th, dressed in maize colored shirts to show support for the original post and others facing mental illness, depression, and suicide .
Banning Yik Yak
Multiple universities, including Saint Louis University, Augustana College, Utica College and Norwich University, have blocked Yik Yak from their campus wireless networks. This is known as "setting up a geofence".  While some think this is a violation of free speech, others salute the universities for protecting students from online bullying and hate speech. In addition to universities blocking Yik Yak, high schools are taking part in this movement too. Many have decided to ban it from the school environment entirely, allowing for consequences to occur if discrepancies between students develop due to this site. Yik Yak has argued that they will ban users that actively bully.  However, it is unclear and inconclusive to figure out if behind the scenes, they are actually doing all that they say they are.