Today, many people aim to become social media influencers, while others prefer anonymity. One platform that embraces anonymity is Yik Yak, which made a comeback in 2021 and has gained popularity on college campuses across the United States for the second time.
The Genesis of Yik Yak
The app was initially developed in 2013 by graduates of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. Their collaboration began when they found themselves in the same class, acquiring the coding skills necessary to create applications.
Droll and Buffington's vision for Yik Yak was to create an app that allowed users to share short messages with people within a five-mile radius without revealing their identity. The app quickly gained popularity on the Furman University campus, marking the beginning of its success.
This concept captivated universities across the United States and eventually expanded to other countries like Spain, Germany, Brazil, and Australia.
In the beginning, users shared their opinions, class notes, and complaints about things on campus, such as dining hall food. Yik Yak served as a platform for people to share their thoughts without the fear of being judged, as no one knew who was behind the keyboard.
The Duality of Anonymity
The ability to communicate anonymously can bring value to people and potentially benefit everyone, but it also has its flaws. Yik Yak serves as a perfect example of how anonymity can go completely wrong, with instances of misuse and harm.
Buffington and Droll's journey in the world of app development began before the creation of YikYak. Initially, Droll and his fraternity brother, Doug Warstler, ventured into the gaming industry with the development of Fry Cook, a game that unfortunately did not gain traction.
Buffington joined the team later on during the development of the app Dicho, short for "dichotomy," which was designed for asking simple questions. Subsequently, in June of 2012, they established Locus Engineering LLC.
Buffington and Droll graduated from college in 2013 and returned to their hometown in Georgia, while Warstler continued his college education.
Locus Engineering LLC eventually disbanded, and Warstler's involvement ceased. However, the Buffington and Droll duo persevered until the YikYak app began to decline towards the end of 2014.
By 2015, the app's downloads plummeted by more than 90% due to user behavior and the company's response to the situation. Users began exploiting the app's anonymity feature, leading to a surge in negative consequences associated with anonymity. This included users receiving cyberbullying comments about their appearance, frightening stalker threats, and even threats of violence in schools. Furthermore, as users graduated and relocated to other cities or returned home, their interest in the app waned.
In an attempt to address the increasing negativity and enhance safety, the company introduced 'Yakarma' and implemented geofences. However, these measures proved insufficient to keep pace with the evolving challenges.
Yakarma allowed users to regulate comments by giving positive or negative votes to the messages posted by up or down voting, similar to Reddit. In 2014, a troubling incident involving an Atlanta high school student named Elizabeth Long raised concerns about the safety of students. While in recovery from a suicide attempt, she received hateful, anonymous comments about her depression and was even encouraged to try again.
This incident prompted high schools to take action. In response, her high school informed students that they would face consequences if caught with Yik Yak on their phones.
To avoid being shut down, the company attempted to create geofences. Schools were required to fill out a form, indicating their coordinates to request the service to stop working in that area. As a result, over 100,000 schools were "fenced."
As a last resort, the company tried to implement the mandatory use of usernames as a new safety measure. However, users disliked the idea so much that the app pretty much became vacant overnight, going against the anonymous aspect of the app. Consequently, this feature was eventually pulled.
In 2017, the final straw broke when Yik Yak's founders, Buffington and Droll, ceased to consider advice and criticism from users. As a result, they had no choice but to shut down the app. The app and the company, which had been worth over $400 million, were sold for a mere $1 million to the mobile payment company, Square.
The Rebirth of Yik Yak
Fast forward to August 2021, and Yik Yak made a return to the iOS app store in the United States. New, anonymous owners had purchased the rights to redevelop the app in February of that year. These new owners took a stronger approach to combat hate, discrimination, and threats on the platform, which helped Yik Yak regain its popularity on college campuses in the U.S., including Rutgers University.
In a statement, the company expressed its mission: "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."
Anonymity in Modern College Culture
In recent years, college students have witnessed a shift in online communication. Gone are the days of intense cyberbullying on social media platforms. Instead, they have turned to sharing their thoughts about the best and worst fraternities and sororities, party experiences, and evaluating who's considered "hot" or "not."
Interestingly, there is a belief that some of these posts originate from individuals within Greek life, potentially aiming to tarnish the reputations of competing organizations. Amidst this Greek life chatter, students also engage in posting relatable and humorous content, including messages and memes that resonate with the broader Rutgers community. These posts strive to climb the ranks and reach the top of the leaderboard, earning more "Yakarma."
The Appeal of Anonymity
Yik Yak, as a platform, has seen substantial changes for the better. However, the allure of anonymity continues to captivate students on campus. Within the sprawling Rutgers campus, accommodating nearly 40,000 individuals, the prospect of sharing personal thoughts and opinions on mainstream social media can be daunting. The unique appeal of Yik Yak lies in its ability to connect everyone on an equal playing field, allowing them to engage with their community openly and without fear.
In an interview with Tech Crunch back in 2015, Droll stated, “It’s all about fostering this place where you can come and connect with your community, and anonymity creates this level playing field so you can be the star athlete, the quietest kid in the class. You can Yak something to Yik Yak and have the same amount of people reading it, interacting with it, talking to you, and that's kind of the value anonymity brings.”
However, the new community guardrails on the Yik Yak website suggest they now have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior of any kind and have implemented a one-strike policy, immediately banning anyone who goes against these guidelines. Though the app is still anonymous, users are now required to provide a telephone number, email address, and must complete an onboarding process that specifies the stricter policies, eliminating any confusion.
To completely cover Yik Yak's bases, the website also includes “stay safe resources” with information on how to stay out of danger in real life when conversations on the app are made in person.
Enhanced Safety and Accountability
As for college and university campus safety, students must provide their school email address to be added to their school’s ‘community.’ This restricts non-university students in the five-mile radius from getting the inside scoop of what’s going on on campus. Initially, people were skeptical of this feature, but eventually, most of the Rutgers community got aboard the Yik Yak train.
The Evolution of Yik Yak
Yik Yak has evolved into a low-key alternative to Twitter, mainly because it is a hot spot for gossip, fake news, fabricated rumors, and serves as a platform for fraternity DJ reviews. People tend to be more outspoken when expressing their thoughts online behind a keyboard, and this confidence is heightened when there is no name attached to the messages being posted.
For the most part, many individuals from Gen Z have learned not to take rude and hateful comments to heart. They have learned to brush these things off because, at the end of the day, if the person doesn’t have the courage to say these things to your face, they probably aren’t someone you should waste your time being upset about.
The journey of Yik Yak is a testament to the challenges of managing anonymity in social media. Its resurgence comes with enhanced safety features and a commitment to combat misuse, making it a valuable platform for college communities. The duality of anonymity continues to captivate students, providing a unique space for open and equal communication.
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