Yikkity Yak Does Talk Back: The Future of Yik Yak’s Unique Brand

Photo by Graig Grazioi/ The Jambar.

By Liam Bouquet

Photo by Graig Grazioi/ The Jambar.
Photo by Graig Grazioi/ The Jambar.

After an editorial published earlier in the spring semester, Cam Mullen, the lead community developer at Yik Yak, reached out to The Jambar for an interview about the platform.

“One of our employees recently peeked into Youngstown State University and showed us the awesome feed on your campus. People are posting nearly every 60 seconds and you are already one of the most active regions in the area,” Mullen said.

Yik Yak, a location-based app created by Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, functions by placing users in a forum within a ten-mile radius of their location. Though they can use a handle to post from, they can also choose to post entirely anonymously. Yik Yak is currently ranked as the 21st most downloaded free social media app on the Apple app store nearly a year and a half after release.

Adam Earnheardt, chair of the communications department, attributed the company’s success to the anonymity factor.

“One that it is anonymous and the second is that it is location based. What it did was for the people who were on Twitter who wanted to rant and leave opinions, they often had their Twitter address tied to their names and their real identities. With Yik Yak and other location-based anonymous social posting sites, … it gives them that protection,” he said. “For right or wrong, however you want to look at it, that is the main motivation for using those sites and that is what made it popular.”

Though Mullen is aware of the app’s reputation, he said the app can benefit any community.

“Yik Yak does have a layer of anonymity and sometimes that does not breed the best behavior in people but, in general, no matter what app or social network, there are going to be people that misuse the app — that is on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Yik Yak,” Mullen said  “We want to provide a voice to everyone. It is a really new social media concept where no matter if you are Justin Bieber or if you are Cam Mullen, your post is treated the same. It gives an equal voice to everyone on campus; it lets you have conversations that let you transcend friend groups.”

Evolving Yik Yak

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his campaign for presidency on Monday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia during the university’s triweekly convocation — an event that is mandatory for students.

Even as media outlets directly covered the event, many also looked toward Yik Yak, the location-based anonymous social media app, for live updates on students’ reaction.

In response to Cruz’s continued use of the word “imagine” in his speech, one Yaker posted, “Imagine no mandatory convos.” Another quipped, “Imagine better Wi-Fi at Liberty University.”

Cam Mullen said this is the group’s vision for the future — a powerful hyper local news source that people can tap into for unique insight regardless of location.

“We have this feature which we somewhat recently released that lets you drop a pin anywhere in the world and see what people are Yaking about in that area. When there is ever anything dramatic going on on campus and anything people are talking about, you can drop a pin and get real-time accounts and posts from that area, which is way different than a hashtag that can be coming from all over the world,” he said.

Mullen said Yik Yak can be useful to both administrators and local companies and news sources — citing his recent experience at the College Media Association 2014.

“We met with a bunch of college newspaper reporters and writers. Many of them have been using Yik Yak to source stories,” Mullen said. “Florida State University had a school shooting this past November. As it was going on, there was no news articles published yet and there was nothing posted online, if you peeked in, and many many people did, on Yik Yak you could get an account of what was going on. There were students in the library, where the shooter was, Yaking and giving details about what happened, if anyone was hurt and that information wasn’t accessible anywhere else, as far as I know, except on Yik Yak.”

Earnheardt agreed that this future was certainly possible for Yik Yak, but changes needed to come to the platform first.

“You know, I think that is what Yik Yak’s founders wanted it to be. I think they wanted it to be something that was a new platform for somebody to share information, and I don’t think they had any idea that it would turn into something negative where it would be used as a tool for bullying and so on,” he said. “It all depends on how they retool, rebrand Yik Yak in the coming years. I think it does have that staying power but at the same time, I think there is a real opportunity for the Yik Yak users to turn it into that and to make it a real meaningful site for sharing, updates, news and information — rather than just trying to use it for hook-ups and complaints,” Earnheardt said.

Battling Yik Yak’s Darker Side

As Earnheardt said, Yik Yak, since its launch, has been a magnet for controversies both on and off college campuses.

In February of 2014, Yik Yak caused three high school campuses to shut down in Mobile, Alabama after a post warning about a shooting circulated among the campus body. A University of North Carolina student was arrested in December after being connected to a bomb threat post on Yik Yak.

Yik Yak has also been used for cyber-bullying, prompting a petition on Change.org by Elizabeth Long, a victim of bullying on Yik Yak, to “shut down” the app. The petition currently has 78,287 signatures.

Mullen said that Yik Yak has continuously worked toward preventing threats, bullying and hate speech through efforts like blocking Yik Yak from over 100,000 high school campuses around the nation, internal moderators and community moderation — content is deleted from the feed after five downvotes and users can flag posts.

“We have filters running looking for hot words and names like you said. And we have a team of moderators that are going through these posts and removing ones that should be removed and putting back on ones that are fine. We also have the ability to suspend users, block users if we see that they are misusing the app. There is no one answer, but we have a number of different kinds of tools,” he said.

Though Mullen understood groups fears, he said banning the app from campuses would be nearly impossible — since many students would be able to use their cellular data to circumvent blocks on the Wi-Fi — and instead commenting on the benefits administrators have found in embracing the app.

“Yik Yak is a really powerful tool and administrators have noticed that. On one side, their response is, ‘we should block it and not let students use it.’ On the other side, administration is learning to embrace it, and we are seeing more and more a shift toward schools actually learning to embrace it. We have actually been reached out by a number of schools who want more information about Yik Yak on their campus to learn more about student life instead of having access to just the most recent 100 posts,” he said. “There are hundreds and thousands to millions more of these cases that bring communities together.”

He pointed toward a specific example of faculty and administration utilizing Yik Yak.

“At Colgate University, a bunch of professors got on Yik Yak, the first day of finals last semester. I think 50 professors ended up writing motivating and encouraging posts, signing their names as the handle, and the students loved it. You know, we had philosophy teachers quoting Plato,” he said. “Yik Yak is basically a campus bulletin board and the community gets to decide what stays up. When the administration and the teachers and the professors get involved, they do so in creative ways that students would like.”

Earlier that semester at Colgate University, students were prompted to protest the lack of diversity at the campus after a series of racist posts on Yik Yak. The professor’s posts were in response to this controversy in attempt to influence greater positivity on Yik Yak.

Earnheardt was skeptical of heavily limiting speech on the app, instead supporting this type community involvement as a necessary step to truly change the culture of the comments.

“I think one of their hallmark features is this idea that you are open to say anything for good or bad. I think that is what the problem is. They really haven’t kind of taught anyone what is responsible speech. Maybe there is an opportunity there for other Yakers, and there is by voting things down, to when they see something negative — like racist and sexist — to get on there and vote this down as a way to monitor the community.”

Though Earnheardt was also strongly against banning the app, he said Yik Yak does need to do more.

“You know what I think their responsibility is and probably where they have dropped the ball a little bit: providing a forum for people to share best practices, best uses for Yik Yak,” he said. “The part that scares me is there is this immediate reaction to say, ‘oh, let’s shut it down. It is bad; it’s evil.’ without even realizing its virtues. There could be some real possibilities with keeping it open. You just need to find ways to teach people the best uses and the best practices are. These people who are trying to shut it down — that is ludicrous.”

Mullen emphasized that the app is constantly improving bringing in new features in addition to monitoring techniques.

“When people misuse our app, it doesn’t leave very good impressions on the community, which is why we are improving,” Mullen said. “We are definitely still in the early stage.”