The Inherent Problem with Anonymous Apps

Vanity Fair and TechCrunch recently reported that Yik Yak is in trouble, a company that raised over $70 million dollars and valued at around $400 million. At the time it last raised, Yik Yak had exploded across thousands of campuses in the US, propelling it to the top ranks in downloads on iOS and Android.

Here’s the problem: Yik Yak rocketed because it was entertaining and relatable to their college demographic. But, like most entertainment products: novelty wears off, interest wanes, and attention moves on.

Almost a year ago, I decided to shut down a product called Secret. Similar to Yik Yak, it exploded in popularity. Secret had lots of users and lots of money was invested in it. But, we saw the same pattern over and over again: a community would discover the product, it would spread like wildfire, and then die off, almost as quickly as it came.

The cycle is analogous to video game release cycles. When a quality game releases it sees a spike in usage and attention but is then shelved as players move on to the next thing. Such as Portal, Braid, and Dragon Age. However, some games break this cycle and go on to become highly valuable and lasting franchises; games like Counter-Strike, Minecraft, and League of Legends. So what is it that sets these games apart? Community.

For an entertainment product to survive a hype cycle it has to provide unique utility, evolve with its customers, and foster communities.

Like Secret, Yik Yak captured the imagination of millions of people and provided a lot of entertainment value, but it doesn’t foster community the way social products that last do. I like to refer to this as the Fantasy Land Theory, because most anonymous apps are rooted in just that: fantasy. And like most entertainment, they’re designed to provide an escape from reality.

This presents a quandary. While anonymous apps provide an escape, it seems that comes with an inherent expiration date. A quick look at the charts below show how these apps tend to rise in popularity, and then quickly fall, often multiple times.

Blindspot and Brighten have both raised significant capital and are newcomers to the space, but already showing signs of spiking. Yik Yak and After School have significant spikes which tend to coincide with the start of the school semester, then slowly fall off. Both spike cycles seem to be weakening.

Identity matters

Without some form of identity, it’s impossible to form and strengthen lasting relationships with others. Users invest in their online personas by forming new relationships (becoming Facebook friends), providing feedback to others (liking a friend’s Instagram photo) and by sharing our daily lives (posting a story photo in Snapchat). Identity allows for continuity, anonymity doesn’t, and continuity is necessary to strengthen relationships.

Yik Yak has realized this, as it adds features like shared feeds, usernames, and reportedly will be adding chat. For example, the likely thinking is that if users could chat with each other, then they could more easily form real relationships offline, thus providing more utility. We’ll see, but I don’t think that will be enough, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, in the other corner of social app world, Snapchat has demonstrated just how sticky it is.

Snapchat started as the the fastest way to send disappearing photos, providing a novel utility. It then launched Live Stories, evolving and building on its own success. It launched curated, shared stories “Our Story,” fostering communities around the world. And its ascent continues. (Aside: if you look through the lens of “Our Story” posts, Snapchat is a successful anonymous product as curated posts don’t have any identity associated with them.)

An anonymous app can offer a lot of entertainment and a great escape from reality, but as long as it doesn’t serve an actual useful purpose in our daily lives and tie back into reality, it won’t stand the test of time. I don’t know how to solve the fantasy land problem, because if I did, Secret would probably still exist today.


Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter here: @davidbyttow

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