By: Addison DeLancey
In fall of 2014, I, along with several hundred of my fellow Paladin classmates, sat in a semi-air conditioned campus lecture hall at Furman University for an hour talk from two of our recent alumni whose names I’d never heard before. Admittedly, I was there solely for the promise of a $5 Starbucks gift card to everyone who showed up and stayed to the end. I was ready to leave the moment I showed up.
But then the talk began. Immediately, my curiosity piqued and my Frappuccino fixation froze for the time being. The two people speaking were named Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, Class of 2013 at Furman, who had recently launched a new “sharing” app for college students.
It’s called “Yik Yak,” they said, stressing that their app was the Next Big Thing.
They explained the app’s purpose and function, which was essentially to take group messaging to the “next level.” In practice, that meant a person could post a message — any message — to their university’s “channel,” (i.e., “Furman”) and watch others reply or vote “up” or “down” on the message depending on whether it was agreeable, so to speak, or not.
And, most importantly, Yik Yak was entirely anonymous.
Broken down further: once someone’s downloaded the app, they are free to post whatever message they want. Let’s say they write, “Hi everyone! Go Furman!” That message is posted to a group message board loosely defined by the campus. Anyone, then, within that area, can see the message and reply, and give it an “up” or “down” using arrows. Every “up” earned points, every “down” lost them. Those that received the most “ups” floated to the top and were seen by the most people. Again: these messages were authorless, so no one knew who was saying what. (See below.)
Well guess what. Mr. Buffington and Mr. Droll were right — Yik Yak was the Next Big Thing. In just one year, Yik Yak had an estimated 1.8 million app downloads and secured $73 million in private funding, later receiving a $400 million evaluation. (Snapchat, for comparison, was evaluated at about $70 million after its first year.)
Yes, the guys had created something people wanted, needed, craved.
Before I knew it, all of my text messages were flooded with screenshots of Yik Yak posts, followed by a flurry of questions. Who posted that? Do I know who it’s about? Is that about ME!? We were all addicted. While it was almost entirely gossip, jokes and rumors, it was about people I walked by, sat next to in class, or otherwise interacted with every day, making the temptation to participate so strong. It was the greatest social media drug on the market, a dopamine hit Facebook could no longer deliver, an experience non-existent on any other social media platform.
It was my life. Sleep, wake up, check Yik Yak, go to class, check Yik Yak, eat lunch, check Yik Yak, nap, check Yik Yak. Yik Yak. Yik Yak Yik Yak.Yik Yak. YikYak. YIKYAK. YIKYAK.
Why was Yik Yak so irresistible? Stripped of everything else, Yik Yak provided a platform for vanity and attention, yes, but it also allowed for an honest, raw, emotionally-driven conversation that wasn’t happening anywhere else. We ostensibly had license to eavesdrop on each other’s inner thoughts and to explore corners of our peers’ minds that had until then been largely untapped and off-limits. Often, we found, their thoughts were ours, too. It brought us closer and broke down barriers. It worked because we weren’t alone; there was a connectedness, a we’re-in-this-together mentality when we could see that everyone else was just as fucked up as we were.
In an ideal world this would have continued, Buffington and Droll would get rich, and this close-but-never-over-the-line app that democratized society and fostered empathy all at once would have revolutionized communication on college campuses the way Facebook did a decade earlier.
But if there’s anything humans are good at it’s taking something precious and ruining it. This destruction was at the hands of few, but like so many things, a small number of bad actors can ruin it for the rest of us.
And ruin it they did.
I’ll save the drama and tell you right now: Yik Yak did not make it. As The New York Times wrote in 2017, the year the app shuttered for good, Yik Yak had “became associated with bullying, discriminatory speech and threats of bomb and gun violence,” in addition to rampant sexual harassment. Yik Yak was a shooting star — it burned brightly but quickly flamed out, its trajectory off kilter from the start.
What made it great in the beginning made it awful in the end. The anonymity was innocent enough and fun when someone posted something like, “What’s a guy gotta do to get a girlfriend around here?” or “Petition to let [sorority] bake all dining hall desserts” or, perhaps at its best, when a good Samaritan would write, “[NAME], your Furman ID is in the FuPo office!”
But Yik Yak was less enjoyable or useful when people were bullied for their looks. Or when someone wrote that so-and-so was a slut. Or when someone threatened to shoot up the campus. And no amount of earnest posts about the springtime weather could drown them out. The app tried to save itself by eliminating the ability to post anonymously, but by then the damage had been done and all the fun had drained out.
Why does anonymity, especially on the internet, lead to such horrible behavior? Professor John Suler of Rider University calls it the “online disinhibition effect.” In other words, people feel like they’re invincible behind a screen, leading to a disregard of authority and, as Suler says, people “act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person” due to fewer repercussions. Combined with a heavy dose of active malice and what can only be perceived as a lack of morals (and surely some wicked insecurity), Yik Yak became a cocktail too potent to keep chugging day after day. For these reasons, it’s not difficult to see why Yik Yak died out. And we’re better off without it.
But is it, really, dead?
In practicality, yes, it is. You cannot download Yik Yak anymore. But its spirit lives on, and might forever. Consider some of the most popular social media apps we use today:
- Twitter remains alive and well despite our president’s daily temper tantrum on it. For its many flaws, Twitter connects us, and when there’s an emergency or breaking news, it’s often the most valuable tool we have for fact-finding and helping others get information they need. Like Yik Yak, Twitter uses algorithms to feed you content based on what’s happening in your area. It shrinks our world, allowing us to intellectually and emotionally connect with strangers who we’d otherwise never have known.
- Over the course of 14 years, Reddit has become home to tens of thousands of communities with millions of users who participate on the platform by posting, liking and commenting on a wide-range of content. With a division of “Anti-Evil Operations,” Reddit encourages its users to report any illegal, nefarious or non-policy-compliant posts to be reviewed by a special team that’s trained to take quick and appropriate action, allowing users across the world to engage in conversations on everything from beautiful mother earth to writing prompts. Reddit, once a punch line as the worst of the internet, is a beacon of digital hope.
- Nextdoor, a private online social network for neighbors, helps foster communication with people you’d otherwise never speak to yet have one big thing in common — where you live and play. Sure, it may be perpetuating a culture where it seems the only way to interact is via your phone, but Nextdoor makes it easy to ask your neighbors for a handyman recommendation, babysitter, or just a simple favor, all on a verified network.
To be sure, we’ve learned a lot from Yik Yak, directly or not. Anonymity, in its purest form, is no longer much tolerated. Yes, online abuse still runs rampant in 2019 and there’s a long way to go, but, it seems, the tide has started to turn — fewer people are putting up with the bullshit. Call it blind optimism, but someday I believe we’ll live in a world where online hate and harassment won’t be permitted. We won’t scrub it from society, but it won’t show up on your timeline anymore, and that to me counts for progress.
So, thank you Yik Yak. You died a necessary death but live on in our iCloud screenshots and, more importantly, our moral conscious.