2 Yaks and a Controversial App
Unless you’re a college kid or a social media nut, you may not have used or even heard of Yik Yak. For those not familiar, it’s a location-based chat board where users can post anonymously and vote up or down posts that are of interest. Think of it as a mix between Reddit and Twitter, but one that only shows posts from those within a five-mile radius. It’s one of the fastest-growing social apps, and also one of the most controversial due to its value of keeping posters anonymous. Thankfully, it’s SxSW, so we get to hear from the 24-year-old founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll speaking candidly onstage about the origin of Yik Yak, their mission, and how they are handling the controversy.
We jumped right into how Yik Yak has become so popular in a sea of social apps and competing location-based chat services. “We have a saying at the office,” Droll said. “Start simple. Start small. Start now.” He said they launched a service that probably didn’t look that polished and had some bugs, but they thought that if they could find an audience around college campuses like Georgia Tech, it could grow from there. And grow it did, using a surprisingly old-school technique of email marketing to board members of campus organizations. But even though it caught on at colleges quickly, high school campuses also picked it up. This is where the controversy comes into play.
Some high schools have been evacuated due to bomb threats on Yik Yak, and teachers report harassment with no way to punish anyone due to the anonymous nature of the service. Yik Yak’s response was to create geo-fences around every high school in America so no high school campus could post on Yik Yak. This is both brilliant and bold at the same time. The fact that we live in a world where you can prevent people from using an app or service based on an invisible location-based digital fence is both scary and cool. Also, the fact that the founders of Yik Yak are committed to keeping the culture of their app at a college level and above is a bold move, and one that will likely benefit it in the long run.
“It comes down to tone on how we educate and inform our users to stop harassment and threats,” said Brooks. “Using language algorithms, we can notify a user in a pop-up and inform them that they may be posting something that could be offensive or illegal.” They have grown beyond the ability to just have moderators police the posts, which isn’t surprising as it’s just not scalable. They need to be able to be more real time on a larger scale than humans are capable of doing. Another solution Yik Yak is working on that may, in fact, be more effective is getting people of certain authority to post on the app to either confirm or deny threats or possible needs. Perhaps having the school president post updates would address some of the misinformation that results from posts around campus.
Beyond the controversy, there was a lot of interesting discussion around the benefits of Yik Yak and why it is so popular. Both founders say it has to do with original content that isn’t found on other social platforms and the pride users take in getting thousands of up votes from something they posted. Real-time events are a big part of why Yik Yak is fascinating to people.
While sitting in the audience, I opened the Yik Yak app on my phone and immediately saw posts coming in about the live SxSW session with the founders. The biggest question that kept coming up on the app was “Where can we get a pair of the Yik Yak socks Brooks and Tyler are wearing?” They were asked this during the Q&A part of the panel and one of them said, “Ebay has them for around $1,000. We only made a few for a promotion we did.”
Maybe Yik Yak has found its first big revenue source? Which brings up another interesting comment from Droll: “Any sort of revenue is not our focus. We are just focused on building the best experience.” That may not be what brands and advertisers were looking to hear in coming to the session hoping to find a way to use Yik Yak to reach the all-powerful demo of 18–24-year-olds.
It seems we will have to wait to see what Droll and Buffington’s next steps are for Yik Yak. They hinted at possibly opening their APIs to let other services integrate with them as it helps with innovation. Also, it seems likely that the ability to post photos and videos is coming in the near future.
I, for one, am excited to see what Yik Yak becomes. It’s probably inevitable that some form of verification and censorship of users will come soon, due to the growing need for investors, as its founders have no current revenue source for the app. Honestly I’d start with taking the demand for those Yik Yak socks seriously.