Yik Yak, a social media app originally shut down in 2017, was rereleased last summer and has since built up a considerable presence at the University of Michigan.
For those of you unfamiliar with Yik Yak, it allows all users to post anonymously. The catch? Only people within a five mile radius of you can comment on, upvote and downvote your posts. Upvotes and downvotes are similar to a like or dislike on other social media apps.
The distance sensitive feature of the app creates a small bubble of users, and therefore a tight circle for gossip. The creators of the app, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, actually intended to create an outlet for college students to gossip about their peers when they first released Yik Yak in 2013.
As you can imagine, the anonymity and close proximity of users created a breeding ground for cyberbullying and threatening messages. In 2014, some users from San Francisco posted Yik Yaks that made fun of students who had been raped. Also in 2014, one user posted a bomb threat, sending a high school in San Clemente, Calif. into lockdown and prompting involvement from law enforcement. There was even a student at the University of Missouri who was arrested for making violent posts directed at Black people. At the University of Mary Washington, a student named Grace Mann was murdered shortly after chilling posts were made about the feminist club she was a member of. A Yik Yak user made a post saying they were “gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and grape [sic] them in the mouth.”
A former Yik Yak employee recounts that a majority of the posts she moderated were harmless, but the terrible ones were rattling enough to take a toll on her mental health. The former employee said that at Yik Yak’s headquarters in Atlanta, employees were encouraged not to discuss the disturbing posts. The only action taken in these troubling incidents took the form of a few employees being pulled into a room to quickly debrief. As they would exit the room, they would act as if nothing occurred, encouraging the other employees to continue on with their work and “make the app run.”
Yik Yak did in fact take efforts to rectify these problems by implementing georeferencing, a way of blocking access to the app in certain locations. This allowed them to block students from using the app at 85% of high schools in the United States.
Despite Yik Yak’s improvement efforts, the app quickly gained a controversial reputation. Interest began to decline, with 75% lower usage between 2015 and 2016. Its waning popularity ultimately led to it being taken off of app stores in 2017.
However, on Aug. 16, 2021, the app was relaunched. The app is now marketed toward people ages seventeen and older. It also emphasizes anti-bullying from the moment you download the app. Offensive posts can be reported by other users and are automatically removed if they are downvoted enough times. When certain words or emojis are used, the post is automatically removed as well.
Despite these safeguards, the content posted on Yik Yak continues to walk a fine line between crude humor and blatant insensitivity. Users of the app have figured out ways to work around the words and emojis that cause posts to be automatically removed. Rather than using the words “suicide” or “kill,” users post about “unaliving” themselves or someone else.
Overall, the relaunched version of Yik Yak has not come close to the level of insensitivity that caused its original demise. While many of the posts have been raunchy or petty, there have not been any outstanding issues with violent targets aimed toward any specific individuals. There have undoubtedly been mean-spirited posts about certain groups, but not with intent to cause harm toward that group. If Yik Yak’s claim to being a strong anti-bullying platform is true, at the first instance of violence or bullying, I expect they will launch into action to address that issue.
While Yik Yak seems to be doing fine so far, the app as a concept is bound to be problematic. The internet causes a psychological phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect. This effect becomes especially pronounced when we are shrouded by anonymity. When a person is not attached to their name, or any identity at all, they’re given an opportunity to be unapologetically honest and act in ways they would not ordinarily act in a face-to-face interaction.
In a positive light, the freedom from social constraint that anonymity provides can help users put words onto the internet they may be too afraid, too shy or too hesitant to say themselves. Oftentimes, being behind our phone or computer screen gives us the comfort we need to be able to post about certain ideas. Under this idea, maybe the negative connotation of hiding behind a screen can become a positive.
Yik Yak is still in its early stages of rebirth, but its current purpose seems to remain being a gossip spot for University students. While we do not have exact statistics about how many Yik Yak users are on Michigan’s campus, we know the numbers are at least in the hundreds. In November, many of the most popular Yik Yaks, also known as Top Yaks, would reach up to 400 upvotes. This shows just how much the app’s presence on campus is growing.
With its increasing popularity, speculating about the future of Yik Yak is all too interesting. Maybe we will see the app be shut down again. Maybe it will expand — harnessing anonymity within a community to foster discussion.
Danielle Levitas, the senior vice president for research at App Annie, said that if Yik Yak does stay around, it will need to have solid functionality to offer; otherwise, its popularity will likely die out again. Her statement is quite plausible — we have seen other social media apps such as Ask.fm and Vine plummet from peak popularity to cherished memory. Even an app as popular as Facebook is on the decline.
To be more functional, Yik Yak could eventually allow more substantive posts longer than the current two hundred character limit. This could turn the app into a platform for advice or even for social justice. Since times are constantly changing, and culture changes with those times, transformability is very important for maintaining an app’s relevance.
Though it’s hard to say where Yik Yak will end up, its future does seem to be an interesting concept to consider, especially after its initial downfall. Only time will tell where the app goes, but for now, keep yakking.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.