The new hotshot on the college campus social media scene is Yik Yak.
Much like Facebook, which was established back in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg as a Harvard student, Yik Yak has rolled up in a frat house hoodie with a lever-arch file tucked under its arm, leaning casually against a locker.
So what exactly is the app, how does it work, and why is it so popular?
Where did it come from?
The app launched in November 2013 by two 23-year-old graduates: Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. In April the app raised $1.5m in investment, and in June, a further $10m. Its clean, simple user interface is the colour of Tic Tacs.
How does it work?
Yik Yak’s main feature is allowing people, mostly students, to make posts – known as “yaks” – anonymously. These posts are then upvoted or downvoted (similar to Reddit), and are commented upon. Users earn reputation points, known as “yakarma”, the more upvotes they receive.
“We identified a need to create conversations and build communities without prerequisites such as prior relationships or connections,” Droll and Buffington wrote in an email to the Guardian.
“Yik Yak is the only way to create a localised social forum without prior relationships or friendships for the purpose of delivering relevant, timely content to hyper-local areas of people.”
What is it similar to?
However, where both Whisper and Secret are geared towards users posting confessions or confidential information, posts on Yik Yak tend to be more humorous and light-hearted in nature: pop culture updates, one-liner jokes.
What also sets Yik Yak apart, is that the app utilises geolocation tools which limit user interactions to others within a 1.5 mile radius.
This means the app can also be used to discover events or meetings in a local area – and is why it targets localised communities, such as college campuses. To this end, to keep updates relatively recent, yaks have a lifespan of 100 days before expiring.
A new feature, “Peek”, has recently been added which allows users to view yaks from any college in the US, but doesn’t allow users to reply or vote unless they are within the 1.5 mile radius.
The “Peek” feature will soon expand. The team say we can expect news very soon about the feature allowing us to eavesdrop on more locations than American colleges.
How many people use it?
Droll and Buffington write that Yik Yak is growing on a daily basis but is currently active at more than 1,000 colleges and universities worldwide.
Is anything wrong with it?
Yik Yak has come in for a lot of criticism for being a breeding ground for rumour and bullying – and more serious content. Myriad threats of violence, sex crimes and hate crimes have been reported, including a mass shooting threat and the circulation of a sex tape. It wouldn’t be unfair to say it has gained a reputation for being a scourge among parents.
What is Yik Yak doing about this?
Yik Yak seems to have recognised the problem, and now has more safety measures in place than many other services.
For instance, in a bid to combat high-school taunts, Yik Yak has now geofenced all high schools in the US – making the app unusable on their campuses. The company teamed up with data provider Maponics to identify all schools, and has made the app inaccessible in those locations.
Many people have reported that once a post receives five downvotes, it is instantly deleted from the site. This isn’t quite true, but negatively rated posts are removed.
“We do not release the specific numbers but yes, we do remove posts that reach a certain negative rating, which has been an effective method of community self-policing that helps prevent misuse”.
There is also an option to flag or report a post, and Yik Yak says it removes the majority of reported posts almost immediately to combat racist, homophobic or generally abusive content.
“We recognise that with any social app or network, there is the likelihood for misuse from a small group of users, so the company has put specific algorithms in place to prevent this from happening.
Additionally, the app monitors conversations and posts, and any negative or harmful behavior will result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use.
“As more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self-regulate itself in a positive way”, say Droll and Buffington.
The app also carries a 17+ age rating in the Android and iOS app stores.
During my time on the app, I saw only two incidents of ugly racism from hundreds of yaks, so it did suggest that problematic content must have been removed.
Is it worth being on?
Yik Yak is certainly fun, for a short while at least. But it’s not entirely clear whether it isn’t pointless. Its main use is a platform for quick bursts of amusement. But this is one of Twitter’s USPs, and it has pretty much cornered the social network market for one-liners.
Yik Yak has funny stuff – but a lot of it is banal and the jokes are mostly not original. It’s perfect for college students, but I can’t see it moving beyond that demographic.
Droll and Buffington have gone on record as saying they hope to go into breaking news in the future, but again, Twitter has this locked down. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Yik Yak could succeed in this when it mostly deals in jokes about pizza, test scores and sex among millennials.
The other issue is that despite the app’s massive popularity in the US, it is relatively obscure elsewhere.
What’s the future of Yik Yak?
“We are always looking to expand our app as more users start interacting and realising the value of the hyper-local forum we provide. We expect to have a strong presence in a list of other regions and countries in 2015.”
It remains to be seen whether Yik Yak will end the year as homecoming king, or wind up a college dropout …
This article was written by Hannah Jane Parkinson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st October 2014 09.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010