Anonymous messaging app Yik Yak has become a hit on college campuses across the US since its launch a year ago. Now it is raising a $62m funding round from high-profile Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
Sequoia Capital, which also invested in messaging app WhatsApp before it was bought for $19bn by Facebook, is leading the round according to the Wall Street Journal, which claims Yik Yak is valued “in the low hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Yik Yak pitches itself as “like a local bulletin board for your area”, with people able to anonymously post messages, browse those of other users nearby, and vote them up or down to help them find (or deny them) a wider audience.
Founded by two graduates of Furman University in South Carolina, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, the app has spread quickly across the US through its adoption by college students: a path trodden by social network Facebook and dating app Tinder before it.
“We identified a need to create conversations and build communities without prerequisites such as prior relationships or connections,” Yik Yak’s founders told the Guardian in October.
“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.”
Yik Yak had 100,000 users in February 2014, three months after its launch, although the company has not released an update on that figure since, beyond saying it is used on around 1,500 college campuses in the US.
The new $62m funding round follows $11.5m of funding across two rounds earlier in 2014. Its rise has come alongside the growth of similarly-anonymous apps like Secret and Whisper, although like those apps, Yik Yak has sparked controversy along the way.
It’s been called “the new home of cyberbullying” after complaints that pre-college students were using it to post abuse about one another anonymously; been described as “a platform for hate speech or harassment” in a resolution passed by the student government association at Emory University in Atlanta; and was used to threaten a “Virginia Tech part 2” attack on Towson University near Baltimore, leading to the arrest of a student there.
For its part, Yik Yak has introduced a feature for high schools to set up geofences to block students from using it on their premises, and compiled rules that include not bullying or specifically targeting other “yakkers”; a zero-tolerance policy on posting people’s private information, and a reporting feature for offensive messages that can lead to account suspensions.
“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,” Droll and Buffington told the Guardian.
For their part, Yik Yak’s founders have ambitions for their app to become a source of breaking news for its users, having introduced a feature called Peek in October that enables any user to choose a location and see a feed of messages from that place.
“Until now, the only way to monitor local events or breaking news is by following reporters or trusting that people using a hashtag are actually in the area,” said Droll at the time.
“Yik Yak’s new feature is the first tool that gives individuals the ability to monitor conversations in real-time, adding another layer to news tracking that supplements on-the-ground reporting and overcomes other social networks’ limitations,” added Buffington.
Real-time conversation is one thing, but verifying its trustworthiness often quite another, especially when the people involved in that conversation are anonymous. That’s a challenge shared by Secret, Whisper and more established platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vine and Instagram.
While Yik Yak’s $62m will mainly be spent on scaling for growth and exploring ways to make money, investing in privacy features, improving those misuse algorithms and tools to establish the credibility of yakkers as news sources will also be important.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 24th November 2014 11.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010