The social media app Yik Yak has returned from the dead, four years after it shut down. The service was controversial because it allowed users to anonymously broadcast short messages to other users within a 5-mile radius of their location. Yik Yak was promoted heavily on college campuses; the service was initially geofenced so it only worked at universities. Understandably, things got out of hand and the app gained a toxic reputation for being rife with bullying and harassment.
Toxic — The new owners of Yik Yak reportedly bought its assets from Square, which had hired some of the engineering team after the company shut down in 2017. "We're bringing Yik Yak back because we believe the global community deserves a place to be authentic, a place to be equal, and a place to connect with people nearby," the new owners said on its website.
It’s unclear who exactly is running the new service, which appears to be nearly identical to the original app that launched in 2014, but with a refreshed design.
The original service launched in 2014 and raised more than $70 million on the back of intense demand among high school and college-aged students. Of course, the app could be used to talk about things happening on campus or make good-natured jokes. But salacious gossip is more exciting, and Yik Yak was commonly used to shitpost about classmates. Cyberbullying was a real problem, and some bomb threats were even shared on Yik Yak that forced schools to evacuate. Because the service was anonymous, there was largely zero repercussions for the behavior.
Eventually Yik Yak was forced to respond to the outcry with measures like giving high schools the ability to request geofences that blocked access to the service around their campuses. But it was too late and the app was largely abandoned as people got exhausted by its acrid community.
Moderation — Apparently the new owners believe a second stab at the idea with new “community guardrails” can strike the right balance and address the ethical issue of the original app. Among its rules, Yik Yak warns that sharing personal details about about individuals is prohibited, and there’s a one-strike “no-bullying” policy that can get people banned for engaging in harassment, bigotry, and other behavior on the app.
Having rules is one thing, but as social media companies know, enforcing them is another beast entirely. No platform has really been able to fully crack down on harmful content, and Yik Yak has the added problem that there’s less risk spreading such content because a user’s real name isn’t tied to their posts.
Consider also that the original Yik Yak launched in a pre-Trump era when the climate in society was much less divisive than it is today, and ideas like misinformation and fake news weren’t even in the public vernacular. The new Yik Yak says that giving people a place to share their thoughts anonymously enables them to be vulnerable, curious, and “to learn more about the people around us.” Maybe, but allowing people to spread misinformation and hate without fear of consequence could have the converse effect of pushing some away.
Whether Yik Yak can survive as a responsible platform in today’s era is a big question. Another anonymous platform, Reddit, has been known as a haven for misinformation. The company has built up a significant moderation apparatus in recent years.
Yik Yak will have to prove that it can competently enforce its rules — and hope that starting with tough rules from day one, it’s able to precede the toxic reputation of its namesake to foster a more healthy community.