It's been called “the most dangerous app I’ve ever seen,” “the bullying app tearing through America’s high schools,” “the gossip app wreaking havoc.” It's already led to one student's arrest – and set off concern from numerous high school principals.
It's called Yik Yak. And it's awesome.
The app is the invention of Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, fraternity brothers at Furman University in South Carolina who had grown tired of a handful of popular students’ Twitter accounts dominating the conversation on their campus. They also didn’t like the way that sharing something via Twitter or Facebook meant limiting your thoughts to your own social circles. Why shouldn’t everybody see that funny thing you had to say about your Anthro class today?
In October 2013, only five months after graduating, the guys came up with an idea to give everyone on campus equal opportunity to be heard. Yik Yak works sort of like an anonymous, location-based Twitter. When you open the app on your smartphone, you can see anything that's been posted by anyone in a 1.5-mile radius. Users post without any kind of moniker, and without any connection to their past posts, so no one can build up a repertoire. Every post is equal. Users can up-vote posts or down-vote them, but the posts you see first when you open up the app are the most recent, not the most popular.
Droll and Buffington meant mainly to crowd-source campus humor. Inside jokes abound. “Every school has characters and running jokes,” Buffington said, “For example, there’s one kid at Georgia Tech who posts exclusively bear facts, just because.” Location, they posited, was common enough ground to start a conversation.
The problem is that college students don't exist in a vacuum. Younger students found the app all too quickly. Some, predictably, used it to bully others. In March, police in Reedley, California, which is near Fresno, arrested a 17-year-old high school student who'd posted a threat of a school shooting. The threat wasn’t serious—he thought it would be funny and untraceable, according to the police department's news release — but parental anxiety was already running high. Everyone from Fox News to Business Insider played up the app’s flaws and called Yik Yak dangerous.
But all the hype obscures a good app — and one whose founders haven't taken potential misuse lightly. The creators adapted Yik Yak using geo-fencing software to black out all areas in the U.S. with high schools or middle schools. If you try to open the app within a 1.5-mile radius of these schools, you’ll get a warning and no ability to read or send posts.
The Yik Yak creators see the bad publicity as growing pains; after all, Snapchat went through a similar period of negative press for being nothing more than “that sex app.” It's now valued at $4 billion and used primarily by people to connect with friends and loved ones.
They hope Yik Yak will develop into what it’s meant to be: a powerful tool for community-centric communication. Recently, Droll says, the app was used to alert University of Washington students to the shooter at nearby Seattle Pacific University; it helped get word out to students at University of Florida during a similar shooting situation last month. Universities have also used the app to communicate with students during severe weather.
Like most forms of social media, Yik Yak is as philanthropic as its users. This spring Ben Sataloff, a student at Vanderbilt, set up a donor drive at his fraternity to benefit people suffering from T-cell lymphoma. Sataloff's twin brother had an aggressive form of the cancer and needed a blood transfusion, but no one in the family had the right blood makeup to do it. Sataloff and his fraternity brothers spread the word via Twitter, Facebook and Yik Yak. By May, they'd added 3,000 donors to the registry.
Droll and Buffington have been expanding from South Carolina. In the past few months, that push expanded to California, with the app being promoted at four universities: Stanford, Santa Clara, USC, and UCLA.
At UCLA, the app caught fire right around finals week. With new posts coming in every few seconds, the app quickly became a platform for running jokes about Greek life (several houses had their own mocking hashtag), the struggles of studying for final exams, and the creepiness of non-students who show up every quarter to watch the traditional end-of-finals undie run.
The majority of Bruins who first got into the app were Greek, but it was clear by the quarter's end that the Yak had begun to spread much further, and shift in utility. Hilarious rival house bashing became balanced with library complaints and year-end reflections, as well as year-end propositioning for one last random roll in the sheets before a potentially dry summer. But it wasn't all banter: when those out-of-towners came in to get a view of 10,000 underwear-clad students running through campus, posts on Yik Yak urged that no one, girls especially, walk home alone.
Yik Yak is still young to be making big waves beyond college campuses and parents who think it’s the worst app since, well, the last worst app ever. But it might already be in your office: It's become a favorite within intern communities this summer, including a thread in NYC's financial district where users have dubbed themselves “The Interning Wolves of Wall Street.” By the time school begins again in the fall, it will likely be a presence in all major metropolitan areas.
And that's not a bad thing.
Unlike Twitter, Yik Yak isn’t about the user becoming a brand or following celebrities. Instead, it’s about connecting people beyond their smaller social circles and without a hierarchy. Anyone who has ever tried to publicize their club’s event on campus knows how hard it is to reach people outside of your organization and its friends. Yik Yak is a workaround for this problem – and for the self-segregation that's all too easy in the age of the smartphone. Now, instead of just talking to people we already know, people who share our interests, or (heaven forbid) waiting for the latest pearl of wisdom from Kim Kardashian, we're talking to each other.
In fact, Yik Yak's potential for constructive communication cannot be ignored. It's already changing the way communities interact, and could be even better than Twitter for updating people instantaneously about breaking news on a hyper-local level.
At the very least, Yik Yak will make it a lot easier for you to get free publicity for that fundraiser you’re holding — or that one-liner you know is hilarious. And what could possibly be dangerous about that?