Yik Yak was a proximity-based, anonymous social media app. People were able to make posts (Yaks), which were visible to other users in a 5-mile radius. Users could react to the posts by voting (up or down) or responding. Each user had Yakarma, which quantified the success of their posts, not unlike Reddit’s karma system.
Yik Yak enjoyed a lot of popularity especially in schools and college campuses throughout the US in 2013 and 2014. It became the 9th most downloaded social media app in the United States shortly after its launch in 2013 and reached 1.8 million downloads in September 2014.
The app was created by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington who were college students at the time. The company they founded was initially funded by Atlanta Ventures and secured $1.5 million by other various investors. Once the app grew in popularity after its release, they were able to raise additional rounds of $10 million by the same investors and eventually $60 million by Sequoia Capital. At its peak, the business was valued between $350 and $400 million.
Yet, two years later Yik Yak was no more. On the 28th of April 2017, the company announced that it would be closing down in the coming week.
The technical reason Yik Yak shut down is quite straightforward. In 2016 Yik Yak shrunk 75% compared to 2015. It was never a self-sustaining business, and when their popularity started decreasing rapidly there was no reason for their investors to continue to fund the project. The company laid off 60% of its workforce and was eventually forced to shut down. It sold its intellectual property to Square for $1 million, equal to 0.25% of its peak valuation.
The interesting question is why Yik Yak shrunk in popularity so rapidly after it had shown an obvious product-market fit.
Cyberbullying proved to be an insurmountable problem for Yik Yak and it played a major role in the apps decline.
Just a few examples to paint a picture:
These kinds of egregious offenses were more notable on Yik Yak compared to other social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook because of Yik Yak’s (presumed) anonymity. After all, you wouldn’t want to threaten a shooting with your name in plain sight.
That said, such heavy-duty offenses were somewhat rare nonetheless and you could argue that they would have taken place with or without the app. The real problem was the everyday bullying that took place on Yik Yak because it affected practically all of its users.
Jordan Seman, who had been repeatedly bullied on Yik Yak for her weight, posted an open letter about her problems:
“… when I scrolled through the message board and saw: “If I could bang a hippo for no finals, I would hunt down Jordan Seman.”
My heart was pounding as I looked around the dining hall. A million things crossed my mind: Is someone watching me? Should I have worn this dress? Did someone see me eat that second cookie? Should I put on my jacket?
In that moment, all of my insecurities flooded me. I felt exposed, betrayed and mostly embarrassed.”
Cases like hers lead to a vocal out-cry in the media and several colleges and schools banning the app on their grounds. Two feminist groups and a few former students even filed a federal complaint form against the University of Mary Washington in Virginia for failing to protect them from cyber-harassment and threats of sexual violence on the app.
The story isn’t black and white, however. Some people claimed Yik Yak plaid a positive role on campuses and others argued that the media reaction about the cyberbullying taking place on the app was very overblown. A study at MIT Media Lab compared it to Twitter and found that Yik Yak was less than 1% more likely to contain vulgar content.
All of that said, the hyper-localization of the app made cyberbullying on Yik Yak much more problematic compared to other social media platforms. If someone was bullying you on the app, you would know that they are near you in the real world. This means that even if the cyberbullying wasn’t more prevalent, it felt much more intense and threatening.
Jordan’s thought “Is someone watching me?” when she read the Yak on campus wouldn’t have occurred if the message was on a non-localized platform like Twitter.
Consequently, the media outcry and outright bans aren’t that surprising.
In response to the pressure from the media and various schools and colleges, Yik Yak implemented geo-fencing. It disabled its users from using the app while on the territory of most middle and high schools in the US.
This reaction, however, was suicidal for the business, because the app simply killed half of its biggest use-case. Anonymity and localization meant that the app was most useful for school and college students:
With this in mind, it’s extremely predictable that the app would decline in popularity after it directly killed its biggest market. Moreover, negative growth is fatal for a money-burning venture-funded social media depending on virility.
In hindsight, Yik Yak geo-fencing schools to deal with its cyberbullying problems is equivalent to a person shooting himself in the stomach to deal with his intense stomach-ache.
Yik Yak’s problems aren’t foreign to all other social media platforms. Cyberbullying is, sadly, a common theme on the internet. The common way to deal with it is automatic or even better – manual moderation. For example, Reddit has volunteer moderators on most communities on the site (subreddits) that make sure hate-speech and bullying don’t take place within said communities. Facebook, on the other hand, has paid moderators going through all content flagged by users as inappropriate.
Yik Yak did try to implement some form of automatic self-moderation. A user posing sensitive content would receive the message:
“Pump the brakes, this Yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and you’re probably an awesome person but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this Yak cool to post?”
Yet, their efforts were obviously insufficient. A solution similar to that of Reddit might have done wonders for them. Moderation presents problems of its own – it risks becoming over-sensitive, removing any kind of controversial content even when it’s not damaging. That said, it’s far better than the alternative, especially bearing in mind Yik Yak was heavily affected by the cyberbullying problem because of their hyper-localization and young user base.
Despite Yik Yak’s demise, there’s still market need for an alternative. Currently, there are quite a few social media apps following in Yik Yak’s footsteps in terms of anonymity, hyper-localization, or both.
Below you’ll find 5 Yik Yak alternatives. The choice which one to use, however, would mostly depend on which app is most popular in your area/community.
You could call Jodel the closest Yik Yak clone as it uses both anonymity and hyper-localization. It has gained popularity mainly on university campuses and has over 1.5 million active users. Jodel pays a lot more attention on moderation in a similar way to other modern social media (moderators flagging, reviewing, and deleting content) to battle the effects of the cyberbullying problems that plagued Yik Yak.
Whisper is the most popular app on this list – it boasts over 250 million monthly active users worldwide. That said, while it allows anonymous posting, it’s not hyper-localized and has a relatively different user-case as you wouldn’t interact exclusively with people in your school or college. It’s important to mention that Whisper doesn’t suffer from cyberbullying that much (because it’s not hyper-localized and it’s hard to target and bully a person directly and publicly), but plenty of people accuse the app of having too much toxicity and hateful content as a whole.
Nearby is the opposite of Whisper – it focuses on hyper-localization instead of anonymity. Currently, it is mostly used to meet new people but explicitly declares that its goal is not dating, but rather finding new friends. This makes it more useful for people that move and travel a lot rather than for members of a local community like a school or college.
Candid is another Yik Yak alternative that allows anonymity and localization, yet puts less emphasis on the latter. You need to add (or find) your school/college/workplace on the app and you can participate in the discussions there. That said, Candid has wider functionalities and allows users to create groups and chats based on interests rather than location. To moderate and fight against cyberbullying, Candid uses mostly artificial intelligence tech solutions (i.e. modern automatic moderation, which admittedly is still not perfect by any means).
After School was a service very similar to Yik Yak that exclusively focused on high school students. The app, however, has been discontinued as of 2020. It faced very similar criticisms for enabling cyberbullying and apparently their inability to deal with the problem lead to their demise.