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Social media app Yik Yak takes hold at Ohio State

Brooks Buffington (left) and Tyler Droll created Yik Yak, a social media application that allows users to communicate anonymously within their community. Credit: Courtesy of Yik Yak

Brooks Buffington (left) and Tyler Droll created Yik Yak, a social media application that allows users to communicate anonymously within their community.
Credit: Courtesy of Yik Yak

Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter might need to make room for an anonymous forum app called Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is a social media application available for iOS and Android that allows users, also known as yakkers, to anonymously publish a 200 character post — or yak — to a newsfeed visible to other users within a radius between two to 10 miles, depending on the density of the community population. Yakkers can interact through replying to and up- or down-voting yaks, which affects their visibility to other users.

Yik Yak first became available to the public Nov. 6 and started out at Furman University, which co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington attended.

Cam Mullen, Yik Yak’s lead community developer, said the app spread throughout the Southeast to big state schools such as University of Alabama and Auburn University.

Droll and Buffington noticed the popularity and power of parody Twitter accounts at Furman University — similar to accounts like @OSUsophomore or @OSUCrush at Ohio State — that are controlled by an anonymous source with a strong following, and they wanted to spread this ability of fast-paced mass communication, Mullen said.

“Brooks and Tyler thought, ‘Why can’t everyone have this power? There aren’t only 5 funny people on campus,’” Mullen said. “Considering that the majority of students have smartphones in their hands, they realized the opportunity to make a localized forum where people can discuss issues, events or whatever is going on in the area.”

Yik Yak specifically targets college students because of the population living densely on and near campus. College students also tend to be tech-savvy and share similar experiences with their peers, which allows them to identify with each other.

“(Yik Yak) started to spread last semester and by spring right around the end of the year, we were at 400 or 500 colleges. When the semester started this year, growth exploded and now we’re at over 1,000 schools,” Mullen said. He attributes the fast growth of the app to word-of-mouth from students who might have traveled home over the summer and introduced the app to friends who attend different institutions around the country.

According to Yik Yak data, 24 to 30 percent of undergraduate students at Ohio State are active users, which would mean there are about 10,600 to 13,260 users in the OSU area that use the app.

“It’s almost a perfect community. That’s why we targeted them,” Mullen said.

The main features of Yik Yak are anonymity and geotags. The platform does not require an email address or Facebook account to sign up. Mullen said the app focuses on peer and community interaction.

“What makes us different is we are location first and keeping your privacy second,” he said.

However, the anonymity feature of the app has received backlash from some universities and concerned citizens. Some institutions, like Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., chose to block the app from its campus’ Wi-Fi because of cyber bullying.

Jed DeBruin, a second-year in geography at OSU, said he  thinks Yik Yak can be funny at times, but also crass.

“It’s a mask people hide behind,” DeBruin said. “Although it can be funny, people must mean (what they post) at some level if they are willing to say it publicly.”

Sean O’Connor, a second-year in sports industry, said he likes the anonymity of the app as a user and, while he said he doesn’t post yaks, he enjoys reading what others have to say.

“People who post inappropriate (yaks) are taking advantage of it and are cowardly. I do laugh occasionally, but I feel like people are usually joking because there are no consequences like on Twitter or Facebook. It lets people express themselves without any backlash,” O’Connor said.

The concerns that have been raised on campuses like Norwich’s are ones Yik Yak tries to address, Mullen said.

“We realized that with any big social media or app, there is going to be people who misuse it no matter what it is. As soon as we realized that, we’ve taken many steps to limit it and ultimately aim at erradiating it completely,” Mullen said.

Yik Yak has filters running on the content of every post which looks for “hot words” that might be associated with bullying or discrimination. These hot words signal a red flag and put the post in a different category where a moderation team revises it. Mullen said the moderation team monitors content 24 hours a day.

Yik Yak’s most effective tool to keep content friendly is community policing. If a post reaches five down votes, it is removed from the feed. Users can also report a post they feel is unfit.

Mullen said it takes only one or two reports for Yaks to be removed, and as Yik Yak grows bigger and more diverse, the better the community is at policing itself.

“At bigger schools, if there ever is an inappropriate post, it’s removed within minutes,” he said.

Although the social media app targets college students, many high school and middle school students find and misuse the app, with many stories about cyberbullying on Yik Yak making headlines. As a response, Yik Yak uses geofencing to keep the app inaccessible to these young students. Mullen said Yik Yak blocks almost every high school and middle school campus in the nation as well as the surrounding communities.

“We really don’t like cyberbullying,” Mullen said. “We’ve talked to a number of bullying agencies and learned about how bullying works and used that as research for the best way to deal with it.”

While some schools banned the app, others have embraced it and use the app productively.

Some large institutions have reached out to Yik Yak for access to Yaks for monitoring activity as a way to keep in touch with and respond to the student body. Mullen said this is because of the importance for an institution to understand its students and know what is going on.

Conversely, Mullen argued that Yik Yak could provide power and a voice for all users. He said anonymity allows the content to be judged by content alone without ties to the Yakker’s identity, race, gender or appearance. Another benefit is the ability to speak freely to potential strangers and view the opinions of the community without compromising the speaker’s identity.

“A lot of people are friends with their parents on Facebook or a professor might follow them on Twitter. So, they may not speak about sensitive topics because they don’t want to be judged a certain way,” Mullen said. “The quiet kid in the back of the classroom might be the funniest kid in the entire school. On Yik Yak, he can immediately connect with an entire school around him and not have to feel like people on judge him on what he’s saying and he can really see what they think. It’s awesome, and we love that OSU is embracing Yik Yak and loving it too.”

Chloe Goodlive, a fourth-year in economics, said she finds Yik Yak entertaining but creepy.

“I think a lot of the jokes are recycled. I’ve seen them in a lot of places before, like Tumblr and Reddit,” she said. “I think a lot of people use it as a desperate plea for dating and it all seems kind of creepy. Otherwise, it’s just funny to kill time with during class.”

Goodlive said she is OK with Yik Yak’s anonymity because she has not read controversial yaks during her use and the OSU community behaves itself. She said those who post inappropriate Yaks can probably be weeded out from the general yakker population.

“Those people are probably just jerks in real life. I feel like you can probably pick out the people doing that because I can go on Facebook and see people post stuff next to their own name. (Anonymity) fosters some controversy, but no more than Twitter or Facebook,” she said.

Yik Yak’s biggest market is in America, but the app is available internationally.

Mullen said his favorite thing to do while traveling abroad is reading what users around the world have to say.

“It’s an awesome communication tool that lets you talk to people around you. Yik Yak is actually defined by and reflects a lot on your community,” said Mullen. “People use it for incredible things, whether it’s promoting big events on campus, or coming together and getting a big student opinion about something.”

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