An illustration of the Yik Yak app's logo.
Although Yik Yak is desperately trying to keep earlier instances of cyberbullying and the spread of hate under wraps, its unfortunate past is possibly doomed to repeat itself in the app's second iteration. (Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva, San Jose State University)

Yik Yak Is Back and Already Struggling With an Image Crisis

The controversial anonymous social media platform has returned to the App Store after four years of absence, and its rebirth has initiated a long and complicated path to reconciling its ugly past.

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An illustration of the Yik Yak app's logo.

The controversial anonymous social media platform has returned to the App Store after four years of absence, and its rebirth has initiated a long and complicated path to reconciling its ugly past.

The social media landscape is about as crowded as online sectors get. Between the tech giants of Facebook and Twitter, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat and dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, there is a platform for just about every human tendency that can be compartmentalized on a smartphone screen. All these apps share many qualities, one of the most important commonalities being the reliance on personal profiles that represent the person who created them.

Identifying profiles don’t have to sacrifice privacy, as users can typically make their accounts private and must be mutual followers to message one another. One of the newest additions to the expansive world of social media throws this dynamic to the wind, embracing anonymity as its core ingredient for a bizarre, experiential recipe. Yik Yak has only been in the App Store since August, yet it is not quite the newcomer it might appear to be.

Yik Yak was first launched in 2013 as an anonymous messaging platform on which users could create posts that were viewable within 5 miles of their location. The small area where specific content could be seen made the app incredibly popular with college and high school students who were inclined to post for an audience almost exclusively comprised of their peers. While the location-based nature of the app was intended to grant users a fun and easygoing space to share experiences and stories, some users quickly took advantage of the provision of anonymity to harass others.

Cyberbullying hit a fever pitch and sprung into the public consciousness thanks to several high-profile posts, including a bomb threat toward a suburban Boston school and widespread harassment of members of a campus feminist organization at a university in Virginia. The app’s quickly growing reputation as a sanctuary for hate forced its descent into abandonment and obscurity, an irreversible trend that prompted its closure in 2017.

Most apps that die off never see the light of day again. The tech startup field is extensive and bitterly competitive, and there isn’t much room for proven failures to restore themselves. The formerly defunct Yik Yak is one of the few examples of an app capable of returning to the market despite its immense baggage, appearing suddenly in the App Store in August alongside an enthusiastic tweet advertising the platform’s merits. The tweet boasts of the same anonymity that made the original Yik Yak notorious, yet there is little acknowledgment of its shadowy past anywhere in the numerous advertisement posts.

The app’s page on the App Store is just as upbeat, uniquely leaning into the concept that users near one another constitute a “herd.” The new app’s advertising is covered in the fingerprints of a development team eager to have the first word on their product, and it has chosen overpowering positivity as its tactic. It must essentially overcome its preceding reputation, and to do so the new ownership has taken some appropriate steps toward putting policies in place to ensure that anonymity is not abused in the way it once was.

The app is reviving its user-driven approach to content moderation, encouraging the “herd” to actively enforce the guidelines via a like/dislike feature that creates a post rating. Any post with a score of less than -5 is removed, meaning that multiple individuals need to separately vote for harassing posts to be taken down. Yik Yak’s new system is reminiscent of the one used by Reddit, where users can upvote or downvote posts that affect a poster’s so-called karma.

It doesn’t help that Yik Yak’s choice of words doesn’t exactly convey the severity of the issue, as the official website asks users to act when a post “doesn’t vibe with the Community Guardrails…” The impetus placed on individuals to personally determine which posts are offensive isn’t aided by the uncertainty around the identity of the new ownership and what role it will play in moderation policy, which has come to include more than cyberbullying in recent years.

A platform’s responsibility to regulate its content has grown considerably in the wake of the increasing prevalence of misinformation that is spread in online spaces. Twitter and Facebook are the two storied examples of platforms that have struggled with pervasive misinformation that has brought about a massive political dialogue with the potential to impact legislation.

Over the course of the last several years, Democrats have asked social media networks to impose stricter moderation practices to the dismay of Republicans, some of whom interpreting this active moderation as a form of censorship. Yik Yak’s formula is vastly different from the aforementioned companies, yet its blanket anonymity leaves little recourse for those who engage in the spread of false information.

Yik Yak has preemptively written its Community Guardrails to account for the potential spread of fake news on the platform, stating that posts that “knowingly share fake news, unless it’s obvious satire” are not welcome on the app. It is difficult to predict whether or not Yik Yak will harbor an extensive catalog of misleading information, yet if it does, it may be up to users to decipher which information is valuable and which must be erased.

Yik Yak’s new policies reinforce the security of its welcoming environment on an individual level, yet they fall short of adequately addressing coordinated campaigns that could be undertaken. Yik Yak posts show no user information, instead displaying how recently one was uploaded and approximately how far away the user was when it appeared.

One of the more notable cautionary tales from the original app that came to be because of its flawed design came about during a lecture class in which several students among the hundreds present in the hall wrote sexual and otherwise offensive comments about the professor of the course.

If a similar incident were to transpire today, the content of the various messages would be an explicit violation of the Community Guardrails, yet the inherent trouble with Yik Yak is that the messages would collectively constitute a large portion of the content viewable to users who could potentially downvote the posts. When hate is the predominant sentiment within an online space, individual posts that should be addressed are camouflaged in a wall of negativity.

It is impossible to fully detach the new Yik Yak from its corrupted predecessor, yet the refurbished app has essentially lived up to its promise of offering a positive space to both reminisce about the good of the old Yik Yak and indulge in lighthearted posting shenanigans. A look at some of the messages that flooded the New York portion of Yik Yak reveals a mostly positive contingent of “yaks” eager to gush over the novelty of regaining a nostalgic app.

It is quite likely that this population of users would engage with the post voting system to prohibit offensive or dangerous content, yet it is important to consider that the infancy of the contemporary Yik Yak mirrors the initial release of its predecessor. It took months before the original app came to be known as a hotbed for bigotry and hate.

The college campuses and individuals who became embroiled in problematic content have changed little in the eight years since Yik Yak first launched, yet the community policies that now govern the fragile space have matured. It is fitting that an app that leans on the nomenclature of an animal is regulated by the “herd,” and perhaps the visible excitement around the rebrand will see that today’s “yaks” will browse in greener pastures.

Writer Profile

Niall Calvert

Wesleyan University
Government

Niall Calvert is a resident of Maine and prospective government major at Wesleyan University, where he is a leader of the Outing Club and a middle school tutor. His interests include cycling and jazz.

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