Yesterday, the New York Times wrote about how Yik Yak, a not-so-new social network and app, is being used in colleges and called it the virtual equivalent of the “bathroom wall at the student union.” A crude but perhaps accurate representation of how the social network is being used in the college setting for which it was built. Some examples of use in the article included “demeaning [posts,] many using crude, sexually explicit language and imagery.” On the more violent end of the scale it has been used to “issue threats of mass violence on more than a dozen college campuses” and at one school, a Yik Yak post “proposed a gang rape at the school’s women’s center.”
These disturbing uses of Yik Yak took me back to a post I wrote a few months ago about how even small product decisions can lead to completely different use cases. In Yik Yak’s case, the initial product inspiration was interesting: in a local, group setting, give equal voice to every status update, “one where users didn’t need a large number of followers or friends to have their posts read widely.” It sorts updates by geographical location, not by contacts, showing posts only within a 1.5-mile radius, making it ideal for a small community such as a university or a school. This model of an “equal voice” came about after Yik Yak’s founders realized that the the college students with the most followers were athletes and that it doesn’t make sense for their updates have a louder voice. That scenario makes a lot of sense.
Where it stops making sense is Yik Yak’s decision to be anonymous without user profiles. That’s what gives the students free range to post anything, without consequence. Yik Yak is trying to counter that freedom with community policing, allowing other users to upvote some posts and report others. This may not be enough to put an end to abuse, after all, anonymity is a strong drug.
I’m not here to criticize Yik Yak (which is fine seeing as I’m not in its target audience anyway) but I am curious why its founders made the product decision to be anonymous. Would the “local equal voice” premise have held if college students were forced to sign up with their college email (like Facebook in the early days) and thus create some sort of responsibility for each user? That would also lead to one ID per student and lower the number of throwaway accounts? Do the constraints of a “real” ID confine users too much, causing them to think and rethink everything they share? That hasn’t hindered other networks such as Instagram, so I’m not sure why that would prevent Yik Yak users from sharing more positive content. Also, there are some positives to anonymous sharing such as confessing “crushes and mistakes, make edgy jokes, laugh over embarrassing moments and divulge sensitive information. Some people also feel free to open up about serious problems–abusive relationships, conflicts with friends and family, concerns about mental and physical health and even self-destructive behaviors such as anorexia, cutting and suicidal thoughts.”
Finally, Yik Yak is way ahead of its competitors Secret and Whisper, two other anonymous social media apps, and is growing, proving that it does resonate with its target audience. Also interesting to note is how Secret lost much of its appeal introducing features intended to decrease harassment on the app. The latter will probably provide Yik Yak with an excellent product case study, whether they make some abuse-reducing changes or not.