A Lack of Yakking

Students appear to have moved on from Yik Yak, once a prime app for anonymous gossip and racist comments -- a relief for administrators struggling to curb online bullying.

December 19, 2016
 
A message posted by someone near the College of Idaho lamenting the decline of the social app.

Remember Yik Yak?

The app was the scourge of the college campus just last year, with anonymous harassment posted to its local discussion boards causing arrests, demonstrations, sit-ins and more. Administrators grappled with how to respond -- some moved to ban the app or restrict students’ access to it, but those actions drew criticism from civil liberties and free speech groups.

Now the app appears to be going the way of Google+, MySpace and Vine. Once a staple on smartphone app store top downloads charts, Yik Yak has this year fallen out of the top several hundred most popular. Students appear to have moved to other platforms -- Snapchat, for example, which is showing impressive reach among 18- to 34-year-olds (as well as all-important appeal to advertisers).

As a business, Yik Yak’s momentum is also slowing down. The Verge reported last week that the company, which has raised $73.5 million and was once valued at between $300-400 million, has fired about 60 percent of its employees, shrinking its office from about 50 to 20 people.

Some social media experts point to Yik Yak’s shift away from anonymity as one reason why the app is no longer as popular as it once was. Last year, Yik Yak introduced user names -- first optional, later mandatory -- and began highlighting nearby users. The changes were controversial among users, and by that November, the company reversed its course. But more recent changes to the app, such as phone number verification, have continued to trend away from anonymity.

"When Yik Yak moved away from anonymity, they took away the most important feature of the app,” said Eric Stoller, a higher education consultant (and Inside Higher Ed blogger) who frequently writes about social media. “Why use Yik Yak when you can use other platforms that have user profiles? Yik Yak was always about user location and anonymity.”

Yik Yak did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company frequently points to its guidelines for law enforcement, terms of service and rules as examples that it takes a tough stand on harassment, and its website includes resources for requesting a takedown of posts that violate requirements.

At the peak of the Yik Yak’s popularity, activity in the app was organized into communities based on users’ location. A college campus, in other words, would have its own community with a board of anonymous messages ranked by users who voted posts up or down. That structure proved to be a recipe for trouble on many college campuses.

At Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., about 300 students in September 2014 participated in a sit-in to protest the institution’s lack of diversity and treatment of minority students. Racist posts on Yik Yak had at least a part in fueling that sit-in -- some posts came from users who said they picked Colgate for its lack of diversity; others made fun of slavery.

Two years later, Yik Yak’s shift away from total anonymity has had a noticeable impact on its popularity among Colgate students, said Matt Hames, a communication strategist at the university.

“Since Yik Yak starting asking for a phone number, it died on our campus,” Hames said in an email. Yik Yak began verifying users’ phone numbers in August.

Mary Keister, director of news media relations at Kenyon College, said the liberal arts college has seen a similar development. Students at Kenyon in 2014 launched the campaign “#Respectful Difference” to promote respectful dialogue online after a year during which anonymous commenters made fun of sexual assault.

“I wouldn't say the challenges we faced with the app in 2014 are still a problem here at Kenyon,” Keister said in an email.

Other colleges hastened decline by cutting off access to the app. After several students at the College of Idaho reported that they felt threatened by posts on Yik Yak, the student government there in 2015 passed a resolution essentially stating that anonymous posts violated the college’s Honor Code, said Jordan Rodriguez, director of marketing and communications.

The college’s administration took the resolution as an endorsement to block Yik Yak on campus. It initially asked the company to set up a geofence -- effectively blocking use of the app within a certain area -- but the company only approves those requests for middle and high schools. Instead, the college blocked the app on its network, Rodriguez said.

“The approach that was taken here on campus was ‘We’re not going to use it,’” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure that there was probably a handful of people who still did, but by and large, the student body, the campus community said, ‘We’re not going to be part of this.’”

While students could still access Yik Yak by turning off Wi-Fi and using mobile data on their devices, the inconvenience of doing so was enough to make many users to stop using the app, according to a student enrolled at the college who was there when the resolution passed.

“This app is dead,” one recent post on the College of Idaho’s board reads.

Online harassment, however, is not. But while this fall’s presidential election has highlighted internet trolls on social networks such as Reddit and Twitter, no single app has replaced Yik Yak as the one causing administrative headaches on campus.

“At present, there isn't an alternative, truly anonymous platform to students,” Hames wrote. “Of all the social platforms, only Twitter offers anonymity, and that's even tenuous.”

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