The dark horse rises: Could Yik Yak be the real winner among anonymity apps?

While the tech community was frothing and fretting over the likes of Secret and – to a lesser extent – Whisper earlier this year, a dark cloud was brewing out east. Unbeknownst to most of Silicon Valley, a Georgia-based anonymity app called Yik Yak was building a devoted following on college campuses, growing virally through word of mouth much like Facebook did.

With that power came problems, akin to what Whisper and Secret were dealing with, but with a healthy added dose of adolescent angst, pranks, and cruelty. College attack and bomb threats. Rampant, nasty gossip on high school campuses. Revenge porn sharing. The tech scene may not have been paying much attention, but as the adolescents of America got sucked into Yik Yak’s addictive grasp, the rest of the country started to notice.

The Today Show called it “the new home of cyberbullying.” “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?” asked The Washington Post. Even the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security had something to say about it, calling out Yik Yak on C-SPAN. Josh Miller, the person reportedly building Facebook’s new anonymity app, tweeted and then deleted, “The real tech story is that Yik Yak is blowing up, not Secret or Ello, specifically at college campuses. Surprised nobody has written about that.”

This app is making a dent in national social consciousness, and those who are trying to understand where this anonymity app trend is going are scrambling to keep up. Yik Yak’s impact has only grown since the summer school break, after college students returned home and told their network of old friends about Yik Yak. It’s at 1,000 universities now. Yik Yak’s adoption rate shows no sign of slowing.

Take a look at App Annie ranking data of Secret, Whisper, and Yik Yak from roughly the last year. While Secret declined in app store popularity, and Whisper stagnated, Yik Yak has only risen. It’s now ahead of its two competitors in both overall app rankings and social networking app rankings. The “college gossip” product may be the dark horse that comes from behind and wins the anonymous app race.

It is worth noting however, that internationally the game is a bit different. Secret has made it to the coveted #1 app store spot in far more countries than either of its competitors and Yik Yak hasn’t made a dent abroad…yet.

Yik Yak's US iOS app store popularity, according to App Annie, since its inception

Yik Yak’s US iOS app store popularity, according to App Annie, since its inception

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Whisper’s US iOS app store popularity, according to App Annie, for the last year

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Secret’s US iOS app store popularity, according to App Annie, since its inception

The Truman Show on a global scale

For two first-time founders, both 23-year-olds fresh out of Georgia, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll are remarkably composed. They channel an inner Evan Spiegel vibe, as former fraternity members who seem unfazed by their product’s rise to prominence on college campuses. I wouldn’t call them bros, exactly, but “brogrammer” wouldn’t be too far off the mark. They were out visiting the Valley recently, only their third trip so far, to shake hands and kiss babies. They told me they’re building Twitter for the next generation.

Although I’d heard Yik Yak mentioned in passing, usually grouped in with Secret and Whisper, I hadn’t actually explored the app. Buffington and Droll (their names sound like a novel’s preppy British detective duo) walked me through it. In their mind, they’re not competing with the anonymity app sector as much as with social media giants. “We’re taking business away from Twitter,” Buffington tells me. “College students don’t use Whisper.”

Yik Yak "hot" feed near SOMA

Yik Yak “hot” feed near SOMA

A user is greeted by a news feed that shows posts, but only posts sent within a 1.5 mile radius of your current location. It looks much like a Twitter feed, except geographically relevant. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t work at all without huge network effects. Apps like Popcorn have tried it – if there isn’t a critical mass of people on the app near you, it’s useless.

That’s where Yik Yak’s execution has worked well. The founders took the Facebook approach, focusing entirely on spreading through colleges first. It’s the perfect social media application for a campus environment, one that harnesses a dense network full of people with plenty of common interests.

“We always say location first, anonymity second,” Droll tells me. Yik Yak’s anonymity is more akin to reddit’s than to Secret or Whisper. It’s not a confession tool as much as a way to level the playing field, so the best content — not popular kid — wins. Users can upvote and downvote each others posts — the most popular ones appear ranked top to bottom in the “hot” feed, whereas the “news” feed is chronological.

The truly powerful feature, one that made me hope Yik Yak survives and expands to the wider public, had nothing to do with anonymity, and everything to do with location. It’s one the company hasn’t publicly released yet. The founders demoed it for me: It’s the ability to drop a pin on a map and “peek” into other Yik Yak feeds outside your current location.

"Featured" Yik Yak options on a weekend

“Featured” Yik Yak options on a weekend

At the moment, although your main feed only shows what’s in a 1.5 mile radius, if you want to look into other college campuses you can do so by choosing from a list (although you can’t post to those areas). On the weekends events like football games are featured. In the future, you’ll be able to go one step farther and drop a pin into a Google map. Yik Yak will then show you the feed for the 1.5 mile circle around that spot. Depending on where you put it, your feed populates with the real-time chatter of the area, or – if you choose a location nowhere near a college – silence.

Can you imagine a feature like this during local news events like Ferguson, pop culture events like Coachella, or national emergencies like Hurricane Sandy? From a reporter’s perspective, it would be a goldmine, a way to get primary source, on-the-ground information without having to comb through all the other non-related posts like you do on Twitter. But there are plenty of other opportunities for it, ranging from gathering safety information during dangerous times or living vicariously at an event you can’t attend, much like Snapchat’s Stories.

“It’s like the Truman Show on a global scale,” Buffington says.

The Cabo effect

Buffington and Droll met in college at South Carolina’s Furman University, and started working together right around the time Instagram sold for $1 billion to Facebook.

“That was good motivation,” Droll said. They wanted to build a campus app that would give everyone the immediate communication power of a Twitter account with a lot of followers. Starting in fall of 2013 Droll and Buffington hustled, sending personalized emails to campus leaders at many colleges, introducing them and their organization to the product.

In the beginning, it was – as you might imagine – an uphill battle to break through app noise and spread the word. But once a campus reached a certain number of regular users, user acquisition started to skyrocket of its own accord.

The first big break came when spring break hit. Students at colleges that had adopted Yik Yak en masse used it on location in places like Cabo or Miami, telling everyone they met about it. New adoptees returned to their own schools and did the same.

It was around that time that high school students started – as you’d predict – abusing the platform. Buffington and Droll figured out a rather creative solution, using data from an external company and creating a “fence” around every high school campus in the country that blocked any posting. “They weren’t psychologically mature enough to handle the responsibility,” Droll, 23, explained.

The duo raised their $10 million Series A in June from DCM, Azure Capital Partners, Chinese VC Renren Lianhe Holdings, and Tim Draper, and waited for summer to pass. If spring break had such an effect on viral growth to other campuses, they figured summer would cause even more so.

They weren’t disappointed. As August and September 2014 unfolded, Yik Yak started appearing on college campuses on the west coast, a part of the country it hadn’t previously spread to. Now, when you open the app and check out a campus like Berkeley or CSU Long Beach, the posts come hot and heavy, every few minutes.

Yik Yak was well on its way to winning the hearts and minds of the most fickle – and powerful – American consumer: College teens.

A platform for hate speech?

But with great power comes, well, a lot of people yelling at you.

Yik Yak has been called everything from “a platform for hate speech” to “a recipe for disaster.” The scrutiny is warranted, given that Yik Yak’s anonymous nature raises all the same concerns about harassment that Secret and Whisper’s did. But Buffington and Droll think the anger at the app is overblown. “Social media is no utopia,” Buffington said. “These bigots and jerks, they exist in real life too.”

When pushed on the point that its Yik Yak’s anonymous nature that makes it so concerning, he pointed out — rightly so — that people can, and have, created anonymous Twitter accounts to harass others. “Twitter is a much larger platform for them to spew their hate then on than Yik Yak,” Buffington says. “Our communities do a really good job of saying, ‘That’s not cool,’ and shutting it down.”

It’s the same argument that Secret’s founders have made for why cyber-bullying won’t be a big problem on Secret: Our users stop it before it starts. It’s an idealized vision of a community, one that may be true early in an application’s history, but won’t necessarily continue as the consumer base grows. Yik Yak relies on users reporting each other’s bad behavior, and flagged posts go straight to a moderation team of seven to determine whether they should be deleted. It’s by no means a full-proof system, and it’s far less rigorous — but also far more scalable — then what Whisper has in place for vetting content.

Yik Yak has a long road ahead of it before it can be hailed as a success. The lust for anonymity is unproven, and we have seen other anonymity efforts fail as quickly as they rose. But the location-based premise is intriguing and it’s very different from what’s out there now. It turns anonymity broadcasting into far more of a communication and information tool with an array of uses, as opposed to just a digital confessional. That said, it’s the type of messaging that might only make sense on a college campus, when strangers around you have similar tastes and experiences to connect over.

Let’s see if people over the age of 22 are interested.