June 03, 2015

With Great Anonymity Comes Great Responsibility; Yik Yak’s Success Story

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For CIOs trying to stay on top of the flow of anonymous social media apps, the rapid changes can pose a challenge. At the start of 2015, the major apps focusing on anonymously sharing thoughts were: Secret, Whisper, Shush, Kik, Ask.fm, Spring.me, Burnbook, and Yik Yak. Since then, the market has changed quite a bit. David Byttow, the founder of Secret, shut his site down in April, because it “did not represent the vision I had when starting the company.” Burnbook, which allowed users to join communities and freely post anything on the community topic, suffered the same fate. Jonathan Lucas, Burnbook developer and CEO, responded to criticism that his app, named after a cultural symbol for bullying, had become a place to bully individuals and threaten schools across the country including Oregon, Texas, and California. Here is his answer.

“When someone holds up a vulgar sign, it’s not the pen’s fault — it’s not the paper’s fault. It is the person holding the sign. They’re parents. It sounds harsh, but they need to know what their kids are doing.”

Burnbook is no longer available and its Twitter account and Facebook page were last updated in early April. The final tweet sent from the account was: “Never let anyone tell you you’re too young to do something. A baby shark is still a shark.”

In early May 2015, FamaFox was announced as “A new way to hear what others see, but don’t say” and asked the question, “Remember when social media wasn’t annoying?” Whisper remains in business and out of the news with a slightly different culture of sharing random thoughts, but with no connection to location. Over the years, Spring.me (nee FormSpring.me) and Ask.fm have been tragically associated with teen suicides.

Good Growth, Not Growth at All Costs”

With all of the ups and downs, and comings and goings of anonymous apps, it might seem lucky that Yik Yak has survived since its 2013 launch. However, the founders’ solid plan for success was not luck. At TechCrunch Disrupt NY, co-creators Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll spoke about their strategy over the past two years.

“From very early on,” said Droll, “we wanted to build a sustainable social network. Nobody wants offensive content on there, and especially we don’t. We take whatever measures we need to, to get it all off of there. So early on we blocked the app at pretty much every high school campus across America.” He is referring to their decision to geofence all K-12 schools after realizing these students were not yet mature enough to handle the privilege of anonymity. This geofencing undoubtedly reduced their growth, but as Droll commented at the time, the company wanted “good growth, not growth at all costs.”

Of course, even with Yik Yak restricted to college students, bullying attempts are possible. For this reason, Yik Yak has a self-regulating system of down–voting a Yak, as posts are called. In this way, users discourage others from bullying. Research has shown that people feel more comfortable intervening in a bullying situation if they can remain anonymous and the bully cannot retaliate against them. When a Yik Yak user sees bullying, they are more likely to down-vote it to get rid of it, than they would be to show disapproval on Facebook or in real life. In this way, Yik Yak fosters a sense of community within the college campus and allows students to feel comfortable with a sense of belonging.

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Above is an example Yik Yak feed. The majority of Yaks are harmless, but the occasional offensive entry raises calls for shut-down.

As far as feeling comfortable, students are quite at ease with their ability to criticize their school. On the controversial topic of anonymity, Yik Yak founder Buffington says, “To us the framing [of anonymity] is, no profile provides an equal playing field.” Often the posts have little value for administrators, but somewhere in there will be honest criticism that many are thinking, but few have the courage to report. While this could be dangerous, it also opens up a channel of honest feedback on how the school is doing overall, giving administration a window into current student sentiment. The anonymity frees students to say exactly what they are thinking; which can range from the insightful, to the trivial, to the humorous.

“I have to admit that some of the things students say are hilarious. During my staff meetings we will read some of the best of them out loud. This is similar to when President Obama reads mean tweets about himself on Jimmy Kimmel Live. For some reason, some of my staff seems to find Yik Yak humorous and they let me know when something is trending. It is just one of many tools that let us pay better attention to our clients and services.” Mitchel Davis, chief information officer, Bowdoin College.

In addition to down-voting, Yik Yak has an automated system that checks all Yaks before they are posted. If certain key-words are detected, this message pops up:

“Pump the brakes, this yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and you’re probably an awesome person, but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this yak cool to post?”

Of course, this is pretty easy to get around by slightly altering the alarming word, but it is a good system for those who might not realize that their joke could be offensive.

Keep in mind, there can be a tremendous upside to anonymous postings. For example, at the University of Michigan Yik Yak may have saved a student’s life. On April 25, 2015, a student at the University of Michigan posted this Yak titled, “Thank you & Bye”:

“Goodbye, Wolverines. As stupid as it might seem, 4/30 will be my last day of existence. It is much easier to tell this anonymously than to my friends directly. They’ll figure it out later. Thank you.”

In response, students on campus joined together to show they cared by playing music and holding up signs with reassuring messages. Someone claiming to be the 4/30 user later said that they had changed their mind because of this community support. Regardless of whether or not 4/30 was truly in danger, many other users on Yik Yak have recounted similar desperate situations where they were happy for the opportunity for open discussion. It was great to see so many students supporting the user both anonymously on Yik Yak and in person at the rally.

The University of Florida announced in June of 2015 a partnership with Yik Yak to provide news to the students as a Yik Yak peek option, so that anyone near campus can get local news and alerts. Matt Sheehan, director of the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida, compared Yik Yak to a town square. Sheehan says:

We use the feeds for breaking news. For example, a couple months ago, there was a shooting at Florida State University. Yik Yak was how we first found out about it… We really wanted to be a part of the platform and to try to determine if there is a place in a hyperlocal, short-form messaging platform for a news organization beyond just listening. So can we also contribute to the conversation? And that’s really what we’re experimenting with now and are excited about using the tools that Yik Yak is developing.”

Whether you are in favor of anonymous posting sites or not, if you are a CIO or network manager, you’ll want to be armed and prepared to handle all contingencies for what may occur at them.

About The Contributor:
Christen PalangeVertical Solutions Marketing Co-op

Christen is the Vertical Solutions Marketing Co-op at Extreme Networks. In this position she assists in the strategy and programs for K-12 and Higher Education. Currently, Christen is a student at the University of New Hampshire majoring in Business Administration.

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