App brings anonymous, open forum to college campuses

Yik Yak, a social media app that launched last November, is popular with teens and college students. It allows users to see what others are yacking about in a 1.5-mile radius. (WTOP photo illustration)

Marissa Paiano, special to WTOP.com

WASHINGTON – What happens when social media, GPS and anonymity are combined? An app called Yik Yak.

The increasingly popular app was released in November and allows users to write posts without anyone knowing who wrote them. Since then, it has faced scrutiny for allowing teenagers to easily cyberbully each other at school behind the cover of anonymity.

The app was created by two Furman University graduates who intended it to be used on college campuses in order to connect the university community without having to “follow” or “friend” anyone.

The format of the app is similar to Twitter and acts as a community bulletin board. There is a feed that features new and popular posts but there is no log-in and users do not need a username or password.

Instead, they can just download the app, open it and start “yaking.” However, the app will ask for users’ locations so that they can view the top yaks in their area.

The co-creators felt that too few voices on campus were being heard and created this app to change that.

“We wanted to give everyone a voice on campus,” co-creator Brooks Buffington said.

Yaks are limited to 200 characters and shared with users within a 1.5-mile radius, which makes it ideal for school campuses. Users can choose to display their GPS location when they yak or to add a “yik yak handle,” any name of the user’s choosing, to their post.

Users can up vote for yaks if they like them or vote them down if they don’t. There is also an option to report a yak if it is seen as inappropriate or share a yak on both Twitter and Facebook.

Bumpy start

While the intent was to share information about what’s going on in different areas, Yik Yak has encountered some controversy.

The app began to cause trouble at middle schools and high schools by facilitating cyberbullying and in some cases to make threats.

Students used the app to anonymously spread rumors and make offensive comments about other students. Bomb and shooting threats have also been posted on the app, resulting in school lockdowns.

yikyak_schools.PNG

In this screen grab, the app tells a user they cannot send any yaks or use the app because they are in or near a school. (WTOP)

“It’s disheartening as a creator to see it used in an unintended way,” said Buffington.

However, the creators of the app addressed this by working with Maponics to create geo-fences around 80 percent of high schools and middle schools in the country.

This technology disables the app when the GPS detects it is within the confines of a school. A message will appear saying, “It looks like you are using this at a high school or middle school which is not allowed. Sending and reading messages is disabled.”

More schools are being added to the blocked list as the creators of Yik Yak and Maponics acquire the GPS coordinates.

Due to these bullying incidents and other mature content such as profanities, alcohol or drug use references and sexual content on the app, users must be 17 years or older to download it.

Bullish on the future

Although Yik Yak has caused problems at high schools, it has had a positive effect on college communities. At Vanderbilt University, a student held a cotton swab drive to test for blood matches for a fellow classmate with leukemia. He advertised the event over Yik Yak and 1,100 people showed up.

“They wouldn’t have been able to get in touch with so many people otherwise,” said Buffington.

Yik Yak doesn’t restrict users to just their own area. Through the “peek” option,users can choose a location and see recent or popular yaks in that area. The locations users can choose from include Furman University, University of Virginia, Boston College, and the University of South Carolina among others.

There are also various featured locations. A few of these include Hogwarts, Hunger Games Coverage, and Yik Yak HQ. The yaks under these locations are written by an Atlanta comedian, Ben Popkin. Users can also view the all-time greatest yaks.

This summer, the creators hope that the user base will continue to expand. And they plan to update the app by adding more of “peek” locations such as sporting events and music festivals so it reflects current events and allows users to feel like they are there, according to Buffington.

“The longer the community is around, the more diverse it becomes and the better the content that is produced,” said Buffington.

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