Internet | December 15, 2021 10:20 am

Yik Yak Is Back. Can It Ever Exist Without Cyberbullying?

The anonymous social media app has returned with new owners and heightened moderation. Time will tell if it's enough.

students use their smartphones on the quad of an American university campus
Are anonymous messaging apps like Jodel and Yik Yak destined to be used for malicious purposes?
Cavan Images

This is the second installment of a two-part series on cyberbullying at American universities. You can read the first installment, on the legacy of anonymous social media platform Juicy Campus, here.

The news broke in mid-August, right before students were due to return to campus. Exhausted from 18 grueling months of steering their institutions through the pandemic, this was the last thing wary college administrators needed.

“The Yak,” the headline declared, “is back.”

Yik Yak was a popular and controversial app that flourished on campuses from 2013 until its abrupt shutdown in 2017. The most successful heir to Juicy Campus, it allowed users to post anonymous messages, or “yaks,” that anyone within a five-mile radius could see.

As with all social media platforms, the rhetoric around Yik Yak positioned it as a liberating champion of democracy. 

“When we made this app, we really made it for the disenfranchised,” Brooks Buffington told The New York Times in 2015. Buffington co-founded Yik Yak with Tyler Droll, his fraternity brother at Furman University. They graduated in 2013 and launched the app shortly thereafter.

Their mission was to level the playing field for online campus discourse. They saw how platforms like Facebook and Twitter preserved and amplified social hierarchies, and they wanted to create a digital space devoid of such power structures. It was a valid intention considering the way “traditional” social media deifies campus celebrities like student-athletes and prominent faculty. 

A location-based app that prioritized anonymity, Buffington and Droll asserted, would make every voice on campus equal.

Yik Yak was an instant hit. As downloads soared, the company secured $73 million in VC funding and was valued near $400 million in 2014, according to TechCrunch. But the success was steeped in controversy. 

Like its smuttier predecessor, Yik Yak became a haven for bullies and hatemongers. It had stricter use policies than Juicy Campus, and it even employed an active content moderation team, but its emphasis on hyper-local anonymity made it susceptible to the same abuse. 

The sheer volume of content strained the app’s moderation efforts. Considering how the Big Tech giants struggle to articulate and enforce their moderation policies, it’s no surprise that a startup — run by a couple of frat bros, staffed by a team who still had wet ink on their diplomas, and guided mainly by the hoggish instincts of venture capitalists — it’s no surprise they ran into trouble. 

“In the beginning, it was very manual,” a former Yik Yak employee recently told me about their content moderation. “Once we got to a certain point, we built in some automation — filters that removed certain words or emojis. For example, you couldn’t use the bomb or gun emoji. And there were a lot of words that were banned.”

But plenty of negative content slipped through, partly because users figured out how to circumvent the filters. It’s no different from what happens on today’s social media platforms, the former Yik Yak employee says. 

“Kids on Tik Tok have figured out that they remove any posts that say the word ‘suicide’ or ‘die’ or ‘kill.’ So now they use words like ‘unalive’ to get around the filter. Technology can advance to the point where we can moderate that content, but kids are evolving and people are too smart for these types of algorithms.” 

When I ask if there’s a solution, she sounds a bit deflated. 

“I don’t know,” she says. “The hardest part for me was that in the early days it took a serious toll on my mental health, moderating that content.” 

The majority of yaks were harmless, but the bad stuff was really bad, and that’s what dominated headlines. Throughout Yik Yak’s life, a steady deluge of news painted a picture of an app that tormented individuals and communities. 

At Middlebury, a sophomore was scrolling through Yik Yak one afternoon as she ate in the dining hall. She came upon a callous and sexually charged post that made fun of her weight, an experience she later recounted for the school paper in a powerful op-ed.  

At Eastern Michigan University, three female professors were lecturing an auditorium of more than 200 freshmen when a TA pulled them aside to share upsetting news. Students in the auditorium had been posting degrading and sexually explicit yaks about them since the start of class.

At the University of Mary Washington, a 20-year-old student named Grace Mann was murdered after she and other members of a feminist organization had been threatened on Yik Yak. Police never linked her death to the threats, which were anonymous, but the posts were chilling. “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and [g]rape them in the mouth,” one user wrote, the typo presumably a way to bypass the app’s filter. 

More than a dozen schools received threats of mass violence on Yik Yak. In November 2015, a user near the University of Missouri posted, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” He was quickly identified and arrested. Campus protests, bolstered by a boycott from several members of the football team, led to the resignation of the university’s president. Their activism was met with a barrage of racist yaks

Inside Yik Yak’s Atlanta headquarters, employees were discouraged from discussing these incidents. 

“When something like that would happen,” the former employee says, “there were like four people who’d get pulled into a room. They’d close the door and make some decisions, and then they’d come out and be like, ‘We’re not going to talk about it anymore. You’re going to do your work, make the app run, and that’s it.’”   

College students were not the only ones abusing Yik Yak. High schoolers and middle schoolers found their way onto the app and used the anonymity to terrorize their classmates and teachers. In Massachusetts, one high school received multiple bomb threats through the platform. 

Although Yik Yak’s founders rebuffed efforts to ban their product on college campuses, they worked with high school administrators to erect “geo-fences” around their schools that blocked the app. 

“We made the app for college kids,” Droll told The Times in 2015, “but we quickly realized it was getting into the hands of high schoolers, and high schoolers were not mature enough to use it.” 

These words proved less than sincere. In 2016, in response to the fierce backlash generated by all the bad press, Yik Yak started requiring users to create profiles. Those who had come to expect nothing less than total anonymity were outraged.

“People lost their ever-loving minds,” the former Yik Yak employee says. “There was a mass exodus.”  

She says the company became desperate. Downloads of the app plummeted 76% by the end of 2016.

“The VCs were freaking out. ‘You don’t have users anymore and you need users to get money.’ So [our leaders] were like, ‘Well, maybe high schoolers can handle it. Let’s unblock this one, this one and this one and see what happens.’ As employees, that’s when we realized things were going downhill fast.” 

Two weeks before Christmas, Yik Yak laid off the majority of their roughly 85-person staff. 

“They brought all of us into a room and said, ‘Everybody in this room is no longer employed. When you get back to your desk, you will no longer have access to email or slack. You have until 3 o’clock to clean out your desk and leave.’”

A few months later, Droll and Buffington sold Yik Yak’s intellectual property rights to Square, 

a digital financial services company owned by Jack Dorsey, the recently departed CEO of Twitter. Once valued at $400 million, Yik Yak sold for $1 million. 

Return of the Yak

Last February, a private ownership group purchased Yik Yak from Square. They announced the app’s re-launch in an introductory letter in August, but they stopped short of introducing themselves. The identity of the new Yik Yak owners remains a mystery. InsideHook sent multiple interview requests to their media relations department for this story that went unanswered.

One of the questions I hoped to ask the new owners is how they view their connection to the old company. Clearly they see value in operating under the same name, but they’ve also gone to great lengths to show they’re different. 

“We’re committed to making Yik Yak a fun place free of bullying, threats and all sorts of negativity,” they wrote in the August letter. 

To their credit, the new community guardrails take a much stricter, more comprehensive stance against negative content. There is a one-strike policy that kicks users off the app if they violate certain rules. Their website also includes resources for mental health and general safety. On paper, they’re saying all the right things, but I was curious if the enhanced policies translated to a more positive experience for the community. 

When I downloaded Yik Yak a couple months ago, it required me to enter my phone number. Any remaining aura of anonymity was shattered after reading their privacy policies, which listed several ways the app could collect and use my personal data.  

Because I live in the sticks, I wasn’t seeing a lot of user activity when I finally opened the app. The few yaks I did find weren’t exactly inspiring tributes to the power of free speech. 

“Any girls wanna pee with a guy?” one user wrote. There were only three other posts.

I live about an hour from SUNY New Paltz, a state school in New York, so I decided to take a drive and see what the app looked like on a bustling campus.

There were lots of hyper-local yaks, inside jokes and references you’d only get if you were a student. They seemed harmless and amusing. There were also serious advice-seeking yaks, like one student asking about counseling resources and another wondering about the best way to come out to their parents.  

At least half the yaks, maybe more, were pure pulp and raunch. It was impossible to scroll through the feed without encountering a scatological or sexual yak. Some were funny, some were stupid, some were confessional. All of them made me wonder if the founding fathers would be proud of the way we’ve managed to preserve free speech all these years. 

Screenshots from Yik Yak

There were a handful of mean-spirited yaks, most of which were directed at campus athletic teams or an entire gender. They didn’t appear to target individuals. There were, however, yaks addressed to specific individuals in a pining, Craigslist misconnection kind of way. 

“Whoever works at HUM105b,” one user wrote, “you have my heart.” 

My main takeaway from an afternoon scrolling through yaks on the quad is that the app felt like a waste of time. There didn’t seem to be high engagement, certainly nothing close to the explosive use seen several years ago, and I found myself wondering if today’s college students had simply decided to move on from anonymous social apps.  

A Broader View

If you ask anyone to profile the typical American Facebook user, you’ll probably get something along the lines of “politically irate grandparent” or “MLM-hawking millennial.” The prevailing narrative is that Gen Z has opted out. That might not be accurate. 

“Honestly, Facebook is a lot bigger here than I expected,” says a University of Pennsylvania sophomore. “It’s the main way frats invite people to parties and get the word out. GroupMe is another big one.”

He scoffs when I ask if he spends much time on anonymous apps.

“That stuff to me has no upside, so I don’t go anywhere near it. Maybe it’s a way for people to express themselves or say things they’re scared to say publicly, but mostly it’s people getting together anonymously and shitting on the school or each other.”

In certain settings, the ability to anonymously scrutinize one’s institution could be useful. I spoke to a junior at the Naval Academy who said Jodel, an app that’s similar to Yik Yak, is popular on campus. 

“Last year, we were getting fucked all the time with COVID. None of the rules made sense and every two weeks they’d come out with a new rule that contradicted one they had just made,” he says. “In that sense, Jodel was a good way to criticize the upper leadership, because you can’t really criticize your superiors in the military.” 

He had the app for a while, but deleted it after noticing how it tainted his view of the school.

“It ended up being a breeding ground for cynicism and general hatred of the Naval Academy,” he says. “It’s just people shouting into the void. It gets really cynical and you start seeing all the negatives instead of the positives of being at this place.”

West Point is down the road from my house, so I was curious what Jodel looked like on their campus. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, happened to be visiting when I checked it out. He was a popular topic of conversation on the app. 

One user asked if anyone planned to wake up early to hear the general speak. 

“Fuck that I’m sleeping in,” someone responded. “Idgaf about some guy who lost to farmers.”

Another user suggested they share that view with the general. 

“Are you retarded?” the original poster replied. “Yeah I’m going to tell the head of the military my opinion of him. Keep sippin clown juice retard.” 

Another post imagined what would happen if the general inspected their rooms.

A screenshot from Jodel taken at West Point
A screenshot from Jodel taken at West Point

But the posts weren’t limited to complaints about military life or leaders. There were frequent instances of younger cadets seeking advice from older ones, as well as touching displays of support for users who shared tough life experiences — the kind of emotional language that might be difficult to express in such an outwardly hardened environment.  

A screenshot from Jodel taken at a West Point
A screenshot from Jodel taken at a West Point

One unique feature of Jodel is that posters can use the hashtag #serious to initiate sincere discussions. On West Point’s Jodel, there were several conversations about sexual assault. While some trolling comments made it through the moderation — which, on Jodel, is overseen by designated users within the community — it felt like people were interested in having real conversations about sensitive topics.

Like Yik Yak, Jodel has strict anti-bullying policies, but the Navy student told me there are plenty of targeted posts. It’s easy to identify people without using their names. 

“If someone sends out a brigade-wide email, people on Jodel will just use the sender’s initials. They’ll post something like ‘KD is a fucking pussy’ or ‘KD is the worst,’ and obviously they’re referring to the kid who just sent the annoying email.” 

The new Yik Yak has made much less of a ruckus than the first iteration, but there are plenty of voices arguing that it’s just as toxic. 

At Colgate University, where students and faculty mounted one of the largest resistance movements back in 2015 — the subject of a compelling Reply All podcast — hateful yaks have appeared throughout the fall. 

In a recent column for the campus newspaper, junior Isabelle Jacobs observed that “the hate and bullying have only increased exponentially” since she experienced the original Yik Yak as a middle schooler. 

“Racism, sexism, and homophobia” continue to fill the platform, Jacobs wrote. “The anonymous nature of Yik Yak makes it all too easy to cyberbully people with no repercussions.”

Searching for Solutions

Social psychologists point to a theory known as the “online disinhibition effect” to explain why anonymous social media platforms are more conducive to cyberbullying.

“Studies show that there is a propensity for anonymous online users to suspend their consciousness of consequences and thus adopt a sense of disinhibition in their expressions,” Columbia University researchers wrote in a 2017 paper about Yik Yak.

One question that looms over all social media use, anonymous or not, is who bears responsibility for malicious content. Are the platforms bad, or do they merely expose the depravity of certain users? 

The platforms themselves are legally protected by Section 230 (which The Verge called “the most important law for online speech”) and the First Amendment. For those who believe they have no moral or social responsibility to moderate content, the platforms are neutral tools. It’s a “guns don’t kill people” kind of logic. 

On the other side, some argue that social media companies are the ones firing the guns. Their algorithmic feeds are intentionally designed to keep users engaged, even if that means blasting negative content. In her recent congressional testimony, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind The Facebook Papers, proposed a solution. 

“If we reformed [Section] 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions,” she said, “I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.”

Political and ideological arguments aside, the most pragmatic conversations about reducing harmful online content should focus on human behavior. When it comes to eradicating cyberbullying, it’s important to recognize its self-perpetuating nature.

“A lot of research suggests there’s a relationship between victims and bullies,” Dr. Gary Giumetti, a psychologist at Quinnipiac University, told me recently. “There’s a group of people known as ‘bully-victims’ who engage in cyberbullying perpetration but also receive it as well. For instance, if you receive hurtful messages online, then you’re more likely to send them in the future.” 

In a recent study that examined the predictors and outcomes of cyberbullying among college students, Giumetti and his colleagues found that it was possible to anticipate what kind of individuals were likely to engage in cyberbullying. 

As part of their study’s survey, they included questions that screened participants for three negative personality traits known as the dark triad: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. 

“We found that people who scored higher in Machiavellianism also tended to score higher in being a bully of others online,” Giumetti says.  

Arguably the least familiar of the dark triad traits, Machiavellianism refers to an individual’s tendency to manipulate and deceive others. 

“Some of the sample questions [on our survey] were ‘it’s not wise to tell your secrets’ and ‘most people can be manipulated,’” Giumetti says. “People who are higher in Machiavellianism would agree with those statements.” 

Although the study didn’t try to account for the motives of cyberbullies, Giumetti says the correlation makes sense.  

“I’m just speculating, but maybe they use the perpetration as a way of gaining power and manipulating others.”

(If you’re curious where you rate on the Machiavellianism scale, you can take the MACH-IV test here. As a reference point, all of the principal characters on Succession probably score over 90.)

Understanding the behaviors around cyberbullying is vital to developing effective intervention strategies. At the end of our conversation, Dr. Giumetti shared several approaches that have reduced the bully-victim cycle on various campuses. 

Teaching students that they’re not as anonymous online as they think has proven effective. In one longitudinal study, rates of cyberbullying perpetration were measured before and after students were told of a real-life example where someone engaging in harmful online behavior got in trouble even though they thought they were anonymous. When measured after the intervention, students’ perception of anonymity decreased, as did rates of future cyberbullying. 

Fostering empathy and teaching bystander intervention have also helped. One of the most painful experiences reported by individuals who’ve been bullied on platforms like Yik Yak and Jodel is when they see their peers upvote the negative comments, laughing along and encouraging the bully with each click. Sharing victim testimonials with students has increased the likelihood of those students intervening in future cyberbullying situations. 

In assessing the ills of social media, I’m reminded of the enigmatic Simon from The Lord of the Flies. “Maybe there is a beast,” he says. “Maybe it’s only us.”

Maybe it’s the platforms. Maybe it’s only us. But it feels naive to say it’s entirely one or the other. In that sense, maybe Frankenstein is the better comparison.