NewsNews Features

What Are Yik Yak’s Creators Doing About Threats and Racist Posts?

The founders of Yik Yak, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, say they started the anonymous social media app so that everyone had an equal voice, and posts would be judged on their content, not who wrote them. But the anonymity has also spurred several controversies, such as threats to attack schools and racist and hateful posts, leading the creators to take steps to deter these types of posts.

“Obviously, all of that is absolutely terrible, and it’s the opposite reason of why we created the app in the first place,” Buffington said during an appearance at the University of Georgia’s Thinc. Week last month.

The app—popular among college students—allows users to see other posts sent within a 1.5-mile radius. It uses an “upvote” and “downvote” system that, in theory, will make the best posts the most popular. The company now has moderators to remove post considered hateful, offensive or threatening, but the creators maintain that, ultimately, blocking hateful or offensive posts is a responsibility of the users, made possible by the down-vote system.

“The biggest thing we probably ever did was put in a down-vote system, allowing the community to take charge and remove stuff they don’t think should be on there,” Buffington said.

Threats and Racism

One user wrote a “yak” after the death of UGA student Mikal Ghirmazghi that referenced the recent deaths of minority students, leading faculty members and students to arrange a discussion about racism at UGA the same day Droll and Buffington visited.

“Most of the dead students were minorities. Good riddance. You don’t belong at UGA, even God agrees,” the post said.

Sara Gordan, a UGA student who went to the discussion about racism, said the post was extremely hurtful and indicative of a broader culture of intolerance.

“The post just showed that we still have a lot of work to do in making UGA an inclusive place for every minority,” Gordan said. But she also said that she does not hear anything as hurtful as that post in person, and without the anonymity offered on Yik Yak, no one probably would have said it.

In some ways, the case can be made that Yik Yak’s system worked exactly as it should have, UGA journalism professor Barry Hollander said. In seconds, the post was voted down enough to be deleted, so few people saw it organically. The problem occurred when a screenshot of the post, along with people’s reactions to it, circulated around on other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Without the screenshot, only a few people would have seen it, but Gordan said it was important that more people were made aware of it. “I think it is important for everyone to know that people at UGA still think these types of racist things,” she said, even if more people were hurt by it.

Despite Yik Yak’s controversies, some students still find the app unique and useful. As a transfer student, Nathan Bohannon didn’t have the chance to learn the bus system as a freshman, so at the beginning of the semester, he asked which bus he should take to get from Aderhold Hall to Baldwin Street on Yik Yak and almost instantly received five or six responses.

“With Twitter, Instagram, even Facebook, you have to have a lot of followers or friends to see what you post, but with Yik Yak, literally everyone sees it within a 1.5-mile radius,” Bohannon said. “So you have access to all these other users, and it just increases your visibility.”

Although Buffington and Droll made Yik Yak for college campuses, middle and high school students wanted in on the yakking, too, which created all kinds of chaos. Cyber-bullying and threats across the country caused several schools to call for the app to be banned.

A Massachusetts high school shut down in March of last year after a bomb threat was posted to Yik Yak. So did a California high school. That same month, high schools in the Chicago area such as Whitney Young High School saw Yik Yak used as a place for cyber-bullying. As a result, the founders disabled the app in the entire Chicago area until they could figure out how to disable the app specifically in middle and high schools.

Buffington and Droll started geofencing, or disabling the app within certain geographical locations, in middle and high schools to deter use in those areas. Younger teens can still get on the app when they are not on their school campus, since Yik Yak has no way to verify the user’s age, but they can’t connect with nearly as many people as college students can.

Although Bohannon said he does occasionally see some racist or slut-shaming content, for the most part, he thinks the college users are mature enough to use it properly, and Yik Yak is doing what it can to combat the negative posts.

“I think there’s always the potential for abuse with anything, and especially on Yik Yak, because you are anonymous, and you have that sense that there aren’t going to be consequences for what you post,” he said.

But colleges across the country have had their fair share of Yik Yak controversies, including the threat that forced an evacuation and an hours-long lockdown at the Miller Learning Center. (In what he told police was a prank, Ariel Omar Arias is alleged to have warned users to stay out of the MLC if they wanted to live.)

In October, a student at the State University of New York at Canton was arrested for threats posted on Yik Yak. In November, a University of Albany football player was arrested for making threats on Yik Yak.

Droll and Buffington hope a word-filtering system that asks users if they’re sure they want to post something if it has a trigger word like “bomb” will deter threatening or offensive posts at colleges. The filtering system has reduced the number of threats to “next to nothing,” Droll said, but after the MLC threat, threats were made on Yik Yak at two college campuses in October and November, and two California high schools shut down in one week in November.

Anonymity Concerns

The idea of the community being responsible for only allowing good posts to stay, like the down-vote system, is a libertarian view of anonymity, Hollander said. This view has been at odds with a social responsibility view, which argues that unpopular posts should never have been written, for generations.

“You gain a lot by people feeling they can say things with a certain sense of protection and freedom, especially to express unpopular views,” Hollander said, but people take advantage of that system to express awful views.

Although issues with anonymity are decades-old, apps like Yik Yak have made it too easy for people with no impulse control to post harmful statements.

“The problem with making something like Yik Yak is putting it in the palm of our hand in a mobile phone separates us from any impulse control,” Hollander said.

Anonymity also has positives, Buffington said, such as a quiet student still having the chance to write an enormously popular post.

“There’s always this push and pull of what do you get, but what do you give up?” Buffington said.

Bohannon agreed that anonymity can be a good thing sometimes. He believes the anonymity—or perceived anonymity—allows users to post their true sentiments.

“It feels more authentic, because you can say what you’re really feeling and not have to worry about how people are going to perceive that,” he said. “I feel like a lot of times with Facebook or Twitter, we put up a front, trying to posture ourselves so our friends and family will see us for who we want to be seen as rather than who we are.”

Profound reasons for anonymity do exist, Hollander said—the Arab Spring was fueled in a small part by the anonymity of Twitter.

“What Yik Yak does is takes what Twitter makes available in those in situations where anonymity is needed to protect your life and makes it available to college students to use anonymity to protect stupid and awful things they want to say,” Hollander said.

People hide under a “cloak of perceived anonymity,” Hollander said, but as the UGA community learned last fall after the MLC threat, people are not truly anonymous.

Without a warrant, Yik Yak quickly provided police with information on the user who wrote the threat.

“We didn’t make an app to cause panic or unsafe situations, so we’ll do whatever we can to help out,” Droll said.

Since this was a threat to safety, no one probably had any qualms with it, Hollander said. The decision to turn information over to police without a warrant is a judgement call, but knowing the right time to do so could prove difficult. “The question becomes, where do you draw the line?” he said.

At the discussion on Mar. 23, the founders announced a new feature that became available that day: blocking users.

“With Yik Yak, you are immediately following everyone in your area, and sometimes you just do not like what people are saying, so now you can just block them,” Buffington said. This feature makes it clear that their system knows who each user is and who is posting what.

“Share cards” are another new feature of the app, allowing users to post a photo that includes text from a popular post they wrote and share it across other social media networks. This feature, the founders said, allows users to claim credit for a popular post. This feature further pushes users out of anonymity, though they have control of when that happens.

With all of the controversies, it’s hard to tell whether this “anonymous” app, headquartered in the Atlanta Tech Village, is just a trend or if it’s here to stay, but the company has yet to bring in any money. With over $72 million in venture capital, Droll and Buffington said they’re just focused on building their user base. The app is valued at $300 million–$400 million, but they’re not worrying about making money off it, just yet.