Yik Yak engages colleges with anonymity

“We should have our squirrels fight the squirrels from other universities to prove we are the best,” one Yik Yak post from Virginia Tech said.

“I think I did better on my midterms than the democratic party …,” posted another student at the College of William & Mary.

“You know what makes your 4 year degree useless? A neck tattoo,” said another post from Michigan State.

If a USF student were to use the Yik Yak app on campus, they’d likely see jokes about the value of a UCF degree, a reference to a quirky professor or something weird someone saw in the dining hall on

Yik Yak has become one of the latest trends in social media wherein people can anonymously post to users around them. According to Cam Mullen, lead community developer at Yik Yak, people are posting to the app every 60 seconds and an estimated 11 to 15 percent of students at USF use it.

“We call it a local, anonymous Twitter,” Mullen said. “We show you the 100 most recent posts within a few mile radius, and you don’t have to friend or follow each other. It’s an open network – like a bulletin board in your area.”

What makes Yik Yak unique among smartphone apps, Mullen said, was the “intersection of location and anonymity.”

In the early days of apps and smartphones, he said there was a lot of anonymous activity and people began to feel sketched out and thus shifted to requiring usernames to show identities. While the location aspect of the app allows users to only see what’s posted in a two-mile radius and feel a sense of community, Mullen said there is a trend for apps to cycle back to more anonymity. 

“I find it cool because everything is anonymous,” said Taylre Loyster, a junior majoring in integrated animal biology. “When I use it, I usually am on the sixth floor of the Library, calling out people that are being loud.”

When the app was launched in November 2013 at Furman University, Mullen said the creators saw the growing popularity of certain Twitter accounts.

“They saw a bunch of these anonymous Twitter accounts on campus that I’m sure you have at USF, like maybe ‘USF Confessions’ or ‘Overheard at USF,’ and they had tons of followers on campus, but (the accounts were run) by only a few anonymous people … so they wanted to give this ability to post to everyone,” Mullen said.

Anonymity proved problematic for the app earlier this year when numerous articles criticized it for allowing cyberbullying at high schools and middle schools across the country, according to articles by Forbes and Business Insider.

Mullen said the app has since been reworked so that users cannot post on the property of high schools or middle schools because “they weren’t mature enough” and has been geared more toward the college-age demographic. To him, the location and anonymity can level the playing field between, for example, someone familiar with campus and a freshman on campus in the first few days. Posts from both kinds of users would theoretically be treated the same in the same location.

“(The anonymity) lets you talk about conversations you might not otherwise be able to have … so you’re more comfortable because you won’t feel judged,” he said.

The hazards of anonymity are countered in various ways, Mullen said.

“Anonymity in general can sometimes breed not the best behavior online, and at Yik Yak, we err on the side of take stuff down as quickly as possible,” Mullen said.

He said the first obstacle for negative content is the voting process on the app, with which users can promote, or “up vote,” liked content and “down vote” poor content. Once any particular post reaches a score of negative five, the post is removed automatically.

Mullen also said the app has a feature in which users can report posts, and the app has a team of moderators who look at posts for specific names, phone numbers and anything else like cyberbullying, racist or homophobic slurs, and other inappropriate content.

Within the last year, the app has grown worldwide and is now used on over 1,000 college campuses.

— Additional reporting by Sebastian Contento