Location is the new hashtag: Yik Yak aims to be the next Twitter

Don't think of Yik Yak as a run-of-the-mill anonymous app. The social network has already conquered college campuses, and its founders are setting their sights higher: becoming the next Twitter.

Yik Yak founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington aren't your typical social network CEOs. They live in Atlanta, generally avoid the press, and are focused more on getting the app into more college-aged hands than designing something pretty. Yik Yak was raked over the coals in its early days for being kind of hideous, but incredibly effective. That outsider perspective could be why Droll and Buffington don't think twice about taking on Twitter.

Yik Yak is a location-based forum that filters chatter to your location (or up to 10 miles away). Despite criticism over its defining characteristic, anonymity, which has the potential to lead to bullying, Droll and Buffington believe shedding names levels the playing field for users to have conversations. They also claim location is a more useful conversation filter than a hashtag.

Twitter recently previewed a location-based timeline, which Yik Yak considers a sign that location will be the next big thing.

"We didn't know it was coming but it was a nice shoutout from Twitter," Droll said during a panel at South by Southwest Interactive. "It highlights the power of sourcing content from the ground around a news situation, versus following a hashtag that could come from anywhere in the world. I'm curious to see how it plays out, because it's not core to their experience. People come on to follow individual profiles, whereas on Yik Yak people come on to follow a location."

Yik Yak also has a "Peek Anywhere" feature that lets you check in on what users in other places are talking about, which has the potential to be useful in breaking news situations. Yik Yak seems ripe for acquisition, but Twitter hasn't tried to buy the company (yet).

Stopping the spread of cyberbullying

About 95 percent of Yik Yak users are in college, so the app has a vastly different demographic than Twitter. But as the app expands to post-grad students and then cities in the next year, Droll and Buffington are prepared to make changes so anonymity doesn't lead to viciousness.

So far, the company has created a list of banned words that can never be posted in any context. It has an in-house team to deal with serious issues on the platform, plus an outsourced army of moderators. Repeat offenders will be suspended from the app. When you're composing a yak, the app scans your text for key words, like menacing language and real names, in response to high-profile incidents of cyber-bullying and fake threats.

"We haven't had a fake bomb threat on Yik Yak in a long time," Buffington said. "If we notice you're posting something potentially threatening, a pop-up comes up and says, 'It looks like you're posting something threatening. Just want you to know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take this stuff seriously.' All of the instances where it happened, they found the kid and the person said, 'I thought it would be funny.' Kids are kind of stupid sometimes."

Yik Yak also uses geofencing to block high schools from being able to open the app because they're not mature enough to handle anonymity responsibly. When the app expands internationally, beginning with Canada, Britain, and Australia, the company will geofence every school prior to launch. The company is sticking to college kids as its primary audience, at least for now.

"That's the most powerful demographic to have, college campuses," Buffington said. "In a lot of ways, they're tastemakers for not only America, but the world. Any large social network has to pass the sniff test by college students before it goes anywhere else."

College students want to share photos and videos, so expect Yik Yak to add that capability soon--once the company figures out how to allow video- and photo-sharing while maintaining anonymity.


Caitlin McGarry

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