"The real tech story is Yik Yak is blowing up," Josh Miller, a Facebook project manager rumoured to be working on an anonymity app for the social network, tweeted and deleted that comment recently, asking many people to wonder what the hell he was talking about.
Miller was talking about Yik Yak, an anonymous posting app that lets you see updates from people within a 2.4km radius, kind of like a digital bulletin board. If you haven't heard of it, ask a university student about it. (Or, you know, just read this post.)
Yik Yak has been one of the top 10 most-downloaded social networking apps in the US for months, reaching #3 in early September, not coincidentally around when students returned to campus. It doesn't have the hype that other "anonymous" messaging apps like Whisper and Secret have, but it has something more important: Organic buzz.
Big app on campus
Yik Yak is hitting this stride even after it underwent a self-imposed censorship spree, using a service called Maponics to ban itself from most middle schools and high schools in the US following a rash of cyberbullying incidents.
Turns out 23-year-old co-founders Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll (who have the most young-fratty-app-founder names since the Winkelvii) are comfortable blocking high schoolers from the app because they have their eyes on an ostensibly more mature market. That is, the media.
Yik Yak wants to be a new news tool
Yik Yak is hyper-local, so when you log in you only see posts from within your immediate radius. But Yik Yak's new feature, Peek Anywhere, lets you check out what's happening elsewhere by picking a destination. This means you can see the local chatter anywhere there are Yik Yak users. And Yik Yak's founders didn't launch this feature just to give people a new way to be voyeurs; they want to use Peek to turn the app into a breaking news source, allowing journalists to use it as a tool to find out what is going on in the world in real time.
The advantage of YikYak's Peek is that it lets you eavesdrop on locals effectively. You can see the flow of conversation in real time without distractions, and you can search for locations with a high degree of specificity. "You can search pretty much anything, it works off of Apple Maps," Droll told me. "You can search by city — I like to search by sports stadium if there's a football game going over." It's basically a quick way to gauge local temperature. See a bunch of "EFF THIS" posts and you can bet the home team lost. See lots of posts about classes and professors and it will be obvious there are college kids using it.
This is a smart feature. Twitter is one of the primary social media resources for people who want to tap into the conversation at the scene of an event, but it doesn't have a good way to filter tweets based on geography. Yeah, you can look for people using a hashtag, but that means you're getting everyone tweeting on a topic, not everyone at the scene. Yik Yak is turning in to a sort of localised Twitter for young people, and if something is going down on campus, it will act as a real-time chronicle of the incident.
But it has some growing up to do
The big problem with using YikYak as a source for news is that, so far, it has a userbase more interested in posting jokes and complaints about boring classes than updates on the world around them. Just looking at what people are saying at University of Toronto, the college closest to my apartment, it's mostly class chitchat:
scratch your head if you're dying in con hall
I'm about ready to kill everyone who posts shit on the class of 2018 Facebook grop
I've decided to do a double major in sarcasm and Netflix
And using Peek to look at other schools, there's not a lot of variation, although I did notice that Columbia students like to use the app to shit-talk NYU students.
But then again, Twitter is filled with stupid posts and it's still a valuable news source. And this is a problem that may solve itself for Yik Yak. Twitter was initially more of a way to post breezy personal updates, and it developed into a way for eyewitnesses to provide real-time documentation of big events because its users just started doing it. The same thing could easily happen as Yik Yak ages.
Plus, when something extraordinary occurs, even normally banal users may have something relevant to contribute; Yik Yak has the right formula for easy access to on-the-ground real time updates, now it just needs people to actually make the updates and not only write about after-class drinks.
Buffington and Droll are talking a big game by positioning Yik Yak as a newsmaker. Right now, the app is still primarily a student time-waster. There's a good reason Josh Miller pointed out Yik Yak instead of Whisper, which is also angling itself to be a newsmaker: Yik Yak is better suited to become a goldmine for reporters. Whisper already has partnerships in place with outlets like Buzzfeed and TV channel Fusion, but those partnerships are more about packaging Whisper posts as viral content than they are about using the app itself as a newsgathering resource.
Logging onto Whisper feels like going to an updated version of the Post Secret website. Logging on to Yik Yak — which is far more focused on the hyper-local — is closer to joining an old-school chat room.
The app is still having problems with its users acting like dickheads though. Someone recently used it to make a school-shooting threat in Baltimore, and that's just one of several messed up incidents. No doubt abuse will continue to be a major problem as the app grows. And getting in touch to verify what's written on the feed will be a tricky issue for journalists. There are certainly obstacles to making Peek a bona fide news tool, but the potential is there, as long as the app can keep growing its userbase while it tries to grow up.