Yik Yak Founders Defend Themselves Against Criticism Over Cyberbullying

Yik Yak co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington took the stage today at South by Southwest, where they addressed what they described as the biggest misconceptions about their anonymous, location-based chat app.

As Yik Yak’s popularity has climbed, it has also faced growing concerns and criticism – a recent article in The New York Times provides a good overview, with accounts of harassment and threats, and one law professor describing it as “the Wild West of anonymous social apps.”

Droll and Buffington, on the other hand, said it’s a misconception to think that their app is dominated by cyberbulling, or to think that Yik Yak is used by large numbers of high schoolers. They said that in reality, 95 percent of their users are college students, with “very little” cyberbullying and threats.

“Both of those are not what we see on a daily basis,” Droll said.

On the high school front, he said that when the team first saw Yik Yak taking off among high school students in Chicago, they decided to just block all users in the city, and they only reactivated it after building geofences around every high school. They’ve now done the same for nearly 100,000 high schools in the United States, and Droll said this is still one of the first steps the company takes as it moves into new countries.

Asked whether kicking a big swath of users out of the app was scary, Droll answered that if you want to build a sustainable social platform, “You can’t have growth at all costs — you need to have good growth.”

As for cyberbullying, Buffington pointed to steps that Yik Yak has taken to fight back, like better filters and allowing users to offer more details when reporting potential abuse. As for things like bomb threats, he said the app now detects potential threats and sends a pop-up warning to users before they can post. That might not seem to carry much weight, but Buffington said that in many cases, those the app just needs to “remind someone of the implications” of their actions” — he recalled one bomb threat poster who, after being tracked down, said they just thought it was going to be funny.

“Kids are kind of stupid,” Buffington said.

Yik Yak SXSW

When pressed on the issue, he acknowledged that relying on human moderators to catch bad behavior is “not super scalable,” which is why Yik Yak is working on natural language technology to detect more of that automatically.

How about sharing user information with law enforcement? Buffington said the company complies with laws requiring it to share that information “in cases of imminent harm or threat,” but it’s legally prevented from sharing that data otherwise.

He also pointed repeatedly to what he said is Yik Yak’s long-established, positive tone. Buffington argued that the tone doesn’t just discourage the harassers and bullies, but also helps distinguish the app from other anonymous services — so Droll said it’s closer to Twitter than Secret or Whisper.

“We always say we’re location first, anonymity second,” he added.

Elaborating on that point, Buffington said that in contrast with other apps, the main reason for Yik Yak’s anonymity is that he and Droll “wanted a level playing field for content.” In other words, they wanted all messages have an equal chance of becoming popular, even if they weren’t posted by social media celebrities.

During the audience Q&A, someone also asked about Yik Yak’s algorithm, specifically why messages containing the names of some competing products seem to disappear without any downvotes. Repeating the pair’s comments to TechCrunch, Buffington attributed that to Yik Yak’s spam elimination efforts

To be clear, the interview didn’t just focus on the app’s downsides — far from it. Droll and Buffington also talked about the early days of the company, how they grow, and how they plan to expand.

Droll suggested that eventually, Yik Yak will need to make “a number of product changes” to make it a better fit for non-college users, but he doesn’t plan to open it to all users anytime soon — the current priorities are international growth and keeping up with college users after they graduate.

But by delaying support for a general audience, doesn’t Yik Yak risk missing out, particularly as services like Twitter add more location-based features? Buffington countered that the college demographic is an enormously valuable one.

“In some ways, they’re the tastemakers, not only of America, but also the world,” he said.