Yik Yak’s Founders On The Value Of Anonymous Apps

This morning at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, Yik Yak founders Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll spoke as to why they believe their anonymous social app has soared while others in the space have instead folded. A sort of hyperlocal anonymous Twitter, Yik Yak initially grew in popularity with a younger demographic, especially those in high schools and colleges. But being an anonymous app has its challenges, the founders quickly found out.

As the app became hugely popular with high schoolers, it started making headlines for being a home to vicious cyberbullying – something that every other anonymous app on the market has faced at some point. This is usually a make or break moment for a company.

For instance, Secret’s failure to quickly address the bullying on its network eventually led to its downfall.

Yik Yak, to its credit, took a different route. Instead of turning a blind eye to the problem, the company actually shut down access to its app on high school campuses. By using geo-fencing technology, Yik Yak basically banned users from reaching its content while at school – one of the only ways that an app that doesn’t have profiles or know its user demographics could have blocked this segment of people from its service.

A risky move at the time, the geo-fencing certainly could have impacted Yik Yak’s then-skyrocketing growth. But as Droll explained this morning, the company wanted “good growth, not growth at all costs.”

Today the app is blocked at the majority of high schools around the U.S., but is still hugely popular on college campuses. It has a presence at nearly every major university in the country, in fact.

That doesn’t mean that college users are necessarily more mature when it comes to the content they post in their communities, of course. But the founders believe that anonymity, when done correctly, can have value – especially in today’s ego-driven age where popularity is counted by likes and favorites and other trackable metrics across social services.

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Explains Buffington, the value to anonymity on Yik Yak is that it allows for a level playing field.

“The quiet kid is judged the same as the most popular kid,” he says.

Plus, it allows users to move more freely between their multiple personas or interests, he notes. You can be who you want to be on Yik Yak.

However, while sometimes lumped into the same group of anonymous social apps that includes the now-defunct Secret, Whisper and the latest cyberbullying troublemaker AfterSchool, Yik Yak is trying to differentiate itself by focusing first on community, and secondly on anonymity, the founders explained.

Buffington said that what people really like about the service is feeling like they’re connected to that community, not the anonymous aspect. “People feel such an attachment to this group of people,” he added.

Still, policing its community is something that Yik Yak has to carefully consider as it grows. The team currently utilizes the combination of both a smaller in-house team of moderators (who are also tasked with other duties), as well as an outsourced, overseas team of moderators. These people help to locate and remove inappropriate content on the service.

But backstage after the co-founders’ chat, Droll stressed, too, that it’s the Yik Yak community itself that helps a lot when it comes to managing the content. Because the app includes an upvote and downvote mechanism, users can help keep items of lesser value from gaining in popularity. Users can also downvote items that don’t sound legitimate.

At times, this model seems to be working. Amid a series of negative news stories moderator Jordan Crook pointed to on stage as indicative of the problems with Yik Yak’s anonymous nature, the founders instead zeroed in on one that showed how anonymity can actually be advantageous in some cases.

A U-M student had posted on Yik Yak they were having thoughts of suicide around exam time, and the community responded by hosting a suicide prevention rally on campus.

“Someone may not have posted that on another form of social media,” said Buffington. “But here they posted that, and the community banded together as a result.”

The founders also spoke of how Yik Yak has been used to bring people together for blood drives, to help users find a lost dog, or even connect two people who began dating as a result of being on the service.

That being said, Yik Yak’s moderation system is clearly far from perfect. The company is regularly cited as a home to violent threats, racist remarks and other unseemly content. One could even argue that it’s this sort of salacious content and gossip that draws in users in the first place.

But the company has been working on natural language technology that will help to increase its capacity for detecting the bad content, allowing it to move beyond a sole reliance on human moderators.

Now the question for Yik Yak, which is backed by over $73.5 million in outside investment, is whether its approach to anonymous social can scale – and eventually monetize. The company says it’s expanding its service into the U.K., Canada and Australia, and soon, other countries, as well. It’s also fighting off a lawsuit from an alleged third co-founder, which hasn’t yet settled.

Droll said one of the biggest challenges the company has ahead of it is expanding beyond colleges and to other countries, while Buffington noted, too, that it was critical that Yik Yak set the right tone as it arrives in these new markets.

“Once it’s set, you can’t change it,” he said.

And of course, there’s also the question of how Yik Yak will make money — as Crook joked, “don’t worry about the money” is something they say in Silicon Valley, but in New York they say “worry about the money” — a nod to the conference’s New York location.

But that $70+ million in outside funding allows Yik Yak’s co-founders to delay thinking about monetization for some time. Local ads are in the back of their minds, said Buffington, but they are not even looking to test that yet. Instead, the company has the freedom to focus on the user experience and growth, which is what they plan to do.