Gossip Guys: How Yik Yak’s founders are protecting their app from its biggest threat: Us.
What if there were no names attached to Twitter? If anyone could post anything—and always be anonymous? That’s Yik Yak, and if you think accountability-free gossip is a formula for trouble, it’s also a formula for 2 million users and $72 million in venture capital.
On the first day I downloaded Yik Yak, the social media app that was founded in Atlanta by two fraternity brothers in 2013 and secured $60 million in venture capital this past November, I was sitting on my couch in Decatur, precisely 2.83 miles from Emory University. Yik Yak is hyper-local by design: Imagine Twitter, but instead of seeing a news feed with posts from people you’re following from all over the world, you see only posts from your peers in your neighborhood. Well, maybe not your peers and your neighborhood. At this point, Yik Yak is aimed almost exclusively at college campuses, where, for its users, it serves as something of a collective diary: a place to air the frustrations, exhilarations, and outright banalities that come with being 20 years old, away from home, and surrounded by thousands of people adrift in the same hormonal straits. To wit: “At the age where my body wants to have babies, but my brain wants to have anonymous sex on the floor.” “I was two girls away from a threesome last night.” “I’m so depressed and I honestly don’t know what to do anymore.” “When I die I want my group project members to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.” “F—– this girl for an hour and 45 seconds last night. Thanks daylight savings.” Who would write such things, you ask? That’s just it: You can’t tell. Yik Yak promises complete anonymity. No name required, not even a dummy profile. Just download the free app and go.
The founders of Yik Yak are Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll. They’re both 24 and graduated in 2013 from Furman University, where they noticed the popularity on campus of certain Twitter parody accounts. The two friends thought it would be fun if everyone had a platform for telling jokes and sharing news—and to be able to do that anonymously. Why anonymously? For ease of use, sure, but mostly so that the posts might be judged solely on their merits, as opposed to the identity of the author or his or her photo.
What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s see: In March, a high school in Southern California went on lockdown after someone made a bomb threat on Yik Yak. Just a few days later, the app was banned at a Chicago-area high school after a rash of bullying messages. In April, a teenager from Westport, Connecticut, wrote in New York magazine that Yik Yak had brought his “school to a halt” with posts like “K. is a slut” and “How long do we think before A.B. kills herself?” In December, a yak posted near a high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, read, “The itsy bitsy students came up the water spout down came my bullets and washed them all out.”
Wait a second—high schools? Wasn’t Yik Yak intended for college students? Well, yes. Yik Yak is indeed focusing its expansion on college campuses, but as I learned when I downloaded the app, the coverage area of Yik Yak takes in much more. Like a generous Wi-Fi network, its reach stretches to areas beyond its intentions: Coffee shops. Commercial strips. Private homes. And high schools. When Yik Yak activates on a college campus—which it has done so far at about 1,500 schools—it’s a little like hitting a bullseye with a bazooka.
And so Yik Yak has found enthusiastic users among high school students. If the promise of anonymity doesn’t play to the better angels of our nature, that goes a hundredfold for a teenager, who might still be developing a moral compass and an adult sense of restraint. Yik Yak’s unintended success among an unpursued demographic has the young upstart, which went from two employees at the beginning of last year to more than 20 by the end, attempting a unique strategy: actively discouraging a potentially lucrative group of customers from accessing its product. From their office in Buckhead, the young staff of Yik Yak are spending much of their time erecting “geofences” around high schools—essentially turning the buildings into dead zones for the app—while at the same time making the technology available on more and more college campuses. Droll and Buffington say that shutting off some access for teenagers is not just the correct moral decision but also the best business one. Teenagers, after all, are notoriously fickle, with short attention spans. They’re not part of Yik Yak’s plan: to become a social media juggernaut with the reach of Facebook and the immediacy of Twitter.
Yik Yak already has something in common with Facebook. Where Facebook had the Winklevoss twins, Yik Yak has Douglas Warstler, a fellow Kappa Alpha from Furman who graduated a year after Droll and Buffington and claims the two pushed him out of Yik Yak’s ownership circle just as the app was gaining steam. In November of last year, Warstler sued Droll and Buffington in the State Court of Fulton County and accused the two of dissolving the company the three of them owned and then transferring its only asset—the app—into a new company. Warstler wants his one-third interest back, as well as punitive and compensatory damages. (Yik Yak’s media rep didn’t respond to requests for comment on the case.)
And Twitter? Although it currently doesn’t sort posts by location, the company is said to be partnering this year with Foursquare to create location-based tweets, a move that one tech blog said “may have to do with new competitor Yik Yak” and its “stunning rise.”
As lofty as the founders’ goals are for Yik Yak, the present-day reality is far more prosaic. On the day in November I first downloaded the app, the posts from Emory were concerned primarily with a stomach bug that was sweeping through campus. Students were posting warnings, posing questions, seeking help. They blamed the food from “the DUC,” home to the Dobbs Market. The yakkers called the illness “DUCbola” and the resulting bathroom scene the “DUCocalypse.” Yaks reported that 28, then 30, then 74 students were vomiting their guts out.
“Is it bad that I wish I caught the DUC poisoning because I feel so fat right now?” posted one yakker. Another yakker wrote, “Emory: Where we stop Ebola but not food poisoning.” This post got 85 “up-votes,” which is similar to “liking” something on Facebook, but different because if a yak doesn’t get enough up-votes, it disappears faster from the feed. Then, later that night, there was this yak from someone who claimed to have just returned from the hospital: “The virus is not food poisoning it is something called Noro/Norwalk virus. It is not the DUC.”
It took five full days for Emory News Center to report the same information. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed. In this regard, Yik Yak was working precisely as its founders intended: as an instantaneous source of news on a micro level. Unlike Twitter, though, Yik Yak doesn’t require you to look for hashtags to find out what’s happening in a particular place.
Take, for example, the recent protests in Ferguson. By zeroing in your Yik Yak search on that area (peeking, they call it), you could see what people there were saying about the protests. You’d know that what you were reading was coming from someone in the thick of it, not from a compulsive retweeter or a Twitterbot in a distant land.
But on November 24, in the heat of the Ferguson protests, the Yik Yak feed from that area focused more on whether classes at Saint Louis University would be canceled, or quips like: “From Ferguson protesters to SLU students, we are all equal . . . ly drunk.” Indeed, most of the content on Yik Yak is that stupid. Hot topics include bodily functions, finals, who’s hot in a high school, and who’s horny on a college campus. Many of the cleverest yaks have been lifted from elsewhere on the Internet. And geofencing hasn’t stopped the bullying; older kids and adults do it too. At the University of Georgia in September, a building was evacuated after a threat on Yik Yak. A month later, at Emory, a student offered up a resolution that sought to ban Yik Yak from the school’s wireless network. The effort failed.
The controversy hasn’t hurt the company. Since its founding in November 2013, Yik Yak has gone from a thousand users to about 2 million. In November of last year, Yik Yak closed on that staggering $60 million round of venture capital, bringing its funding total to upwards of $72 million. That means the company is already worth between $300 million and $400 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As for when Yik Yak will start making money for its investors, that question seems as if it couldn’t be further from the founders’ minds. After all, even Twitter—which got $5 million in venture funding in 2007 and is now worth about $22 billion—isn’t profitable, at least according to generally accepted accounting principles.
Yik Yak’s focus now is less on revenue than on expansion. The 22 employees are most interested in what’s happening on the flatscreen perched over their standing desks in their Buckhead headquarters. On the screen is a map of North America, constantly refreshing to show dots wherever a yak is broadcast. The dots cover the United States like measles. Yik Yak wants to conquer this country, then go for world domination.
But right now it’s like Yik Yak is a college kid, one who pulls all-nighters and posts things like, “Don’t worry, laundry, nobody does me either.” The investors, meanwhile, are like Yik Yak’s cool parents, paying tuition, laughing quietly at his high jinks, and knowing there’s only so much they can do to control him. Graduation day will come soon enough, and then it will be time for Yik Yak to become a mature and financially independent adult. Or maybe Yik Yak won’t make it that far and he’ll move back home, spending his days hanging around the basement in his sweatpants, railing against one-ply toilet paper and praising burritos while nobody listens.
Timothy C. Draper is a billionaire and a third-generation venture capitalist who founded the firm DFJ and runs an entrepreneurship boot camp called Draper University of Heroes in Silicon Valley. He’s invested in companies like Hotmail and Skype. He also wanted to break California into six states but failed to get that on the ballot in the last election. No big deal, though—this is a guy who tells his “students” at Draper University to put a hand over their hearts and recite this pledge: “I will fail and fail again until I succeed.”
Draper heard about Yik Yak from his daughter’s boyfriend. It was just over a year ago, and by that time Droll and Buffington had already abandoned the first idea Droll had hatched during a course in app development at Furman—a polling application called Dicho, short for Dichotomy—in favor of a Twitter-like app that used GPS to let users share posts with people in close proximity. Droll’s mom, who wasn’t upset that her son was skipping medical school to start a company, helped come up with the name, a riff on “yakety yak, don’t talk back.” Droll coded it in two weeks, then introduced the app to friends in Atlanta before launching it at Furman, grabbing up 1,000 users within the first two weeks. After assembling a business plan from an online template, they were plucked from near-obscurity by Atlanta Ventures Accelerator, which gives selectees $20,000 and a bunch of perks: training, mentoring, and coworking space alongside other startups in Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village building.
The Yik Yak app began to spread from Furman to other schools in the Southeast. TechCrunch, the uber-influential technology blog, took notice in February of 2014: “What happens when you combine anonymous messaging with college campuses? You get 100,000 users in three months.” The coverage inspired a group of big-name investors—including Azure Capital Partners, Kevin Colleran, and Vaizra Investments—to pony up $1.5 million in seed money in April of last year. That helped Yik Yak pay for bigger servers and hire outside consultants to help with growing pains.
Just two months later, Draper joined a $10 million round of funding for the company. “Yik Yak is special because it is easy to use, and it has a fast-growing network of users,” he told me in an email exchange. “Often the truth comes out when people are anonymous . . . Truth is valuable to society.”
What can a startup do with $10 million? For Yik Yak, the capital infusion meant they could hire more people, move into bigger digs at the Atlanta Tech Village, and stay alive for about 12 more months. That’s about it. But Droll and Buffington weren’t worried. That’s not what kept them up at night.
As the popularity of the app spread, so did reports of racist outbursts, misogynistic rants, and murderous threats on Yik Yak. Other social apps—with names like Streetchat, Whisper, Topix, and Secret—had the same problems. PostSecret started out as an art project, when creator Frank Warren in 2004 asked people to mail their secrets anonymously on postcards. He received more than 150,000 postcards by October 2007. The site’s popularity spawned an online community and then, in 2011, an app. Just a few months later, the app was removed from stores because the posts became too malicious. In 2010, fights broke out in a high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after an argument on anonymous social networking site Formspring.me spilled into the real world. Seven students faced felony riot charges.
Andrew Cullison has studied social media behavior and the powerful allure of anonymity as director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Indiana. He’ll soon give a presentation to the American Philosophical Association on the epistemology of the Internet and the ethics of anonymity online. “The approval of strangers seems authentic in a way that approval from friends, who might feel social pressure to support you, does not,” he says. With anonymous apps, he says, you can get that approval—or rejection—in bulk.
Ask.fm, which launched a social networking site in 2010 that featured anonymous posting, built its user base to more than 60 million by mid-2013. That year, the British prime minster called for a boycott after reports that cyberbullying there had contributed to several teen suicides. Cofounder Mark Terebin reportedly said that in most of these cases, teenagers actually posted comments like “drink bleach” and “go die” about themselves as a way to get attention. In December, an app called After School was pulled a second time from the App Store following this post: “Tomorrow I’m gonna shoot and kill every last one of you, and it’s going to be bigger than Columbine . . . Death to you all.”
When Buffington and Droll started getting angry emails from Chicago-area high school administrators and saw that their app was being banned, they holed up in their office for a weekend to geofence off every high school in the Chicago area. Geofencing is a mapping technology that works like this: Pick a location, determine its longitude and latitude, then build an electronic barrier around that spot using a particular radius. It was at about that time that David Cummings, founder of Atlanta Tech Village, introduced Wes Herman to the company. Herman had been an executive at Amazon and Coca-Cola before serving as CEO of a company called EZ Prints, which used photos and designs to personalize products for brands. EZ Prints was sold to CafePress for $30 million in 2012. Herman is now with General Catalyst Partners, a Boston-based venture capital firm focused on early-stage investments.
“They always said the app was not designed for high school students,” says Herman, now an adviser to Yik Yak and an investor. “So they found a way to plot the locations of these high schools and painstakingly keep them out. At a time when they could’ve been doing 2,000 other things, they took a big chunk of time and money out to make this happen.”
Of course, geofencing doesn’t keep every abusive post off the feeds, so Yik Yak works with a company in the Philippines to screen for offensive content. The workers use software flowcharts (“if you see the word ‘bitch,’ then . . .”) to help them understand the context and know when to flag a post. Yik Yak also relies on its users to monitor the feeds by up-voting posts they like and down-voting those that should be removed. The down-voted yaks disappear, kind of like a photo on Snapchat, only slower.
Yik Yak’s self-policing measures could be seen as half-hearted, and serve only to make the app more enticing to high schoolers. After all, teenagers love forbidden fruit. It’s as though the company is trying to have it both ways: monitoring and controlling some of its content while letting the rest run free, says Cullison, the ethics researcher. “If they’re really trying to become a respectable news organization of sorts, they’re making a promise to consumers,” he says. “But it’s going to get harder to pick and choose when to take steps to block people and control content. They can’t stick their heads in the sand.”
Alex Rosenfeld, who just graduated from Emory University with a creative writing degree, used Yik Yak only casually until he started seeing hateful posts appear on the app. He deleted Yik Yak from his phone, then wrote an op-ed for the Emory Wheel, claiming the app “sows hostility” and that, though the posts can be “strangely beautiful,” many Yaks have gone too far.
He’s also concerned about honesty. If Yik Yak is going to become a place to find breaking news in your specific community, how will you know whether what you’re reading is true? You won’t be able to make any kind of educated guess based on the yakker’s profile.
“I’m always skeptical of unfiltered content,” he says. “That’s how it is on Twitter too, but that’s a place where people are building brands and identities. With Yik Yak, there’s no editor, no filters, and I worry about that.”
A post to the Alpharetta feed at 10:29 p.m. on November 19 pointed out this problem: “Got sexually assaulted in my own car on campus today. Had a cop car pass me while he was assaulting me and it didn’t stop. The windows were fogged up too. I’ve lost hope in humans all together . . .”
I took a screenshot of the yak, since it was unlikely to get many up-votes and would therefore get scrubbed from the feed fairly soon, and showed it to Droll two days later. We were in Yik Yak’s headquarters at Atlanta Tech Village, a 103,000-square-foot, six-story complex with glass conference rooms, fridges full of Red Bull, and walls made of whiteboard. There are nap rooms, scooters, networking at the pingpong table, and afternoon beers on the rooftop. It’s the ’90s dot-com boom all over again.
Droll didn’t look at my screen. “I didn’t know about that. We can’t really police those things. I mean, who knows if it’s true?” he said in his sleepy monotone. You’d never know he and Buffington were just days away from announcing their new round of venture capital.
The new money will allow Yik Yak to hire more people, including “Campus Reps.” They’re Yik Yak users who’ve posted so often and received so many up-votes, they’ve built up a lot of “Yakarma” points. The reps organize Yik Yak–sponsored events on their campuses and are rewarded with some pay, a lot of merchandise, and possibly a visit to Yik Yak’s HQ. As of December, the company was looking for reps in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, for a presumed expansion. The new funding will also put Yik Yak in a better position to begin thinking about how to eventually make money. Droll, Buffington, and their team are approaching the concept carefully. They’ve seen how consumers respond when ads pop up too soon or too often, cluttering the content. Myspace is a cautionary example. Rupert Murdoch bought the then-popular social media company in 2005 for $580 million, and within two years, it was valued at $12 billion. But Murdoch focused too much on making money too soon. The site became overrun with advertising. Then Facebook caught on, and in 2009 had more users and more advertising revenue than Myspace. In 2011, as My-space hemorrhaged money and users amid complaints about accessibility, reliability, and censorship, Murdoch sold the company for just $35 million.
“With apps and social media, you have to build up a large, engaged user base without ads, or someone else is going to do it,” Buffington says. “Myspace ran ads like crazy. Facebook waited until it had asserted world dominance.”
He and Droll believe that once Yik Yak hits its targets for monthly users—a heavily guarded secret that I saw scrawled on a sheet of paper on the wall—the company will focus on sponsored posts. “Maybe a feed would be ‘brought to you by’ a business right near you. Or maybe you’d see, on your feed, that Farm Burger was having a two-hour sale down the street,” Droll says. “No one has nailed local advertising on social networks. We’re not entirely sure how we’re going to do it, and it’s really too soon to talk about that.”
A small swell of laughter rises from the next room. Droll pulls out his phone and checks the app. He giggles. Some post about a movie sequel that should’ve been made.
“Knowing how many people are using Yik Yak on a daily basis—it’s a very cool thing,” he says. “Right now it’s just funny, silly. But we know it can be something big.”
This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.