Yik Yak’s Troubles Show That Being Anonymous Isn’t Enough

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app sensation among college youths, is in trouble. The app’s ranking has plummeted in the App Store and one of the company’s top executives reportedly jumped ship last week.

The app’s initial success — a $400 million valuation and infusion of $62 million from Sequoia Capital in 2014 — could be easily described as a classic boom to bust customary in Silicon Valley, but its rapid decline may speak more to how little interest people have in being anonymous.

TechCrunch reported that CTO Tom Chernetsky, who started with Yik Yak in 2014, has forgone his executive role and taken a more supportive position as an executive advisor, according to his LinkedIn page. Chernetsky is one of several senior and executive employees, including an engineering director and product veep, who have exited the company since late 2015.

To make matters worse, Yik Yak, once the third most downloaded app by iOS users, is now the 63rd most popular social-networking app in the United States. And number 1067 for all iOS apps, TechCrunch reported.

Yik Yak gained popularity as a geo-centric app that lets college students connect with those around them and “make the world feel small.” College students used Yik Yak to anonymously trade gossip and campus goings on.

Yik Yak along with similar apps, such as the now defunct Secret and Whisper, which is still going strong with 20 million active monthly users, have been criticized for cyber-bullying that’s enabled by allowing users to hide who they are. But anonymity isn’t necessarily the problem.

Yik Yak’s bullying problem likely has more to do with its community — close-knit college towns — than anything else. The geo-based nature of Yik Yak ensures that users within a small radius share a baseline of knowledge, such as who hangs out where and when, and creates an environment where people can quickly gang up on one another.

Concealing one’s identity online also has its upsides. Anonymity allows people to cast ballots, avoid discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, and participate in discussions without fear of retaliation from harassers or abusers. Online, that ability allows people to form communities that might otherwise not exist because of social barriers.

Whisper, which has raised more than $60 million in funding since 2012, seems to have done a better job than Yik Yak of containing harassment. The app bans slut and body-shaming, as well as bullying, priding itself on being an authentic way for people to express themselves.

Anyone can use Whisper, searching for secrets based on location or topic. The resulting community, which is likely more diverse than a college campus, is rallied around an idea, rather than a person.

While anonymity helps facilitate free expression, it’s the community that’s listening that matters most. That ideal was behind PostSecret, a blog that posted anonymous secrets people mailed in. The community behind the blog was known for its welcoming nature that extends even offline into picnics and other social events for strangers who meet on the site.

Founder Frank Warren recently relaunched the app version of the blog, PostSecret Universe, which shut down in 2011 because of abusive behavior. The rebooted app is back minus the ability for people to share new secrets on their own — Warren curated secrets shared on his blog — but allows users to search by theme and listen to backstories behind the secrets.

Yik Yak may be down for the count, but if it could give users a reason to bond, rather than just gossip, then it might be able to keep from going under.