Yik Yak is Bad News

This is an unedited version of an article I wrote over a year ago for my university student newspaper:

An app that is making waves in America for mostly bad reasons that may not be far from arriving in Ireland.

Yik Yak is an online bulletin board for college students and high school students in America with a twist: those who post to the app’s Twitter-like feed are anonymous, only 500 people who are within a mile and half radius can see the content, and only posts by those in the posters contact list are visible. Users of the app can upvote or downvote the 200 characters or less posts.

The reason behind its popularity is due to the fact it is more area specific and current than other social networks, so students can comment on the lecture or the lecturer during a lecture. One lecturer in the US claimed that a poster made a degrading comment about her appearance during a lecture which she found hard to deal with as all the students could see the comment simultaneously.

In Chicago a high school teen allegedly committed suicide allegedly due to bullying he received on Yik Yak. The problem for colleges and high schools in America is that it is a place where people post light-hearted comments, but also gossip, rumour, slander, and generally negative messages about students and lecturers in order to bully or undermine. In many ways it’s quite like the controversial website Ask.FM that caused a lot of hurt and even suicides in Ireland and in other countries.

While schools in America have banned Yik Yak as a reactionary move, I think UCC and other Irish universities (and for that matter, secondary schools) could ban this app before it becomes a menace. As many people in America have said, Yik Yak doesn’t bring anything useful to the table, only suffering and unnecessary public humiliation. The app is also apparently used as a forum for sexually explicit information and even threats.

However, news broke on 23 of November that the app had raised $62 million in venture capital and is currently valued at almost $400 million. One could say that that seems reasonable in this crazy tech bubble; communication apps are very hot right now – an example is Facebook buying WhatsApp back in February for $16 billion in cash and stock and recently Snapchat has been valued at an insane $10 billion.

This app is actually quite like the apps Whisper and Secret, who are both chasing the anonymous messaging App space with limited success. Secret has crashed and burned by dropping out of the top 250 apps in the Apple App Store in the US in September and now is out of the top 1000. Whisper, meanwhile, is still in the top 500 in the US but was hit by a damning report by the Guardian that is was secretly tracking users, despite claiming to not do so at all. Perhaps this has slowed the app’s momentum a bit. The difference with Whisper is that you can’t post someone’s real name when you are writing a message about them, but that’s still not a huge barrier to identifying the person being slandered. Secret claims to moderate their app to prevent bullying, but I doubt it’s their primary focus.

I hope that in future, Irish universities and other stakeholders will watch what smart phone apps are becoming popular in America, and prepare for their inevitable deployment in Ireland, or even ban the bad apps before they become popular. I understand how we must not live in fear of apps, and maybe it’s impossible to ban these apps anyway. But it would be great to have a debate about them before they arrive in Ireland, because people might come up with great public awareness campaigns in universities, and offer good advice to students and lecturers.


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