Using Apps to Make Friends In Real Life: Q&A with Yik Yak

Katie Ward
Staff Writer

The beginning of each school year introduces a new group of students to Yik Yak’s USF feed, and first year students have the opportunity to meet new people on campus through the app.

Yik Yak contacted the Foghorn at the end of last semester to discuss USF’s high ratings on the app. Cam Mullen, lead community leader for Yik Yak, discussed how Yik Yak encourages campus socialization and monitors content.

KW: Why was Yik Yak created?

CM: The initial idea behind was to create a platform where everyone on campus could be connected and share information with the entire campus. I guess [co-creators Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington] saw that a lot conversations were being kind of trapped inside social circles, and I guess that Yik Yak allows the entire community to connect without having to friend each other or follow each other, and being anonymous levels the playing field between parties.  it doesn’t matter if you’re the most popular kid in class or the most quiet kid in class, your voice is treated the same, which has had great success over the past year and a half.

KW: In a city like San Francisco, it’s sort of a great way for, especially the freshman class, to come together and figure out what’s going on around campus. Can you comment on how Yik Yak can potentially create more social interaction? 

CM: We hear tons of stories about how students use Yik Yak to connect with other people, to meet new friends, or discuss school rules or school politics that are going on, or even just to share a joke with another student they might not know. One cool example is at Franklin Marshall College, there was some rule that forced freshman students to not be able to associate with Greek members in the first month of school. It kind of backfired, and a bunch of students were drinking too much in their room alone. One student posted on Yik Yak, like ‘you know, this rule is backfiring on freshmen and not working. If you believe this, come to this building on Sunday between 1 and 4 and we’ll sign a petition.’ Long story short, because of Yik Yak, so many people showed up that the school broke the rule. I guess it kind of just shows how a community can come together on Yik Yak to discuss policies or rules that are going on and openly talk about it, and have conversations go from inside the app to outside the app.

KW: Since this is so prominent for college students and it’s created for students to use anonymously, it can get a little raunchy. Are there any kinds of systems that monitor and regulate the content that comes on the app, or is it really just for user-based regulation systems, such as too many downvotes?

CM: The community plays a big role in controlling the content that comes on the feed. One thing that you mentioned is downvoting. If a post gets 5 downvotes, gets a score of minus five, it gets removed. That gets much of the inappropriate content off of the app. There’s also the method of reporting that users can do. We have, on our end, moderators who are looking through feeds, and looking at reported content, tracking the health of communities. And then we have moderators that look through content looking for hotwords and other words that trigger our team. In the app, we’re starting to use machines that have natural language processing, which is actually the machines’ ability to read yaks and read the text. Moderation is an important part of Yik Yak to make sure that the quality of the content is high, and it’s something that’s continuing to improve. We’ve gotten a lot better at this in the past twelve months, and it will continue to improve.

KW: What kind of restrictions do you have that apply to using the apps around minors, and does this apply to high schools as well?

CM: What we’ve done in one of our efforts to discourage misuse is called a geofence. We built geofences around a majority of high schools and middle schools across the nation. What happens is if you try to use Yik Yak at one of these locations is the app won’t work. We’ve installed a majority of these geofences early in 2014 when we were blocking high schoolers from using the app on their campus. We did this because we believe that college kids are more mature and able to use Yik Yak with responsibility, and so we sacrificed a lot of our short term growth by geofencing them, but it’s better for the longevity and the overall health of Yik Yak in the long term.

KW: Is that for the fact that it’s an anonymous app, that it can potentially lead to activities that are not legal for minors? Why specifically aim this for college students who are more mature?

CM: What we saw is that Yik Yak is being used properly at universities with people who are aged 18 and up, and in addition to just implementing geofences, we put in a seventeen years or older requirement in the iOS and Android Google Play store to download. I guess we’re doing this because our communities were a lot healthier at colleges, and were using it the way we intend it. We noticed that some high schoolers were not, so we wanted to be mindful of that.

KW: The app has recently gone through a lot of renovations, sort of had a facelift. What kind of new features can students look for?

CM: We have the feature “peek” into anywhere else into the world and see what they’re talking about. So you can peek into any other campus —  whether that’s during a football game, whether that’s New York in fashion week, whether that’s Ferguson, MO. You can peek into what they’re talking about on the ground. I’ve spoken to a number of editors and newspaper writers who love this feature to surface good quotes and get an authentic view of what’s happening on the ground in a place. So I think that that is one of my favorite features, I know that I spend a lot of time just peeking around at other universities, seeing what they’re joking about at Vanderbilt or other universities.

KW: In the comments system there have been changes as well, can you describe some of those? 

CM: [The new user icons] are reply icons, those help facilitate conversation among yakkers. When you post something on Yik Yak you’re assigned a reply icon for that thread. So the purple fox icon can reply to the black anchor icon and you know who’s speaking. There’s also a special badge for the original poster, or the OP, where they can kind of follow up on their yak or answer someone’s question. Overall it’s really helped facilitate discussions in threads, and some threads have a hundred or two hundred replies thanks a lot to these reply icons.

KW: Is there anything else you want to say to the students of USF about your app?

CM: I think one of the coolest parts about working at Yik Yak is seeing how people use Yik Yak. Another thing too is the stories we see about users surprise us and inspire us, we’ve seen Yik Yak used as a lost and found — a student at Union College lost her watch and someone said they turned it in and she found it. We’ve seen students rally behind each other, at University of Michigan someone was yakking looking for support going through mental illness, and the yak turned into a full panel that could discuss how to better improve mental awareness at the University of Michigan. It’s just amazing how this local bulletin board can have such a great impact on the community and strengthening the community and building the community. It inspires us and it excites us everyday while we’re working.

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