What is Yik Yak?

From disparaging remarks about classmates to large-scale threats that involve the police, Yik Yak has become a major source of tension at college campuses around the United States. Yet in spite of all the recent attention, the anonymous, hyper-local app—which builds its base through a network of so-called “herds”—enjoys a measure of mystique, both deserved and ill founded.

So what exactly is Yik Yak? How are college students using it? And can higher education leaders steer the pugnacious platform to have a more positive influence?

In searching for answers to these questions, we interviewed university students and gathered insights from administrators to learn more about how each group views this popular—and increasingly controversial—social media app.

Proximity to Campus: Yik Yak’s Audience

With millions of monthly active users, Yik Yak enables people within a 5-mile radius to post anonymous, 200-character messages­­ (called Yaks) onto a real-time social feed. Users can comment on Yaks, upvote ones they like and downvote ones they don’t. The more upvotes a Yak receives, the higher it appears on the feed; five downvotes, and a Yak is deleted.

People can also explore sub-feeds around topics like photography and local eats. Polls on current trends—e.g., “What Leo Role Should Have Won an Oscar?”—spark further conversation.

Yik Yak users vote on which movie Leonardo DiCaprio should've won an Oscar for.

Within the app’s My Peeks section, people can move beyond their 5-mile radius to observe another herd’s feed, but they can’t contribute to it. This hyper-local focus is reflected in the brand’s tagline, “find your herd,” which naturally has attracted college students living on or near campus. According to the company’s website, Yik Yak has a presence at more than 2,000 universities.

Building Exclusivity: Why Yik Yak Resonates

Yik Yak knows its target audience. Through Instagram, Vine and SoundCloud, the brand creates content tied to the campus experience, from the mundane (dining hall options) to the melodramatic (roommate woes). Branded swag is also designed with the student in mind. In addition to hiring Campus Representatives, Yik Yak has even sponsored a bus tour to bring its mascot to quads everywhere.

Yik Yak doesn’t care if its college marketing appeal doesn’t exactly reach administrators. This only serves to make the brand feel more exclusive—no small feat for a free social network.

Anonymity, Racism & Threats: The Stigma of Yik Yak

Unfortunately, the app’s anonymity provides a podium for students expressing harmful, violent and racist sentiments. Ideally, a herd is supposed to police itself against these assaults by downvoting Yaks. But what happens when a herd isn’t protecting all its members?

During unrest at the University of Missouri, a 19-year-old from a college 90 miles outside of town was arrested after using Yik Yak to threaten to come to Mizzou’s campus to shoot black students. At Colgate University in Upstate New York, Melissa Melendez’s story of harassment was detailed on Gimlet Media’s podcast, “Reply All.”

Incidents like these are not isolated. In fact, in March 2015, The New York Times reported multiple cases of Yik Yak being used for racism and violence against students and faculty across the US.

To demonstrate just how incendiary Yik Yak can be, Julia Tang and Ipek Kahraman from the University of Southern California emulated Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” with a video of students reciting harmful Yaks.

Note: While the video below accurately depicts messaging seen on the app, viewer discretion is advised.

After intense scrutiny, Yik Yak’s Co-Founder and COO Brooks Buffington­ published a blog post, entitled “Bullying Isn’t Cool,” outlining areas where the company has attempted to combat misuse, including:

  • Adding an age requirement of 17+
  • Restricting access at about 85% of US middle schools and high schools
  • Allowing users to request a geofence

In his statement, Brooks reiterates that Yik Yak’s primary defense against bullying is its users.

Bans & Protests: Colleges Respond to Threats

From police arrests and suspensions to rallies and protests, colleges (and the communities that surround them) are taking varying degrees of action against Yik Yak.

A Yik Yak Stampede

At The College of Idaho, located about 25 miles outside of Boise, students were knowingly posting Yaks containing personal information. These sensitive messages reached off-campus residents in the town of Caldwell, which fell within the campus’ Yik Yak radius.

Recognizing the serious security threat this posed, Matthew Vraspir, a member of The Associated Students of the College of Idaho, decided to take action.

“The way the application was being used was inconsistent with the values of our college,” Vraspir told us.

ASCI members agreed. Of the 24 senators affiliated with the organization, 23 voted to ban Yik Yak on campus (with one member abstaining).

“Administrators understood that banning Yik Yak was a rational approach,” added Vraspir, who found himself on the receiving end of Yak attacks for spearheading the ban. “Some students opposed and were more difficult to convince.”

The app is still accessible outside of The College of Idaho, but students are no longer active on the platform.

“Yik Yak is no longer a conversation at our college,” Vraspir said. “Without the application on campus, students are safer.”

A ‘High Point’ for Yik Yak

Katie O’Sullivan, a sophomore at High Point University, told us she was sick of witnessing people like Vraspir getting trashed on Yik Yak.

“Seeing people being put down time and time again on an anonymous app was ridiculous,” O’Sullivan said.

So in April 2015, she and her sorority sisters at Kappa Delta bombarded the app with positive quotes and words of encouragement. Students responded with overwhelming upvotes.

Yik Yak at High Point University

“The response was mind-blowing,” O’Sullivan said. “More than just one person loved the idea. The entire school was dying to know who changed Yik Yak.”

Yik Yak is now a much more positive space at High Point University, where students share helpful tips, such as where to get a good car wash or what to expect from a professor.

Yak It Up: Inspiring Action

Other students are using the app for even deeper discussion—changing their lives and others’ at almost every level.

Yiks vs. Yaks

During the 2016 Democratic and Republican primary debates, college students took to Yik Yak to discuss their political beliefs, providing a candid look into what resonates with this highly coveted demographic.

Steer Cheer

Students at the University of Georgia used Yik Yak to present Miss Sandra, a popular dining hall employee, with a generous Christmas gift. After seeing positive Yaks about Miss Sandra, freshman biology major Katie Kennamer took to Yik Yak to promote a GoFundMe that raised over $200 for the beloved campus worker. Students partnered with Yik Yak and presented Miss Sandra the check along with hugs and a card filled with heartwarming Yaks.

All’s Fair in Love & Yaks

Elsewhere, some students are taking the love even further.

Rochelle Barnes, who graduated from the University of North Texas in December, met her boyfriend of six months on the app while visiting her family over summer break.

“I was cautious about meeting someone from Yik Yak in person,” she said.

But after posting a comment on the app, she got a most delightful response. Barnes and the beau on the other end quickly exchanged Instagram and Snapchat usernames and, after Barnes consulted with her family, decided to get together.

(In an attempt to increase usage during breaks, Yik Yak has since released a beta feature that allows students to access their campus herds while at home for the holidays.)

Carolyn Hobbins, a senior at the University of California–Davis, has a similar story. She and her partner met on the app in May 2015. They have since moved in together.

Carolyn Hobbins and her boyfriend.
Carolyn Hobbins and her partner met on Yik Yak in late May 2015.

Yakety Yak: Administrators Talk Back

Yik Yak understands the value it provides, which is why it has started to formally partner with a handful of universities.

The University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications was one of the first schools to jump on board, using the app to deliver content to its students. The university’s Yik Yak feed, known as “Swamp Juice,” is accessed through My Peeks and available only within a 1.5-mile radius of campus. The larger student body can read and suggest content for “Swamp Juice” but cannot publish on its feed. Daily content curation and execution are integrated into the journalism curriculum.

Matt Sheehan, Director of UF’s Innovation News Center, told MediaShift that he was interested in Yik Yak to explore where traditional and new media intersect. As UF’s program has been structured to date, a group of students produce roughly 20 planned Yaks a day while monitoring UF’s general feed for breaking news. Meanwhile, administrators are studying what works and what doesn’t.

“Yik Yak is the new town square,” Sheehan told MediaShift. 

During a recent Sprout Social webinar on “Social Media in Higher Education,” Nikki Sunstrum, Director of Social Media at the University of Michigan, discussed how her institution is collaborating with Yik Yak. Similar to “Swamp Juice,” Michigan launched “Hail Mail” as a hub for campus news and information.

“We’re reimagining where our content goes based on which audience we’re trying to talk to,” Sunstrum said.

Content on “Hail Mail” is updated multiple times a day by the university’s social team in partnership with the student newspaper. To spread awareness, the university’s Twitter account actively promotes and directs people to the Yik Yak feed.

Embrace the Yak

For other college administrators, Yik Yak remains a pain point, but that doesn’t mean they should run from it. While Yaks are anonymous, they reflect the often unspoken—or perhaps ignored—aspects of a broader campus culture. Thus, sexist, racist, classist and homophobic messages through Yik Yak shine a light on larger campus issues that need to be addressed. To that end, the platform should be used for social monitoring and listening. Universities should also consider striking formal partnerships with the platform; otherwise, they risk losing complete control.

The students we interviewed had a few others ideas for formalizing Yik Yak adoption. Hobbins suggested administrators use the app to send out notifications and reminders instead of always relying on email. Barnes thought it might be good for teacher reviews and helpful college tips.

“Since students wouldn’t feel like they’d be punished or judged for what they say, it would be a good way for administrators to anonymously survey students about teachers and classes,” Barnes said, adding that students at the University of North Texas use the app to find cheaper textbooks and ways to get around campus.

Whatever the approach, administrators should acknowledge and embrace Yik Yak, as students grow more vocal and active. Contrary to all the hysteria and hype, the app presents a rare opportunity to strengthen a campus community both on and offline, ensuring the herd is heard—right out in the open.