Yik Yak regularly gets lumped in with the spate of anonymous apps clamoring for your attention, but the app's founders say their messaging tool is nothing like Secret, Whisper, or their many imitators.
Yik Yak is a location-based anonymous bulletin board that offers up a real-time stream of comments within a 1.5-mile radius. Founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington are targeting universities with their hyper-local app, with a significant presence at more than 200 colleges nationwide. The real-time, location-based, college-oriented combo differentiates Yik Yak and has helped the app carve out a user base despite fighting for the same demographic that Snapchat and others are chasing.
"The goal in our name was chit chat or chatter, not a confession type of app," Droll said. "We want to be more of a communication tool. Anonymous is really important to us, but context and location is more important. It's creating communities where students can communicate with each other."
Yik Yak recently raised $10 million to expand to all U.S. universities and potentially go international. During the spring semester, the app took off, reaching as much as 90 percent of the student population at smaller colleges and up to 15,000 users at larger universities. But Yik Yak also faced intense criticism after junior high and high school students started using the app to bully each other and make threats.
"We saw that high schoolers weren't psychologically developed enough to handle our app," Droll said.
So Droll and Buffington decided to place geo-fences, or blocks, around elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S. to prevent kids from using the app. They also asked Apple to change the app's age rating to 17+, so if parents were using controls to prevent their children from downloading mature apps, they wouldn't be able to install Yik Yak. Users can also down-vote messages and report others for abuse.
"We always equate it to when Snapchat first took off, a lot of people were saying it was a sexting app and that's all it was used for," Buffington said. "When we first started, people were saying that our app was just for cyber-bullying. I think with our continued expansion and what it's actually being used for, people will start talking about how people are really using it."
A new feature called Peek, which rolled out in May, points to where Yik Yak is heading. With Peek, Yik Yak users can drop in on a specific location, like another university, and see what others are chatting about. Eventually, Droll and Buffington hope to use Peek to see what people in politically volatile regions are discussing, or check out messages from festival-goers in far-away locales.
"We want to be seen as a powerful communication tool," Buffington said. "One feature that we'll be fleshing out more is the Peek feature, where you can look out anywhere in the world. Right now we have a set list of locations, but the grand vision is that once everyone is using Yik Yak, whenever there's an emergency or concert, you'll be able to look in and see what people in that area are saying and get that raw, unfiltered view."
Yik Yak might still have time to shed its bad reputation.