Security

Maker of controversial Yik Yak app responds to critics

Yik Yak logo.

Yik Yak logo.  (Courtesy: Yik Yak)

Yik Yak, an anonymous location-based social media app, has gained traction as a fast rising startup. But with that success has come criticism. Yik Yak has come under fire as critics claim the anonymity of the app facilitates cyber bullying.

A recent New York Times article, for example, quoted a law professor who referred to the app as the “the Wild West of anonymous social apps,” while other publications have described instances of threats of violence and harassment.

When FoxNews.com asked Yik Yak Inc. to address these concerns, the company said that it has taken, and continues to take, steps to prevent misuse of the app.

“Obviously, cyber bullying is a terrible thing, and we at Yik Yak find it completely unacceptable,” the company said, in a statement emailed to FoxNews.com. “That’s why we’ve proactively taken preventative measures, and continue to focus on this area, to make sure this has no place on our app.”

Yik Yak allows users to anonymously post and view content within a 10-mile radius. The one-year old app has become highly popular, particularly, on college campuses.

But when the app found its way into the hands of middle and high school students, Yik Yak began to geo-fence middle and high schools. Yik Yak says that that 90 percent of high schools and middle schools are currently geo-fenced and the company continues to add others upon request. Yik Yak notes that many of these requests are completed within 12 hours.

“If you try to use the app at a high school or middle school, a message will pop up saying that sending or receiving messages is disabled,” Yik Yak Community Developer Cam Mullen told FoxNews.com. “For us to cut out high schoolers and middle schoolers who can be active users on Yik Yak and increase our user numbers was something we decided to do to sacrifice short-term growth at that time because we thought it was the right thing to do. We really are focused on the community and that people are using the app in the right way.”

Yik Yak has given the app a 17+ rating in the Apple Store as another preventative measure. While there is no official way to enforce this age cutoff, Yik Yak said that the age rating can help filter out younger users.

“It ensures parents can block the app on their children’s phones and only mature users can download the app,” the company said, in its emailed statement. “The 17+ rating is just one of the many ways Yik Yak works to curb any misuse on the app.”

Beyond implementing barriers for younger users, Yik Yak said in its statement that it employs filters to screen out inappropriate words and content, including offensive slurs and potential threats – sources of much of the current controversy over the app. When Yik Yak detects a trigger word in a comment, the app warns users prior to posting: “Pump the brakes, this yak may contain threatening language. Now you’re probably an awesome person but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this yak cool to post?”

In its emailed statement, Yik Yak said that it aims to “empower” users by allowing them to help moderate the content within its community. Yik Yak users can “up-vote” and “down-vote” others’ posts. With more down votes, the posts become more likely to be removed. Yik Yak also allows users to report posts to be taken off the Yik Yak feed. Yik Yak said that it monitors these requests 24/7.

And while critics say relying on the discretion of Yik Yak users and company monitors is an unreliable way to control negative content, Yik Yak told Foxnews.com it is exploring advanced technology to help get the job done effectively.

“Yik Yak is constantly working to expand and fine-tune our preventative measures in these efforts…and are looking to things like natural language filters to get more advanced about this,” it said, in its statement.

However, while some users do misuse the app, Mullen said that Yik Yak is designed to connect communities through shared experiences. He described one instance in which a college student lost her grandmother’s watch. Her friend “yaked” about it and someone replied within two hours, saying they found the watch and returned it to the front desk.

Florida State University students also used the app to spread word of last year’s campus shooting and support each other in the aftermath of the tragedy, according to Yik Yak.

“Yik Yak has really allowed communities to connect in an open forum, which has led to a million different use cases,” Mullen said.

And while Yik Yak continues to adapt and develop, Mullen said that one of the keys to its success is not simply growth, but growth in a sustainable way.

“While we are focused on growing, we are also focused on our user base being happy and that the communities are developing the right way and coming back every single day,” he added.

Laura Coburn is a student in the Fox News Campus Associate Program.
Get more information on the program here.