Riding the yak has become an everyday activity for over 6,000 Boston College students. After the closure of the BC Confessions Facebook page last October, BC students went months without an outlet for anonymous posting. Yik Yak, a free app that uses geo-fencing technology to provide anonymous posts from users within a 1.5-mile radius of their current location, has provided BC students with a platform to express their achievements, complaints, and secrets with no username, password, or identification necessary.
“Yik Yak creates a local community without prior relationships or friendships that provides mature, responsible users with an outlet to interact with their peers in real-time at a hyper-local level,” said co-founder and COO Brooks Buffington in an email.
Buffington and Tyler Droll, recent graduates of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., launched the app in early 2013.
“In just five months since the app was launched, we were already on more than 100 campuses, and many of those have over half the student bodies,” Buffington said. Now, Yik Yak’s herd is over 100,000 users strong, with hopes of expansion.
Since graduation, Buffington and Droll have moved to Atlanta, Ga. to work on the app full time. The pair received $20,000 in initial funding from Atlanta Ventures, and since then, other angel investors include Vaizra Investments, DCM, and Azure Capital Partners. Yik Yak now boasts over $1.5 million in total funds.
Yik Yak seeks to ensure that all voices are heard on every campus. “We felt as though a few select people held the campus voice and not everyone had a chance to be heard,” Buffington said. “We wanted to give the shy guy in your biology class the opportunity to be the funniest person on campus-other forms of social media didn’t really allow that.”
Users now also have the ability to post under handles such as “Campus Squirrels” or “Stokes Lawn” to ensure that particular campus voices are heard.
Even if users don’t feel comfortable posting actual messages, they still have the opportunity to participate in the conversation and make their voices heard by up-voting or down-voting other people’s posts. Additionally, a new feature, Yakarma, provides students with a running tally of their individual up-votes and down-votes, as well as the up-votes and down-votes that they assign to others’ posts.
Although Yik Yak’s primary use is on college campuses in the U.S., its founders have seen its purpose expand to communities that are centered around life-changing situations.
“Whether it’s attendees at a specific event or citizens in Ukraine during the current crisis, we see many positive uses for individuals to receive important, real-time information from those around them,” Buffington said.
The app, however, has not always been well received. While Yik Yak’s intended target demographic is college students, thousands of high school and middle school students have begun to ride the yak, causing misuse in the form of cyber bullying and bomb threats that have upset many parents and administrators across the country.
The cofounders have been commended by various parenting organizations for handling these situations in a timely fashion at the expense of losing one of their growing user bases.
“We recognize that with any social app or network, there is the likelihood for misuse from a small group of users, so we have built specific tools to prevent this from happening,” Buffington said. “We have geo-fenced all primary and secondary schools and turned the app to 17-plus in stores to ensure the user base is age appropriate.”
The app also uses self-regulation technologies that remove any user who posts negative or harmful content.
Since most of Yik Yak’s activity centers around college campuses, the cofounders have invented a new way to keep users on the app in the summer, when students are most likely away from campus.
“‘Peeking’ is our most exciting feature for college students,” Buffington said. “While everyone is at home thinking about life back on campus, the feature allows users to check in on their home campus to monitor what is happening. We also plan on introducing fun and creative ‘peek’ locations every week, ranging from Hogwarts and the Hunger Games to ESPN 8 The Ocho to keep our users entertained over summer.”
Currently, Yik Yak has 11 “peek” locations listed, BC being the only university located in the north, while the 10 remaining universities are located in the southeast part of the U.S. and range from large state schools to small private ones.
Peek locations are labeled when they reach a certain threshold of users, meaning that BC has surpassed this threshold and is in the top 11 universities in the world for Yik Yak use. About two-thirds of BC undergraduate students have downloaded the app so far, and the number is expected to continue increasing.
In addition to “peeking,” the cofounders plan to further enhance users’ experiences by implementing advanced monitoring technology.
“We continue to build out this technology to ensure positive interaction, but we are also finding that as more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self-regulate itself in a positive way,” Buffington said.
Furthermore, according to a Facebook post in late March, Yik Yak is looking not only to expand its range of features, but its team as well, as the app advertised summer internship opportunities in its Atlanta office.
For aspiring app developers, the cofounders have some words of advice. “Get something out there quick-timing is everything in this space,” Buffington said. “A lot of people have great apps that are just idly sitting in the app store because their creators failed to execute. If you want to be a leader in your space, you have to be willing to do what everyone else isn’t-you have to be a grinder.”