The Rise and Fall of Yik Yak, the Anonymous Messaging App

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This month, two campus feminist groups and several former students filed a federal complaint accusing the University of Mary Washington in Virginia and its former president, Richard Hurley, of failing to protect the female plaintiffs from cyber harassment and threats of physical and sexual violence during their time at the university.

The platform where all of this took place? Yik Yak, the now-defunct, localized, anonymous messaging app that Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, two students at Furman University in South Carolina, founded in 2013 and that soon became associated with bullying, discriminatory speech and threats of bomb and gun violence.

“The lack of responsiveness and inability to control this devastating hate speech I think is what ultimately did this app in,” said Debra Katz, one of the lawyers who brought the complaint against Mary Washington, located in Fredericksburg, and Mr. Hurley, in federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

In response to the suit, the university said it contained “no new allegations” and that it had, and would continue, to “work diligently to create a safe and secure campus environment and to address the issue of sexual violence.”

There was no comment from Mr. Hurley’s lawyer.

The lawsuit was just the latest twist in the rocky road the messaging app has traveled in its short life.

In March 2014, a school in Massachusetts evacuated its students twice after Yik-Yak-based bomb threats, and during the same month, a high school in California was put on lockdown for a similar reason.

In October 2014, Jordan Seman, a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, posted an open letter about being targeted on the app for her weight. “I felt exposed, betrayed and mostly embarrassed,” she wrote.

The next month, two other high schools in California were put on lockdown after threats of violence, and in Michigan, the police arrested Matthew Mullen, a student at Michigan State whose Yik Yak post threatened a shooting. Mr. Mullen was eventually sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to pay $800 in restitution for the investigation.

At the University of Missouri, campus police arrested Hunter M. Park and charged him with making threats of violence against black students on Yik Yak. Mr. Park received a three-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation after pleading guilty to making a terrorist threat. A former Virginia Tech student pleaded guilty to using the app to threaten a repeat of the 2007 campus shooting in which 32 people were killed.

The high point for Yik Yak came in 2014, when its founders raised $73 million in venture-capital funding. According to App Annie, a firm that tracks metrics for apps, downloads spiked in September of that year and stayed high for several months. But by early 2015, the decline began. App Annie estimates that Yik Yak had 1.8 million downloads in September 2014. By September 2016, it was 125,000.

At the end of that year, Mr. Droll and Mr. Buffington laid off 60 percent of their employees, and last month, they shut down the operation, selling off intellectual property and employee contracts to Square Inc., a mobile payment company, for $1 million. A few months earlier, Hive, a college-based chat app with a similar color scheme to Yik Yak’s, popped up in the iTunes and Google Play stores, with Mr. Buffington in one of the screenshots. Whether it was an attempt at reinvention under the Yik Yak umbrella or a side project is unclear, but it is no longer available.

Yik Yak’s image problems seemed to stem from its reliance on anonymous posts and the few solutions that were available to curtail racist, sexist, aggressive or threatening language. The app was community-monitored, meaning that users could vote down a post they found vulgar or offensive, and if the post received enough negative feedback, it was removed.

But the app’s privacy policy did not allow institutions to identify users who posed a risk without a subpoena, court order or search warrant, or an emergency request from a law-enforcement official with a compelling claim of imminent harm.

Though neither Yik Yak nor its creators were named as defendants in the suit against Mary Washington and Mr. Hurley, the app’s role was central. Its name is mentioned 51 times in the 35-page complaint, which outlines instances when members of the campus group Feminists United were targeted in “Yaks,” or messages on the platform, after they spoke out against Greek life on campus and were connected with the suspension of a rugby team, some of whose members had sung a song “that called for violence against women, including rape and necrophilia” at a party, according to the complaint.

Messages that cropped on Yik Yak disparaged and threatened the feminist group’s most visible members. Some of the worst are listed in the complaint: “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and [g]rape them in the mouth,” “Can we euthanize whoever caused this?”

Kelli Musick, one of the plaintiffs, who graduated in 2015, said: “There were days when I felt like I couldn’t look away from my phone because a friend or someone I knew would send me a screenshot of a threatening or harassing Yak. We don’t blame the app in and of itself. It was a tool. Tools can be used in any way that a person decides to use them.”

But the group did ask the university to request that Yik Yak place a virtual fence around its campus to disable the app. The solution was one Yik Yak had begun using in March 2014 in Chicago-area schools and one it gradually expanded to middle and high schools nationwide after facing criticism from parents and educators.

“We had parents reaching out to say their 9-year-old has been threatened and harassed on the app,” said Ross Ellis, the founder and chief executive of Stomp Out Bullying. “Kids get hysterical when people make mean comments. Their brains are not mature enough to handle it.”

The school administration, citing logistical and first amendment concerns, refused. So the group asked that Yik Yak be banned on the school’s Wi-Fi network, a gesture that was primarily symbolic given that students could continue to access it on their personal data plans. The university said no again.

“This was something over which we had no control,” said Anna Billingsley, the associate vice president for university relations. “We couldn’t remove the posts from Yik Yak.” She said that the school offered the protection of campus police and suggested that the students contact Yik Yak and the Title IX office at the university.

“They told us to report the Yaks to Yik Yak, and if they were found to be credible, Yik Yak would then respond, which is not the case for any other threats of violence on campus,” Ms. Musick said. “When it has been a threat of a bomb or a gun, other schools did not say, ‘Report it to Yik Yak and they’ll follow up.’”

In trying to react to complaints about its product, Yik Yak created geo-fences and added filters that recognized certain keywords, such as “bomb,” and would ask users if they wanted to proceed with the message by suggesting: “Pump the brakes, this Yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and 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?”

But little changed and students at schools across the country began to fight back. The College of Idaho student senate requested that Yik Yak geo-fence their campus, and in Georgia Emory University’s student government denounced the app in a formal resolution. Students at Clemson University in South Carolina unsuccessfully demanded that the school ban the app after a spate of racist messages.

And at the University of Mary Washington, Ms. Musick and her classmates turned to Ms. Katz to file a complaint with the Education Department. Its Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation, but before it could issue a decision, the White House changed hands and many of the office’s employees left. So the women went to district court.

Yik Yak tried to put in place further preventive measures in 2016 first by allowing users to have profiles and handles, then by requiring them. After blowback, the identity markers became optional once again.

Despite these efforts, by this past March, about two and a half years after it had closed a round of funding that raised millions in venture capital, its active users over age 18 had fallen to 264,000, an enormous decline from nearly 1.9 million in November 2014, according to comScore.

Was Yik Yak really that bad? A study at the MIT Media Lab that compared it to Twitter found that posts on the anonymous platform were only slightly more likely to contain vulgar words. The difference was less than 1 percent. “We find that on anonymous platforms, users are only slightly more likely to use vulgar language than on public ones, and when they do it is not acceptable and leads to negative feedback,” the authors wrote.

Morgan Hines, who will start her fourth year at Northeastern University in Boston this fall, never encountered nastiness on Yik Yak. “I thought it was funny,” she said. “It formed a lot of camaraderie between students. There would be random shout-outs to things happening on campus, like people who are attractive or being annoying in the library, or a fire alarm going off at 4 a.m.”

But Ms. Hines criticized Yik Yak’s hyper-localization. “Yik Yak was for pockets of people on campus,” she said. “If the fire alarm went off at 4 a.m., it only went off at your building, so no one else will give it a thumbs-up.”

That hyper-localization is also what made the cases of harassment particularly galling. Ms. Musick, one of the plaintiffs, said, “With Yik Yak, in the back of your mind, you know they’re not from around the world or other parts of the state, they’re right there in your classroom, in your dining hall. On a campus with 4,500 students, that’s a pretty small group of people. This isn’t some creepy guy in his mom’s basement in Indiana.”

In the end, it may have been this aspect of the app that really did it in. Danielle Levitas, the senior vice president for research at App Annie, pointed out that bad press would not necessarily override an app’s popularity if it fulfilled a useful function (consider Uber, for example). But, she said, if it does not have something sustainable to offer, it will burn out.

In this case, it seems that being local was to Yik Yak’s detriment. When Ms. Hines went home to Kentucky after her freshman year, she forgot about the app. “I wasn’t on campus anymore and I wasn’t with my friends anymore,” she said. And back at Northeastern, “no one was on campus to comment on anything.” She added, “It kind of just became irrelevant in my life.”