Yik Yak, a toxic social network that shut down four years ago, is somehow back

Maybe not a good thing.


Screenshot by CNET

Yik Yak, a controversial social media app focused on anonymous, local posts, announced its comeback on Aug.16. But the app, which faded into obscurity four years ago amid connections to everything from bomb threats to sexual harassment, is returning at a time when social media is in a different place — a much more toxic one. 

The app, developed by Furman University students Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, saw a spurt of growth in 2014, when it was valued at $400 million. Its popularity was due in part to Yik Yak’s novel approach that let users create, view and comment on discussion threads anonymously with other users within a 5-mile radius. Like Reddit, users could upvote or downvote content.

But as we’ve seen with other social media sites, Yik Yak quickly went to a dark place. The New York Times recounted Yik Yak’s short first life, filled with body shaming, racist content, sexual harassment and threats of gun violence and murder. Several schools banned the app, according to USA Today, which caused Yik Yak’s popularity to plummet, and eventually led to its shuttering, in 2017.

No social media platform is without its seedy corners, many of which have gotten seedier with people spending more time online during the pandemic. Facebook and Instagram removed more than 1 million pieces of content in the last three months of 2020 containing disinformation about COVID-19. False conspiracy theories that spread on these platforms fueled the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 as rioters contested President Joe Biden’s confirmation. Social media companies, meanwhile, have struggled to contain racist attacks and misinformation as they try to find a balance between policing content and allowing for ffree speech.  

It’s in that environment that Yik Yak wants to stage its return. 

CNET contacted Yik Yak for comment multiple times but hasn’t heard back.

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Yik Yak announced its return on Aug. 16.


Screenshot by CNET

According to Yik Yak’s website, the platform has been under new management since February of this year. The app was absent for four years, but that doesn’t mean the social network has fixed the problems that led to the prior controversies. Indeed, its anonymous and local hook may take all of today’s worst elements of social media and amplify them. 

At sign-up, Yik Yak asks for your phone number, but you don’t have to put in a username. Under its new owners, it still looks like a minimalist version of Reddit, with upvoting and downvoting options for content, as well as commenting and share functions. The app doesn’t display any identifying information, but it does show approximately how far away the user who posted is from you, as well as when that user posted. Posts have a 200 character limit so far; it’s unclear if this will change in the future.

You can’t “tag” people like you might on other social media sites, and before you post, a little message pops up reminding you not to use anyone’s real name. But Yik Yak’s community guardrails largely rely on the integrity of the user. 

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Yik Yak is an anonymous social network that connects users within a 5-mile radius. 


Tim Robberts/Getty Images

If someone posts a threatening, offensive or otherwise hateful “Yak,” the app’s name for discussion threads, about you, it came from someone within five miles of you (the app calls this group your “herd”), according to Yik Yak’s description of the service’s mechanics. This means it could’ve come from someone you know, go to school with, work with, or otherwise see on a frequent basis. The thought is unsettling and creates the potential to send the recipient into a paranoid, anxiety-ridden panic spiral, questioning relationships with family, friends, even strangers. After such a post goes up, the negatively mentioned user can only hope for enough downvotes, or personally report the Yak. 

When the app shuttered in 2017, the Times reported that Yik Yak offered few solutions to prevent racist, sexist, aggressive or threatening posts. The community-monitored app would remove posts that got a certain number of downvotes or negative feedback. Yik Yak was reportedly caught systematically downvoting mentions of competitors, which called into question how reliable its content removal procedures were in more-serious situations. 

Yik Yak’s relaunched website sports colorful, emoji-dappled links to sections titled Community Guardrails, Mental Health Resources and Stay Safe Resources. The Community Guardrails section, however, explains that the downvoting removal system is still in place. 

“If you see a yak that doesn’t vibe with the Community Guardrails, please immediately downvote and report it,” Yik Yak said on its site. “Yaks that reach -5 total vote points are removed from Yik Yak. Yaks that are reported need to be reviewed by our team before they are removed (unless they reach -5 vote points). Through the upvote/downvote system, we rely on our community to help make Yik Yak a constructive venue for free and productive speech.” So unless five people downvote a post, it may take time for the post to be removed.

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Yik Yak’s demise four years ago was due in part to schools banning the app. Schools are already voicing concerns over the app’s return.


Kentaroo Tryman/Getty Images

Yik Yak’s Community Guardrails say it’s a place where “communities are free to be authentic, equal, and empowered to connect with people nearby.” The app includes a list of behavior considered off limits on the platform, like sharing personal information; bullying and harassment; threats; bigotry; trolling; spreading disinformation; sexual content; and more. It also has a section for Mental Health Resources, including a list of suicide prevention resources (though no numbers are listed). 

Colleges and universities seem already to be on edge about the app’s return. Oklahoma Christian University has banned the app’s use on campus, citing cyberbullying, according to Oklahoma News 9. Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education, which also struggled to contact Yik Yak’s new and old owners, pointed out that even if a hateful post is downvoted and removed, it could live on through screenshots and be shared on other social media. 

“It just invites students to put out their worst and most extreme thoughts, because they feel that they are protected by anonymity, but they also know that they’re going to have an audience of people who are familiar with what’s going on in the community,” Joseph E. Abboud told the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Abboud is an associate at the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, and worked on a lawsuit against the University of Mary Washington on behalf of multiple students victimized on Yik Yak. “In the college environment, it leads to a piling on. The founders of Yik Yak should have seen it coming. After the app launched, they saw it happening all over the country, and yet the actions they tried to take to tamp down on it were just ineffective.” 

Being on Yik Yak doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be cyberbullied, but staying off Yik Yak, especially with the connectedness of other social media, doesn’t mean you’re safe either. Still, one solution is to ignore Yik Yak this time around. It remains to be seen whether the app will reach similar levels of popularity once again (but if the past is any indication…).  

There’s also the question of who will use the new app. When you search Yik Yak in the App Store, it’s rated for users age 17 or older. The app’s Terms of Service suggest otherwise.

“If you are between the ages of 13 and 18, you may only use the Services with the approval of a parent or guardian,” the terms read.

Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram have been battling underage sign-ups since the beginning. Even TikTok, the short-video app that’s skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, removed, in the first quarter of 2021, more than 7 million accounts possibly belonging to children under 13

Longer-established social media sites have rules in place similar to Yik Yak’s Community Guardrails, but that doesn’t stop underage users, or their parents, from entering a fake birthdate to make an account. 

Yik Yak has resurfaced in tumultuous times, and instead of addressing its checkered past, it’s attempting to wallpaper over things with a lengthy list of external resources and by placing responsibility solely on users. As we’ve seen with other social networks, that rarely works.


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