Yik Yak logo

Yik Yak is a location-based, anonymous social media app that's all the rage among college students -- including those who like to spread a little hate, sexism and other joys, such as "making a terroristic threat" at the University of Missouri this week. And it contains some elements fast becoming the stuff of a 21st Century trope.

But the thing about Yik Yak -- beyond those threats at the University of Missouri -- that makes it worthy of America's collective attention right now is that the young men who founded it actually had what they considered a pretty noble social mission. It turns out it just might not have been one suited for the modern age.

[University of Missouri police arrest suspect in social media death threats]

First, the backstory.

In the long ago and far-away days of 2012, a trio or perhaps a duo (more on that later) of young, white male fraternity brothers at South Carolina's oldest private college, Furman University, came up with a series of ideas for apps. Several fizzled but ultimately contributed something to the app we now know as Yik Yak.

Yik Yak, the founders said in early interviews, was the app for that guy (or girl) who may be the funniest or the smartest person in the room but doesn't, for whatever reason, feel that he or she can speak up. The combination of anonymity and the chance to post to a running feed available in its entirety only to people on or near specific college campuses would free that silenced person to make salient and sometimes really hilarious observations about the world.

Yik Yak's s founders later told the New York Times that they envisioned a "democratic" social media app. This would be the place where the quality of the comment and the community's response to it would determine how long it remained visible. They wanted to create Twitter without the risk or the cool-kids-with-lots-of-followers club. It was very Web 4.0 kind of stuff, or whatever cliche we're up to now.

When two of the men -- Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll-- graduated, Droll's parents gave them a loan to get the business started. And soon there was enough interest in the app and its potential to pull in some major venture capital from both foreign and domestic sources.

Bam, 365 days later, Yik Yak was being described by outsiders as a roughly $400 million business and verifiably one of the fastest-spreading apps in the country. The third member of the trio says that since he was still in school, he stayed on campus, helped to market and spread the app. For his troubles, that third guy says, he got cut out of the company. Buffington and Droll disagree. So, there is, of course, pending litigation of the Winklevoss variety.

And again, if this is where the origin story ended, well, there wouldn't be much more to say. But there is.

[What is Yik Yak, the app that fielded racist threats at the University of Missouri]

The two men who say they are the brains behind Yik Yak, Buffington and Droll, have also been very clear about this: Instead of migrating to Silicon Valley, Yik Yak aimed to do something for the South and young people from there, like themselves. These sons of Atlanta wanted to tap the font of tech-wiz kids at engineering education powerhouses like Georgia Tech as well as expertise at other regional schools to build up their app and, they hoped eventually, other new tech companies.

They wanted Yik Yak to plant the seeds that would eventually develop a "Silicon Valley of the South." Yik Yak could play a role in creating opportunities and high-paying jobs in the Southeast. This was Yik Yak's version of Google's former "don't be evil" motto. It was a reason for being and for setting up shop in Atlanta that extended well beyond personal gain.

Given those goals, it would have also been reasonable to expect Yik Yak -- based in the cradle of the American civil rights movement -- to at least consider some of the ways that anonymity can be used and abused. But Buffington and Droll have told reporter after reporter that they never anticipated that the popular app would be used in some of the ways that it has been.


Concerned Student 1950, led by University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler, second from right, speaks following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign Monday. (AP Photo by Sarah Bell/Missourian)

They hadn't expected that members of a Rowan University frat would use it to post a sex tape filmed -- or at the very least posted -- without the consent of a woman involved. They hadn't anticipated that female and minority professors would face particular challenges with the kind of commentary posted about them on Yik Yak. They hadn't anticipated that users in places as wide-ranging as Mississippi, Vermont, Alabama and New York would use the app to post threats of bombings and mass shootings or to suggest other forms of coordinated violence.

They hadn't anticipated the intense online bullying on Yik Yak at high schools (high school access has since been disabled). They hadn't expected that flippant comments about sexual violence and other danger would be directed at women so often that a group of 72 feminist organizations would file a Title IX civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in October. The complaint claims that the failure of schools to in some way regulate the app or limit access to it violates the responsibility of educational institutions to foster environments where everyone can learn and participate without the damaging influence of threats and harassment. They didn't expect to see Yik Yak mentioned in connection with a story about a Washington murder.

Now, in fairness, Yik Yak's management team has modified the app since its inception. In a statement issued to The Fix, Yik Yak indicated that it's serious about limiting the utility of the app for purveyors of hate, harassment and other problems.

We have a number of safeguards in place today (like filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, moderation and suspensions) and are constantly working to enhance our protective measures (for example, incorporating natural language processing and machine learning techniques). We work hard to encourage a positive and supportive community environment on Yik Yak, and we support school administrators in their efforts to encourage positive behavior and discourage inappropriate activity – whether on campus or on any social platform.

But, as The Washington Post reported Wednesday, the company hasn't followed through on some promises made to improve conditions.

On Thursday, after a 19-year old white man named Hunter Park allegedly used Yik Yak to inform the Missouri campus that he planned to "stand his ground" and shoot black students, Buffington published a blog post about the matter. Buffington said plainly that this kind of thing on Yik Yak was not at all okay. Using the relatively tepid language of a techie, Buffington said that employing Yik  Yak that way violates the terms of service and use agreement.

Buffington also said this: The app would continue to do what it has done in the past. If the app is used to make threats or violate the law, they would share the poster's identity with law enforcement authorities upon request.

[How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?]

Now, here's the thing about Yik Yak, Buffington and Droll -- and anyone else hoping or planning to be a force in the modern tech world.

Hate and harassment remain active parts of public life. More than a few people would say there's some evidence that one or both are growing or at least have found new life online. These ills have to be anticipated and accounted-for, or you risk becoming a tool in a matter in which you would rather not be involved.

[Online trolls are just everyday sadists]

In many ways, it's no different than the many parents -- most of them white -- who operate under the mistaken notion that avoiding any mention or discussion of race is an effective way to prevent their kids from developing racist ideas. (Parents of color face their own unique challenges on this front, but the expert advice is the same: Ignoring the issue doesn't work and isn't healthy.) In that sense, getting a child prepared to live, study and work in a modern and increasingly diverse country is similar to the effort people take to make sure their children become the kind of people who wash their hands with soap.

The same can be said about our businesses, our community institutions and our schools.