But the word “anonymous” has tarnished a bit, and “anonymous social network” no longer sounds so good. In mid-August, Yik Yak began requiring that its users adopt handles and fill out profiles, much like they would on Instagram or Facebook.
“We’re making these changes to help people connect,” stresses Brooks Buffington, Yik Yak’s co-founder and chief operating officer.
“We’ve really never thought of it as an anonymous app,” echoes its other co-founder, Tyler Droll.
If both of these gentlemen seem a little over the concept of the “anonymous social network,” well — they’re certainly not alone. In the two years since the heyday of Yik Yak, Whisper and Secret, virtually every anonymous messaging app has slowed down, “pivoted,” or closed. Of the 25 apps listed in a New York magazine guide to the trend at its height in 2014, all but three are inactive. And according to App Annie, a market intelligence firm, even the ones that are still technically hanging on have lost users, momentum and investment.
“Anonymous apps were supposed to be the opposite of Facebook, the opportunity to actually just be yourself,” said David Byttow, founder of defunct messaging app Secret. “But over that year I was working on Secret, my fear of it grew and grew — you start to realize, it’s not a healthy or productive service.”
Byttow, whose company was called one of the “biggest startup failures of 2015,” has had plenty of time to contemplate the downfall of the anonymous app since exiting the space in April of that year. For 16 months, Secret was considered one of Silicon Valley’s surest things — perhaps the first truly viable alternative to identity-based networking, with 15.5 million users at its peak and $35 million in funding.
Much like Yik Yak, Secret encouraged its users to share anonymous messages within a semi-gated group: On Secret, that audience consisted of friends or friends of friends; on Yik Yak, it’s anyone in a 1.5-mile radius.
Writing on Medium in March 2014, Byttow described the app’s purpose in a grandiose, idealistic way: “Being more open with each other brings us closer together, builds understanding and ultimately makes the world a better place.” Hyperbolic as the claim reads, he actually may have been onto something.
“Certainly, there’s plenty of research showing that anonymity allows for freer expression,” said Rey Junco, a professor of education and human-computer interaction. “Anonymity allows you to better explore and test out identities. I think that’s great for development, especially among adolescents.”
And yet, even early on, that vision faced serious attacks. There were reports of widespread harassment and bullying on the app. A Brazilian court ordered Apple and Google to remove it from their respective app stores out of fear that it promoted abuse; suicide-prevention and teen advocacy groups accused the app of being lax, even “callous,” in its protection of users. Just as problematic, from Byttow’s standpoint, was that users were no longer choosing to stick around: They’d sign up for kicks, check out a few posts … and shortly move on.
These problems are not unique to Secret: They appear endemic to the entire class of anonymous apps that came of age in 2014. Whisper, Yik Yak and After School have all confronted high-profile bullying, bomb threats and suicide attempts, to such an extent that a coalition of student advocacy groups once called for the U.S. Education Department to intervene.
Meanwhile, while anonymity is supposed to foster intimacy, it often ends up having the opposite effect: Without a persistent identity to latch onto, users don’t form the sorts of relationships that keep them coming back to the app.
An early academic analysis of user behavior on Whisper warned that, because they only tend to interact with strangers, users only form “weak ties.” As a result, said Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, the vice president of marketing communications at App Annie, download and engagement rates have cratered across the anonymous-networking category — replaced by apps such as Snapchat, which keep users’ real names while still letting them play with their identities.
“You can’t create a sense of lasting connection if your name is not attached,” Byttow said. “It’s the inherent problem with anonymity: The mainstream will never embrace it.”
Yik Yak’s co-founders won’t admit to this sort of thinking — “we had extremely strong communities before usernames,” one said — but it is easy to see Byttow’s philosophies playing out in the app’s changes. First Yik Yak began allowing user photos, provided they didn’t include faces. Then it introduced optional handles, creating persistent identities across the service.
On Aug. 16, a redesign forced all users to choose a handle (“this is how you’ll be known among your herd”) and embrace the personal profiles the app had begun rolling out a month before. Yik Yak’s new profiles don’t require you to use your real name, but they do encourage profile pictures — and links out to other, identity-based social networks.
“What the hell,” said Junco, the Yik Yak-loving professor, as his app updated in the middle of a recent interview. “Well, this sucks. This is disappointing. Yik Yak is — I mean, has been — very different from Facebook.”
Droll and Buffington pitch this as a natural transition into Yik Yak’s next act: The app’s real strength isn’t anonymity, they argue. It’s a highly evolved hyperlocal graph — a real-time map of where people are, who they’re near and what they’re interested in.
“The original idea for Yik Yak came from the fact that we went to a small college, and we wanted to connect to other people, but we couldn’t. Nothing like this existed,” Droll said. Now, he envisions a college campus where “brands, schools, apartment buildings, restaurants, bars,” study groups, D&D guilds, and lonely freshman in need of friends are only a yak or two away from making a new “connection.”
It’s a compelling vision, and potentially a very profitable one: If Yik Yak’s local graph is truly as evolved as Droll and Buffington describe, then they could provide amazing access to local advertisers — essentially out-Facebooking Facebook.
But it also seems like a lost opportunity, considering that all these apps developed in opposition to the centralized-identity regime that Facebook represents. Anonymity was pitched as some sort of glorious alternative, a means to share without the risk of persistence or surveillance. Now it’s just a buzzword to be discarded in favor of “communities” or “connections.”
“The anonymity endeared people to each other and created a mostly friendly place to talk about stuff on campus,” reads one of several hundred recent one-star reviews. “Now everyone knows who is who.”
Liked that? Try these!