Startup Profile: Yik Yak

Combining and Remixing Social Media Concepts

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Garry Knight/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

In the past, it has always been younger audiences that drive tech adoption. But in the massive churn of social media, changes have sped up to the point that audiences may be separating. Facebook has become passé to many younger users, to the point where kids that are now joining social media may not even think to create a Facebook account. In what seems almost like a parody, younger audiences are taking to a number other social media platforms, some of which are virtually unheard of to many adults.

Enter: Yik Yak.

Creation of Yik Yak

Yik Yak was created in 2013 by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, who were members of the same fraternity at Furman University in South Carolina. Yik Yak’s success is a demonstration of the trend of social media app life cycles are contracting. The app offers status updates that are constrained in length similarly to Twitter, but are made anonymously. The app then populates users’ feeds with posts from the same geographic area, as all posts are geotagged. Posts can be voted up or down, leading to a similar meritocracy to platforms like Reddit.

The combination of short posts and anonymity, aimed specifically at college campuses proved to be a potent mixture of existing social media ideas. Yik Yak gained over 100,000 users in its first 3 months, and subsequently landed increasing rounds of funding, culminating in a $61 million investment led by Sequioia capital, approximately one year after the company was founded.

Social Media Startup Teams: A New Trend?

Yik Yak seems to highlight a number of trends that are emerging from social media startups. Timeframes for adoption of platforms appears to be getting shorter, particularly when the platforms are targeting college students. The network effects of these apps seem to have become an undeniable force.

Second, many of the founding teams of social media sites appear to be taking a cue from the founding of Facebook, as early success is often a preamble to a disagreement and lawsuit within a founding team. Dating app Tinder courted controversy amid allegations of sexual harassment, and even more notable, popular messaging app Snapchat had a lawsuit arise from an ousted co-founder and former fraternity brother. In almost identical fashion, a lawsuit has emerged from a former fraternity brother and cofounder, citing a falling out and nebulous parting of ways in the company’s short history.

Anonymity as an Asset in Social Media

Another trend that Yik Yak’s success has suggested is that social media success can be achieved by taking concepts that are already in place on various existing platforms, and combining them into a novel mixture. Short, constrained messages are certainly nothing new at this point. But the combination of these messages with anonymity (which the founders maintain is optional, real names can be used) and geotagging to allow for users to see nearby conversations has created a potent mixture. In particular, the notion of anonymity has become a powerful additive to a world of social media where users are now constantly vigilant of Facebook and Twitter sharing for fear of indiscretions.

The Double Edged Sword

This anonymity has been one of the most powerful selling features of Yik Yak, but has also caused a great deal of controversy, particularly among parents of users upon learning about the platform through their children. The platform has become an effective medium for cyber-bullying, owing to the anonymity of the posts, and people being able to see posts from nearby. Many have called for the app to be banned or shut down, particularly as the app has caught on not just with the target college audiences, but much younger users as well. The app has also been at the center of a number of controversies around threats of violence that are made anonymously which have been taken seriously by schools and campuses that are vigilant of warning signs to prevent catastrophe.

The Most Valuable Asset for a Platform? Kids Like It

Ultimately, the success of Yik Yak is proof that still one of the most powerful audiences for social media is the young one. With many predicting that Facebook’s success now depends on an older market, which prompted the company to acquire the younger-skewing Instagram, it is the trend-fueled, virally driven world of teenagers that is driving the success of many new social media platforms. And with a high valuation for a company that was founded in 2013, it is a very powerful force indeed.

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