Why Everyone's Excited About YikYak Again (and Why It's Not Truly Anonymous)

Why Everyone’s Excited About YikYak Again (and Why It’s Not Truly Anonymous)


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I’m sure everyone’s made this joke already, but I can’t help myself: Yakity Yak, YikYak’s back.

The anonymous social media platform that spread throughout college campuses for a hot minute from 2013-2016, is back (if you live in the U.S.). It’s available now on the iOS App Store. More shocking than YikYak’s sudden return: People are stoked. Who knew so many were nostalgic for an app that let you argue, gossip, and digitally catcall other users?

However, this new YikYak is taking steps to prevent the harmful content that scuppered the previous version of the app nearly five years ago.

What is YikYak?

If you never used YikYak, here’s how it works. Users can post anonymous, location-based messages in the app, and those messages are viewable to any other users within five miles of where the message was originally posted. Other users can up- and down-vote posts, but while you can see where a post was made, you’ll never know who made it.

On paper, YikYak was a novel spin on social media, especially if you’re in a highly social place like a college campus. But like all social media apps—especially anonymous social media apps—YikYak eventually became a problem in practice.

Many used it as a platform to bully, harass, and shame their peers, and others used it for hate speech. YikYak’s original privacy policy and community guidelines were pretty lax, so harmful content flourished. It got so bad that YikYak prevented users from installing and accessing the app if they were on college campuses. Eventually, between a declining user base, constant bad press, and calls to ban the app, YikYak eventually shuttered in 2016. Until it was suddenly resurrected.

YikYak’s new community guidelines

YikYak is now under new ownership, who want the app to be a “radically private network connecting you with the people around you. No strings (or labels) attached.” The app focuses on anonymous, location-based posts, but the new owners set out stronger guidelines for the app that they hope will keep its users safe.

The biggest change is YikYak’s “one strike, you’re out” policy. Anyone caught violates the terms spelled out in the Community Guardrails will be permanently banned. This includes doxing, bullying, bigotry, and scams. The app also has easily accessible links to safety tips and expert information on ride sharing, COVID-19, elections, suicide and self-harm prevention, and more.

The thing is, even with the stronger security and safety measures, we have no idea if the new YikYak team is prepared to take on the moderation challenges inherent in an anonymous, locally-based platform like this. So far, it seems to be putting the onus on users to police the content.

Users can also report posts that contain offensive or harmful material, and the team will review it—though who knows how long that process could take. Similarly, if a post receives at least -5 “upvote points,” it is removed from the feed. However, these posts could easily be screenshotted and shared elsewhere before they’re taken down.

YikYak also doesn’t prevent anyone from pretending to be someone else, or misleading other users with false information and scams. Malicious users could also spoof their GPS location and remotely post messages around the world. These examples all clearly fall within the new violations in YikYak’s Terms of Service, but these violations have to be reviewed before the offending posts are removed and the users are banned.

To be fair, these new policies are a step in the right direction, and will hopefully make the app more pleasant to use. But even if this new YikYak incarnation is better at keeping harassment and hate speech off the app, there are other security risks associated with using a platform like this.

Why YikYak isn’t really anonymous

Despite letting you post anonymously, YikYak isn’t truly anonymous. The app does not use personally identifying information, but you can’t use YikYak without sharing your phone number, GPS location, device ID, and certain network information. The app can also collect data from social media sites, such as your Facebook likes and website cookie data. This data is used to track your location in the app, track user behavior and analytics, and to sell ads.

YikYak says this data is stored safely in the United States, but as we’ve seen many times over the years, security breaches can happen to any company. If YikYak’s servers are ever breached, it’s possible your data could wind up in the wrong hands.

Similarly, since posts show up geographically, someone could theoretically try to guess who made the posts and when. Someone could also access your YikYak activity history if they have physical access to your device. To be fair, these are unlikely scenarios, but not impossible.

How to use YikYak safely

The best way to keep yourself safe on YikYak is to just not use it. If you do though, here are some quick tips to keep yourself safe:

  • Do not post personally-identifying information and be smart about when and where you post.
  • Make sure you report bullying, harassment, and other violations.
  • Use extra caution when interacting with others.
  • You should also familiarize yourself with YikYak’s new Community Guardrails, Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service.

Oh, and don’t let the app’s apparent anonymity go to your head. If you wouldn’t say to someone’s face—or wouldn’t want it said about you—don’t post it. And not just because nearby users might be able to trace your comments back to you; it’s also just better to be a decent human being to others. The quickest way for YikYak to disappear again is to fill it with nasty, hateful posts.

[NPR]



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