While 2021 has been full of surprises, there was one comeback none of us predicted: the return of Yik Yak, the anonymous social media platform first popularized in 2013. The app’s rapid spread across campus has left many wondering how a platform once relegated to the social media graveyard has made such an impressive revival. A deep-dive into the app’s past may help explain how Yik Yak has once again captured the minds and phones of Northwestern students and where it might be headed.
At face value, Yik Yak appears to be a relatively harmless form of social media. Users can connect with others in a five-mile radius to share jokes and express common feelings. Many popular Northwestern Yaks center on shared experiences of students, like waiting what seems like forever for Pitney Bowes to process a package or narrowly dodging mopeds on Sheridan. Others are not specific to NU but are simply funny anecdotes and gripes posted with the aim of making others laugh. The overall effect is an app almost like a community bulletin board in which users post not with the goal of gaining digital clout, but to share humor with their peers.
In reality, however, Yik Yak is not always such an equalizing and uplifting digital platform, thanks to one key feature: the anonymity of users. Medill sophomore Ruth Ellen Berry contends that anonymity is both liberating and dangerous.
“I think for some things it’s nice to be able to get your opinion out there,” Berry added. “But then again, sometimes it can make people a little bit too bold.”
The anonymity feature creates a safe haven for brazen users to share crude messages without fear of consequences. It was this freedom that made Yik Yak one of the most popular apps of 2013. According to Mackenzie Broderick (Weinberg ‘17) Yik Yak was “practically inescapable.” She remembered a huge chalk drawing of the Yak in front of Norris and Tech, the work of Yik Yak campus ambassadors.
Bob Hayes (Weinberg ‘17) agreed. Although he was only on the app for a day, he remembers he “saw plenty of the content.”
“It was hard to avoid,” Hayes said. Another unavoidable facet of campus culture at that time was Greek life, which carved out its own space on Yik Yak’s platform. Broderick described Yik Yak as a means of “upholding the tier system” of fraternities and sororities through both “self aggrandizing” posts about users' own chapters or degradations of others.
“Mean” was a word that both alumni used to describe the Yik Yak culture in 2014. Positive Yaks would rarely get traction, according to Broderick. Hayes said that Yaks would frequently escalate into outright offensive messages – he remembered being alarmed by the racist posts surrounding Cinco de Mayo.
Generally, as he put it, “It was a lot of people being jerks about whatever they could be jerks about.”
Broderick agreed with this sentiment. She was surprised to arrive at a top-tier institution and find her peers producing such ignorant content. The ability to hide behind a screen made Yik Yak a perfect incubator for harassment and bullying. Neither alumni was surprised to see it fizzle out then officially banned in 2014.
Seven years later, “THE YAK IS BACK!” is plastered all over the App Store, and it is unclear whether anything has changed.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for kids to say whatever they want," said sophomore Ben Gardner, a frequent Yik Yak user. "Even if it's vile and against university guidelines and against what we stand for at Northwestern.”
Some Yaks relentlessly target specific people, calling them out by name with outlandish accusations, prompting users to question how much the app’s creators are doing to prevent this behavior.
“Honestly, I have no clue what Yik Yak is doing to stop bullying,” Berry said. “It seems like a free-for-all.”
Yik Yak’s website provides little clarity outside of the usual lip service on their bullying prevention measures. A page titled “Community Guardrails” reads, “Remember that a person being bullied can feel alone, depressed or friendless. Whether on Yik Yak or elsewhere, be an advocate for anyone being bullied. Reject hate!”
While some features were built into the app in 2016 to safeguard against harassment, such as posts automatically getting deleted if they receive five downvotes, Gardner thinks more needs to be done. He suggested the app flag posts that mention full names or people’s locations to prevent targeted posts.
Both Gardner and Berry agreed that while there do need to be repercussions for posting ignorant or offensive messages, the anonymity of Yik Yak can allow for more free discussion than other platforms.
“Yik Yak offers a space to test your ideas,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot of kids who do have great ideas and great takes on things, but are afraid to speak out because of fear of being cancelled.”
It is debatable whether the freedom from “cancel culture” was a driving force behind Yik Yak’s popularity in 2013. According to Hayes, not necessarily, as “cancelling” is a more contemporary form of public shaming.
“The trend of that happening is a little more recent,” Hayes said. “A lot of people knew the things said there were things you couldn’t say publicly, but it was different.”
Although the app’s skyrocketing popularity these last few months has surprised many users, not all are confident that it will survive the ebb and flow of social media crazes. Looking to history for an answer, both Hayes and Broderick remembered coming back to campus after winter break and continuing life as if the once “inescapable” app had never been there at all. While Yik Yak may once again be banished into social media obscurity, who’s to say the class of ‘31 won’t be calling us in 7 years to write about its third revival?