Yes, the first thing you want to do, after reading the posts on Yik Yak, is weep for the future of humanity.
The new mobile app, aimed at college students, lets you post short, anonymous messages within a 1.5 mile radius — and gained recent fame as an insta-tool for high school and middle school bullies. But even setting aside the meanness, there’s not much to recommend it; as far as I can tell, it’s mostly populated by candidates for the Lowest Common Denominator Club. In my geographic bubble this week, I found a lot of misogyny, some off-color jokes, and precious few posts I could even consider reprinting, beyond “Why does this elevator smell like urine and cake?”
Still, the more I’ve learned about Yik Yak, the more I’ve actually found heartening — not about the app itself, but about the way the world now reacts to a social networking tool with negative social value.
■ Teenagers realize the Internet is forever: That doesn’t mean they’re going to exercise perfect judgment. But the rising popularity of anonymous messaging boards — Yik Yak and similar apps with names like Secret, Whisper, and UMentioned — partly proves that Internet education campaigns are working.
Teens now understand that bad things can happen when their names are attached to awful thoughts, and that their Facebook posts can become their permanent records, said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. (They’ve also become aware, he said, that their mothers are always on Facebook.) The next lesson should be more basic: If you know this is something you shouldn’t be saying, don’t say it.
■ There’s a backlash against cyberbullying: Yik Yak has grown quickly since going live last fall, but the backlash has been swift, and pretty splendid. High school and middle school principals have mobilized against it. Yik Yak’s founders — 23-year-old fraternity brothers named Tyler Drood and Brooks Buffington — have used GPS technology, often preemptively, to block the app on 85 percent of American middle and high school campuses.
It’s great that there are grown-ups in the room. What’s better is that students are fighting back, too. A Boston College group recently posted a video of students reading sexist and racist Yik Yak posts aloud, then gazing at the camera with a look that says, “Are you kidding me?”
This underscores a growing truth about cyberbullying: In most cases, the good kids are in the majority. It’s just that they don’t always know it. Patchin has seen kids set up Facebook “compliment pages” and Twitter compliment threads to combat hate pages and posts. “The cyberbullying gets the headlines, and the kindness doesn’t,” Patchin said.
■ Long-term, the market might kill antisocial apps: Right now, social networking is hot — plenty of apps fail, but the payoff for success can be tremendous. Yik Yak recently won another $1.5 million in seed funding. Are we destined to see more clones?
I asked Rob Go, a partner at the Boston-based venture capital firm NextView Ventures, to explain how the process works. (His firm doesn’t invest in Yik Yak, but it focuses on seed stage investment.) He said that when investors judge social networking sites, they look for rising levels of growth and repeat engagement — signs that “something’s working, even if you don’t necessarily understand it.”
Even with massive usership, though, it’s hard to sell ads off anonymous posts. And even setting aside moral judgments, Go said, a “toxic environment” within a social app could be a barrier to growth. New users and advertisers might steer away. Investors could get squeamish. A moral failing could become a financial liability.
■ Yik Yak’s founders are doing the right things: Money is probably part of the reason why. Still, it’s heartening to see how well Droll and Buffington have handled the bad publicity: They’ve been responsive, proactive, and seemingly sincere about their efforts to fight cyberbullying.
Could they have anticipated that their new business venture would cater to bottom-feeders? Hard to know. In an e-mail, Droll said the purpose of Yik Yak was “to create conversations and build communities.”
So far, they’ve built a cesspool for frat boys. OK. Maybe, as Droll said, Yik Yak users will step up and self-police. Or maybe Yik Yak will crumble under the weight of its own pointlessness — and next time, its creators will aim higher.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.