Riding the Yak: Finding Your Herd Through Social Media

Ashley Winward

You’ll find it on pretty much the majority of student’s phones here at UNH; the little blue icon with the cuddly looking yak. YikYak, since its creation two years ago, has been the hot app on college campuses across the nation, allowing users to “yak” a short post with complete anonymity while others can choose to like (up vote) the post into popularity, or dislike (down vote) the post off the rolling feed. The idea of anonymity has caused a lot of stir about the app, and the harm it can possibly do. However, after talking to YikYak’s Lead Community Developer Cam Mullin, it’s clear that the focus of this app is community and getting funny as well as useful content across to a wide range of people.

Many cite the ability to post anonymously as the downfall to this app, fostering bullying and negativity.

“I think with anonymity, it does a number of things. It flips social media upside down a little bit. On YikYak, it doesn’t matter who you are that’s posting, it matters what you post. It doesn’t matter if you’re Justin Bieber or Cam Mullin or anyone; you’re going to be judged the same on content. I think that level playing field has made the captain of the football team the same voice as that quiet guy in the back of the classroom and I think that’s helped give a voice to people that might not always have one and it makes the best content surface to the top, not the popularity of the poster.”

Mullin also brought up a good point that almost all social media spreads negativity in some way. “There are misusers on YikYak as there are misusers on any social network; whether that’s YouTube, Facebook or Instagram, there are going to be people that misuse the app and our goal is to minimize that as much as possible. We have tools that we give both the community and YikYak headquarters has to limit that. An obvious one is down votes, the community can down vote posts and if it gets to a score of -5 it gets removed. Beyond that users can report messages which takes 1, 2 or 3 reports to be taken down. At headquarters we have filters running looking for hot words, that might be associated with racism or homophobia and looking for them, categorizing them in a different way and we have a team of moderators looking at the posts that have been reported and taking them off or keeping them on. They have the ability to suspend users as well as block users indefinitely. Now we’re implementing this thing called natural language processing, which is in short a computer that can read through text, identify which ones are inappropriate and take them off. It’s a constant improving process. One other thing is that we’ve geofenced high schools across the nation you might have heard about. If you try to use YikYak on a high school campus it will say ‘YikYak’s for adults only, sending and receiving messages are disabled.’”

When something is portrayed in the media right of the bat so negatively as YikYak did, it can be difficult to garner support and market the good in the app. Mullin explained how their general portrayal influences their marketing. “We’ve implemented a lot in the past year and yet it’s still very early for the company, we haven’t been around that long. We’ve gotten a lot better at moderating and taking out the bad stuff, it’s a process that gets better every day. How it influences marketing? A lot of people that use YikYak regularly, understand the value and understand the humor and love it, it has great content. I think for other people that don’t know much about it, if there is a case of misuse, say a racist post and they see a screenshot or a collection of shots it paints a picture of YikYak that doesn’t necessarily reflect us holistically, you can cherry pick a couple of yak that make it seem like a harmful place. In response to some articles that have done this, our Yakers have come behind us and said you guys have totally missed the point, if you go to a hot feed, you can see a lot of helpful information, humorous content and community oriented.”

Community is what’s at the heart and soul of YikYak and Mullin was very passionate in this point. “YikYak is like the local bulletin board right? People can put up whatever they want and the community decides what rises to the top and what gets taken off, so it’s all up to how each community uses it and different communities use it different ways. You look at a school like Bucknell, which is kind of separated and on its own, their community is almost strictly students and all the content on there is relevant to specifically the student body. And then you look at NYU, and there you see tons of students but it’s also mixed in with a bunch of visitors that might be downtown, people who live downtown, students at Pace University next door and their feed is different and often identifies with a more diverse group of people because it is more than just the student body because it’s a much more diverse population.”

As lead community developer, it’s the goal for Mullin to bring this community feel to college campuses and hot spots around the country. “This is something we focus on heavily and my job specifically, that’s all I focus on, making sure that communities grow the right way. I’m making sure they’re talking and that the content on their feed is valuable and appropriate. I can share a couple of stories with you right now; one is that there are professors that I’ve spoken with that feel that they’ve never been so in touch with their student body, until YikYak. It’s kind of interesting to hear professors on YikYak, but the content feels like you’re talking to your friends and for someone like a professor who’s not necessarily in those conversations they definitely feel like part of the discussion and get to understand their students and how they feel outside of their lectures. Another thing is whenever I go to a new place, YikYak is the first app I open; whether I’m at UNH or Penn state or NYC, I feel like I get to understand at a deeper level what’s going on around me. If there’s something dramatic going on I get to know what’s happening, maybe a sunny day I get to see more of the inside jokes going on. I peak into University of Hawaii, and they have all these slang and different terms they use. For example, auntie is a word that they use for an older woman in the community that you might look up to and respect. I learned that through YikYak, even though I wasn’t there I was able to peek in and learn more about the culture and the community.”

Each location is its own little community, and with that each community is different. The ability to come together on an equal playing field and broadcast out to the student body I think is something people miss when they’re scrolling through the feed. So many people want to immediately harp on the negatives but you can’t help but notice how much good the app can do. It’s all up to the users and who is posting.

Finally, I had to ask the one question that has been on my mind and I know the minds of many: what does “ride the yak” really mean? In short it’s about using the app and finding your community.

“We have a number of tag lines, “Find your herd,” or “ride the yak,” and I would say that ride the yak means that you use YikYak a lot. If you’re riding the yak, it’s the app that you’re on, the app that you’re using, it’s the app you identify with. It’s the app you feel a part of, you feel a part of the herd. You can’t ride the herd because you can’t ride more than one yak,” he laughed. “But you’re riding the yak with a herd. You’re riding the yak on a yak in a herd with your herd communicating on YikYak.”