An Interview with Yik Yak


Editors Note: This is the transcript recorded during RoomZoom’s interview with a Yik Yak representative. There’s also audio recording of the interview, check it out here.

Asleep on the Job Part I: Yik Yak Remains a Haven for Racism and Threats

Asleep on the Job Part II: What Yik Yak’s founders promised Elizabeth Long.

Asleep on the Job Part III: RoomZoom Talks with Yik Yak


RZ: What kinds of concerns and complaints have you heard about bullying, racism and stuff like that? And how have you been getting that feedback? Are People emailing Yik Yak, are you getting concern over social media?

HM: Yeah, so we are very aware of what Yik Yak was created for and what we want it to be and why the vast majority of people use it, why it’s popular on over 2,000 campuses, so that’s what we’re focused on–anything that we can do to encourage and foster that great experience. So we obviously take any of these other concerns very seriously. That’s not what the app what about, why we build it or why we work on it, so anything we can do to make the app a better experience and address those concerns is top of [unclear] for us. So we heard very early on that it was becoming popular at high schools, and that was not the use it was intended for, so we took a metric called geo-fencing. We’ve actually geo-fenced middle  and high school campuses across the U.S. and in the international countries where we operate, so it can’t be used on those campuses.

RZ: But how have you heard about the problem? We know they’re out there, I’ve done a lot of research and know all the steps you guys have taken to kind of fix these things, but I’m just kind of curious how it got on your radar, that there were problems? Are there parents calling you, are there students who are being bullied reaching out to you? I know there’s Elizabeth Long, who I talked to. So how and what specifically complaints did you hear?

HM: Hmm, so I would say, as part of being very committed to our users and building the best experience possible, like, we’re committed to listening to all feedback that we get. And so when we go around on campuses and hear feedback from campus reps, we hear about like product features people would love and things they’d love to see on the app. We hear like ‘hey, we’d love if you could fix this sort of thing.’ So this is the kind of thing everyone is attuned to because we want to do everything we can to make the app a better experience for users.

RZ: So campus reps will come to you say and there’s a lot or racism on the app at my school, or kids at my school are calling out people by their names and you can tell who the yaks are about and it’s getting to be mean? So, reps will say that to you? Is that where you’re getting some of the feedback?

HM: So we’ll get feedback from campus reps on things they love in the app and things they’d love to see in the app, and we get a lot of great feedback from campuses that way. We also are attuned to our users, wherever they may be, and listening to our users, things they’d like for example, photos in the app..

RZ: [Cutting her off] I’m sure about that. Like I totally get where you’re going. You’re trying to say all of the positive things. But there are these concerns and these complaints, and I’m not trying to write a piece tearing up Yik Yak. Like I said, I am a Yik Yak user, and I see positives, but there are complaints, so I’m just trying to find out a little more about them. I’m just wonder, have people written to you on social media with these problems? Or parents–have you heard from any parents that their kids were being bullied, or anything like that?

HM: Yeah, so it’s a question I’m not quite sure how to answer because what I’m saying is that we listen to all feedback, wherever it may come in from. And I think every company does that, so I don’t know how to pinpoint one place where we listen to feedback more than others. When we see or hear things from our users, our user community, anything like that, those are things we want to work on.

RZ: Can you give some examples of concerns people have had. And I’m not saying tips to make it better, like we’d like to see photos. Like, there was a problem with people calkling out people by name, or there was a problem with calling out a group by name or a problem with racism? Are these specifics you’ve heard? I mean, there are petitions online to take your app down for these problems, so I’m just wondering what you have heard and we still haven’t touched on it yet.

HM: All of those are places we listen to for feedback and things we’ve heard, but what I’m happy to talk you through is some of the steps we’ve taken to address the concerns. Is that helpful?

RZ: Well, I’ve read up on all of the steps, so I have some follow-up questions for them. You were talking about the geo-fencing. I know that’s something you guys talked about with Elizabeth when she first met with the founders. And she was excited about that, but I know it hasn’t worked that much. The geo-fences make it so high school students and students younger than that can’t use the app on their schools’ campuses, but they can go home and still use it. So what do you think about the fact that it hasn’t quite worked. They can’t use it on campuses but they’re still using it when they’re not there.

HM: So what we can do for our part is geo-fence the campuses, but what we’ve also done is add into our terms of services that you have to be 18 or older to use the app. So parents have the ability to set parental controls on their child’s phone, so those are things other people can do.

RZ: A lot of parents don’t do that though. When I was 16, my parents definitely weren’t checking which apps I downloaded. Kids are way more tech savvy than their parents anyway, and they’re going to figure out a way to download the app. So I understand that’s a good step, but it’s still widely used among high schoolers. It’s not quite working, so what is your comment on that, specifically regarding the geo-fencing?

HM: What we can do on our end is geo-fence around those high school and middle school campuses, and we make it really easy to request a geo-fence correction. And the very first thing is tips for parents on how to manage their child’s usage of apps.

RZ: The problem is though, and please just think about it a little and see where I’m coming from, because I understand you can make it so you can’t use it at schools and parents can stop their own kids from using it, but the bottom line is that even if you’re stopping kids from using it on high school campuses, they’re still going home and using it, and even if one parent of one child who is being bullied prevents their child from using it so they can’t see the bullying, everyone else is still on it talking about them or saying things that offend them. So even if you yourself are not using it, other people are and you can still become a victim of bullying, and that’s what’s happening. I know you’re trying to make it sound like these changes are working, but I’m researching for this article and these problems are what I’m finding. And it sounds to me right now that you’re not offering any solutions and that’s what I’m going to write unless we can talk about how you see this improving.

HM: Yeah, so I was answering your first question about age, and that’s what we do about age, is that it’s for 18 and older and it’s in our terms of service. And we geo-fence schools, so that’s what we can do on our end. And in the app we have a bunch of other things in addition to geo-fences. For example, we have filters and pop-up warnings if there’s a detection of harmful content. And there are steps after for if anything makes it through those filters. We make it very easy to report yaks if they are offensive content or target someone. And then the community also has a rule in downvoting content if they don’t think it’s appropriate for the feed.

RZ: So like I said, I use Yik Yak, so i’m familiar with a lot of these steps you’re talking about. But the problem is, I’m still seeing an issue at every one of them. There’s still stuff getting by. If you go to type something and it’s content that shouldn’t be up and the warning pops up that says “woah, hold the breaks. are you sure you want to post this yak?” you can just press “yes.” And it’s true that people have the ability to report it, but people aren’t necessarily going to, especially in a case of bullying in high schools or in racism in places that still have a lot of racism. Some will even gang up on the yak that’s bullying somebody, and they‘re going to upvote it. I have screenshots of a bunch of yal feeds from different places where you see at the top with a bunch of upvotes, a yak that falls into one of this category. So although there are these measures to stop it, it’s still getting through. Do you see any way you can improve these filters or add more moderators, because they’re still getting through?

HM: So we have a lot of things in place and we’re constantly working to make them better because guarding against misuse is something we take seriously. So we are working on all of this continually–filters improve, moderation improves. It’s all a continuous process that we’re focussed on to get ever and ever better. Misuse is something that unfortunately all social networks have to deal with. And we don’t want it on Yik Yak at all, so we  work really hard to put things in place and continually iterate on those measures to make them better and better. And that’s what we can do on our part, but we also have rules as individuals and in the community and that pop up, so we all have a role in that as well. So we will continue to get better in improving and enhancing on our end, because we want Yik Yak to be a place where communities come together.

RZ: I know you’ve been working with Elizabeth Long since her petition and you may know that she’s going to launch it again because she feels everything said to her was an empty promise, and I don’t know how extensively you’ve read her petition or the response to it, but a lot of people have very similar stories to hers. So, you say you’re taking this really seriously, but it’s still happening. Have there been any specific improvements since you increased the age and did the geo-fencing, besides saying you’ve improved the filters, because I see things get through every day that you say should be filtered out. How seriously are you taking it then?

HM: So we take this very seriously and you actually listed some good examples of things we’ve done. And I’ve conveyed this to Elizabeth as well so she’s aware of the things we’ve been working on. We’ve added geo-fences, and that was not there when the app started. We’ve added things like pop-up warnings and have added and improved filters. And we’ve made changes around moderation, and we do things like we will suspend users and have made it clear what our rules are. It’s a constant process. It’s something we’re constantly working onin bits and bits, because that’s what we do to make it better–we continue to focus on changes that we can make so that everyone feels Yik Yak is the great experience that so many people join it and stay on it for.

RZ: So, regarding user suspension, is it possible to be banned permanently from the app. I hear of people getting banned of 24 hours over and over again, and at that point, it’s clearly a repeat offender who shouldn’t be on the app. Do you ban people permanently, or just suspend?

HM: Yes.

RZ: You ban people permanently?

HM: Yes.

RZ: Well that’s good. You listed all of these improvements, and I commend all of them and see how they’re steps  in the right direction, so what I’m really getting at and what I think seems to be the theme of our conversation and what we’re going back and forth about, is that yes, you’ve made all of these improvements, but they aren’t cutting it. It’s not getting better. These improvements you’ve made havn’t stopped the problems. Even on college campuses, where it’s not about age or geo-fencing, there’s a lot of racism, and I see Yaks get through with people’s names, and you say that shouldn’t be on there. So how are you going to fix this when the geo-fencing and age requirement don’t apply? We’re talking about your target age group now, and the problems are still happening.

HM: So I feel like you’re totally right and we’re going in circles on this one. What I can say is that guarding against misuse is something we take incredibly seriously. It’s an iterative, on-going continuous process, and it’s something we continually work on. So is one single measure going to stop every and all possible examples of misuse? I don’t know that you could ask that of any social network, but we can commit to continually improving on those and adding features, and that’s a top priority for us, so every little thing that we do can make improvements overall, and that’s what we can do. But at the same time, we all think and take responsibility for what we think and say on social media, because we all have a role in that process too. We continually work on this. It’s a top area of focus, and we’re making and adding improvements on an ongoing basis.

RZ: So a lot of colleges have banned the app from their Wi-Fi networks. Faculty, students and administers have all gone up the ladders at their schools and brought this up as a problem, and some have taken action and said “we’re not going to host this app on our campus.” What is your comment on that? Do you find it troubling, do you support that? Are you trying to prevent it from being banned on more campuses?

HM: So I think it all goes into the same conversation where it’s about enhancing and encouraging good behavior on the app. So we’re thrilled to hear stories everyday about where this is the way students find out about events..

RZ: [Cutting her off] I know, I know about that. But what about the schools where it’s a problem and was banned? Where university administration said your company is causing a problem and they don’t want it on campus. What is your comment regarding that? I know you want to talk about the positive situations. I do too, in my article. But I already know those positives and just want to know your comment on this, or else it’s going to be a “no comment” regarding schools banning the app.

HM: What’s my comment regarding schools banning the app? What is your question?

RZ: My question is: there are universities banning Yik Yak from campus. Administrations are taking steps to prevent students from using this because they see it as problematic. So, do you find this troubling, do you support this, do you plan to take action so it doesn’t get banned at more schools? Are you talking to universities about their bans?

HM: So we are constantly talking with campuses, students and universities as this is part of our part to encourage positive behavior. I feel like I already answered this.

RZ: Not really, to be honest. I said “schools are banning it, do you find this..” What I think would be the answer is that you’re concerned you’re app is causing problems so much that schools are banning it, but you’re saying “we’re talking to students and communicating.” Look, I know you hear from your campus reps and hear student feedback, but have you spoken with any university administration about the ban of Yik Yak?

HM: So, to be honest, I don’t know what schools have decided to block the app because that’s a decision that doesn’t impact Yik Yak because we don’t geo-fence colleges, so students can still use their data. So we interact with students in that way, so I don’t know what schools you’re talking about here.

RZ: Just in general, and this is going to be the last time i’m going to ask and probably my last questions because we’re not getting anywhere. But it’s kind of a morality problem at this point. I’m saying that if your product is causing problems so that a public university of tens of thousands of people say “we don’t want this here,” are you concerned? This is your product you’re representing and the negative consequences are causing institutions to say “we don’t want this.” It’s your product that you’re representing and you’re building this company, and this institution is saying we don’t want it.

HM: So, I don’t look at this necessarily in the specific. I think it comes back to what we were talking about earlier where encouraging a positive environment on the app and guarding against misuse is what we’re all about, and so that’s wherever it occurs. So whether it’s in certain circumstances and with any one person in a community, all of that, we feel the same. So that’s where it comes down to us to cut down to us, to continue to iterate on protective measures so we can cut down on that and do whatever we can with students, with campus reps, administrators, to jointly take these efforts to encourage positive behaviors on the app, and that all goes hand-in-hand with the improvements we are always looking at on our end to make that experience on the app great for everyone, jut like it is for the vast majority of people, so that’s kind of at the heart of what we do. We want an experience on the app. This rarer instances of misuse are not what the app was designed for. We’re all about making Yik Yak where your community comes together, and that’s part of the process for us.

RZ: Yeah, I totally get that’s not what it was designed for, and that was my premise going into this article and talking to the people i’ve talked to. Is that, obviously, this wasn;’t the intention–it’s an after-the-face side effect. But, nevertheless, it’s something that has to be dealt with. There are problems that have to be dealt with; there are people ending up in the hospital for attempted suicide because of problems starting on this app. And that is a real problem and we just have to do something about it.


Asleep on the Job Part I: Yik Yak Remains a Haven for Hate Speech and Racism 

Asleep on the Job Part II: Students and Universities are Noticing

Asleep on the Job Part III: A Conversation with Yik Yak