The Dawn of the Yak

Ok, so this is nothing new. Commentators have been prophesying the demise of the little blue bird since 2009, but for anyone under 25, this statement rings pretty darn true. With the onset of self-destructing private messaging and anonymous apps such as SnapChat and Whisper, young people are turning to different platforms to share messages, photos, and digitally enhanced videos of themselves barfing rainbows (I’m still figuring out how to do that). These apps are enticing because they shroud the user’s online activity from the watchful eyes of parents and employers while allowing a platform to voice opinions, secrets, and more.  

One social app that has caught our attention (and the media’s) is Yik Yak. The app has become highly controversial in the States, so of course I wanted to investigate, try it for myself, and see what all the fuss was about. Though I’m not about to make any hard and fast statements about whether you should ban yakking across the globe or delete your Twitter profile and drink Yik Yak kool-aid, it does open the door for brands to gain insight into their audience, particularly in the Education sector.



What is it?

Yik Yak is a located-based social network that helps people discover and engage with their local community.

The short version:

Hyper-local version of Twitter

OR an anonymous bulletin board visible to people within the same 2.4 km radius

Last January it was one of the top trending searches in Apple’s App Store

Unique thing about it:

Yik Yak was created by university students for university students

What started on one campus in 2014 has now grown to over 2,000 campuses across the US and is expanding internationally.

How it works:

  • The app is based on the user’s location so you can see messages from users within the same area
  • Users are not required to set up an account to use Yik Yak and are able to post anonymously, or use an optional handle (which is causing quite the uproar among current Yakkers)
  • Similar to sites like Reddit, users are also able to “upvote” or “downvote” popular messages

What is was created for originally:

Share campus happenings

Spread party information

Voice complaints

Warn other students about cancelled classes

What it is used for now:

Sharing news

Cracking jokes

Offering support

Asking questions

**Interacting freely

Why should we care?

Yik Yak is an incredible tool to gain audience insight and develop Audience personas that are more closely reflective of what students value, upvote, and care about at a particular university, at a particular point in time. The app lets you “peek” into a specific geographical cohort, observe conversations, and from there design the research initiatives to crack into a certain assumption or value system. Once you get to know your audience, like really know them, you can start creating dialogue and build engagement.

Sometimes when we take on a new client from the Education sector, we’re handed over Audience research that can sometimes be outdated or doesn’t reflect the current audience we’re trying to reach. Outdated, you say? Didn’t we just do this research 4 years ago?

Yes (full stop). The magical, wonderful thing about working with youth audiences–and why we find them so incredibly interesting and joyful to work with–is that they are constantly changing. Trends, technology, political views, fashion, interests. These changes aren’t generational, neat, or tidy. They are messy and perpetually evolving. By the time you learn how to barf rainbows in SnapChat, there will be something new to replace it.

Yakking for Dummies

Or, my attempt to Yak

The iTunes Preview of the app clearly states that you must be at least 17 years old to download the application and promises:

  • Unrestricted Web Access
  • Frequent/Intense Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
  • Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes
  • Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity
  • Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence
  • Frequent/Intense Horror/Fear Themes
  • Frequent/Intense Profanity or Crude Humor

So obviously, I needed to download it.

In reality, I have absolutely no desire to be subject to any of the above. That’s what Netflix is for, right? But being a naturally curious person–and wholly dedicated to clinging to my youth by delving into the digital app-o-sphere of 18 -21 year olds–I signed up. After all, my foray into cat rearing with the Neko Atsume app has been a fruitful, highly entertaining experience, so why not?




Getting set up on the app and using it was extremely easy. There is no arduous profile creation, no pithy bio, no link to your professional website, CV, or alter ego. The thing that bothered me so much about Twitter was that I always felt like every single post needed to be on fleek. Or, even worse, on-brand, personally. Like there was a “Katie Stewart” brand I needed to adhere to. Gross. As a writer, I relish in opportunities to just float my crappy ideas into the cybersphere and see how people react to them without damaging my professional career. The allure of Yik Yak was that I could be authentic, real, sometimes silly, and occasionally post candidly about some of the more ridiculous things I think about, plus get feedback (in the form of upvotes).

To avoid appearing like a total rookie, I familiarized myself with the rules of Yik Yak. They are relatively simple: don’t be a dick. If you are, you can’t use the app. That’s fair.  




Before you start posting, you can also define your geographic community, or Herd (5 mile radius). As Yik Yak advises, the advantage to setting your Herd is that you can “post back to your campus community even when you’re off campus.” Even the language is still geared towards university students (I’m feeling younger already). You can only set your Herd once, so you have to be sure that you will not be reno-victed anytime soon. Since we in Vancouver, and this type of life-upheaval can never be certain, I opted not to set my Herd just yet.

Because the app was initially designed for use among university students (and this is still the app’s primary user audience), I decided to peek into the Herds of local universities to see what conversations were floating around. Perhaps one of Yik Yak’s most interesting features is the ability to set several “Locations” and peek into conversations in that area. So for example, I did a search for the University of British Columbia, dropped a pin to demarcate it as one of my “Locations” and was instantly able to cruise some of sentiments shared by students in that area. Because I wasn’t a part of the UBC Herd, I wasn’t able to post to discussion threads, but I could still poke around and see what the buzz was on campus.

Conversations about workload, study groups, upcoming exams and new policies were floating around. Because Yik Yak allows you to upvote or downvote a Yak, it’s basically like a constant polling system. While we tend to hear about what’s going on at local schools through Media outlets or filtered through university-sanctioned social media content, Yik Yak was like being a fly on the wall inside a university lunchroom. In this instance, UBC students yakked back and forth about a recent policy wherein Student Fees (and therefore the cost of the UPass) were increased to support Syrian Refugees (a whopping $2.61 increase by the way). Similarly, conversations about the American Presidential Election were also gaining traction and prominence through upvotes.




Curious about other universities and colleges I was also able to drop pins at Capilano University, Emily Carr and Simon Fraser University. I was curious to see if there were any differences between the types of conversations (and the level of participation and engagement) across different universities. Though it’s impossible to make any hard and fast conclusions based on a few Yaks, it is a powerful way to observe the uncensored sentiments of students from a particular school.




Though initially Yik Yak only allowed users to “peek” into select universities and colleges, as of October 20, 2014, users can peek into any college or city in the world. Sorry what? I can be a fly on the wall in ALL THE LUNCHROOMS? Wild.

Like any piece of social technology (or the Force for that matter), Yik Yak can be used for good or used for evil.

Back in 2014, CNN described Yik Yak as “a virtual bathroom wall where users post vitriol and hate.” Not surprisingly, the anonymity of posting opens the gauntlet for unabashed racist, homophobic, misogynist commentary without repercussions. Between the gun threat at an Ottawa high school, homophobic Yaks of Drake University (which responded to real life vandalism of LGBT symbols), and racist Yaks of Colgate University (listen to this Reply All podcast, so well done, love these guys), it’s easy to see why school administrators have been quick to ban the app. It’s pretty grim actually.

One of my first yaks prompted a cascade of 46 replies about eating donuts off of penises.




On the opposite end of the spectrum, you also have students using Yik Yak as a platform for voices of marginalized student populations that might not otherwise be heard. As Amanda Hess outlines in her Slate article, students routinely use Yik Yak to “discuss experiences with mental illness or same-sex attraction or other intimate subjects they don’t feel comfortable announcing on the quad.”  

Though Hess sites several examples of the app being used for good, this one regarding a Michigan student who expressed suicidal thoughts on Yik Yak stuck out for me.


Following this student’s plea for help, the Yik Yak campus responded with a flood of supportive messages like “Stay alive for the amazing person you’re becoming” and “I attempted suicide in October, but never told anybody. It makes me feel better seeing everybody support people in the same boat as me.”

Within hours, Yik Yak users had organized an impromptu campus rally to express support and extend resources to students on campus struggling with depression.


It’s really easy to fall down an internet hole and dive into the conversations about whether Yik Yak should be banned or boosted. Yet the one thing that keeps coming up in conversations about Yik Yak is that it provides a proverbial litmus test for students, administrators, and community members to see what their communities are actually thinking. You can see, fairly quickly in fact, whether racism and homophobia at their school is a concern. (And, um yes, it is). For many schools, it’s been a way to qualify the need for student outreach to address specific concerns.

Since it’s inception, Yik Yak has implemented rules, policies, and geofencing features to prevent younger students from using the app for evil. Geofencing, for example, blocks the app from working when the user is near middle and high schools in an effort to combat bullying.




Similarly, the app screens all posts for specific (offensive) words and prompts the user to assess whether their post is appropriate, without undermining their freedom of speech.




Version 3.3 of the app allows users to create a unique handle. The user is still relatively anonymous, but there is more accountability.


Create your unique handle and show off your personality! Be the weather guy, a sports fanatic, SarahSays, that guy, or whatever best expresses who you are. Actually no, don’t be that guy. But be you and get to know the personalities around you. Your herd will feel closer, for sure.


Is Yik Yak the perfect app? Far from it. But from the perspective of this curious Content Creator, it can act as a powerful tool to see into the minds of a distinct audience sector. From there, you could build out controlled research activities to uncover a particular assumption about that audience. For example, based on some of the conversations around the American Democratic debate, I can design a survey, questionnaire, or interview series that digs deeper into a population’s feeling, values, motivations, and fears. How much do American politics affect Canadian students? Where do they go for news about the debate? Social Media? John Oliver? or more traditional news sources?

To use a totally hilarious metaphor, Yik Yak becomes your dating profile for an audience group. Based on some of the information you cruise, you can formulate specific questions for an in-person meeting that will resonate with your audience and allow you to connect with them on a whole new level.

So really, there is only one question left.

Will you yak for good? Or for evil?


Other reads about Yik Yak:


Related Posts