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Yik Yak completes a pivot away from anonymity with status messages and a feed of nearby users

Yak to the future

In March, the college-centric social network Yik Yak took a step away from its origins in anonymity by asking users to create "handles" that they could optionally attach to their posts. Today the company is eliminating the last traces of anonymity from its app, requiring users to create handles that will be attached to their activity on Yik Yak. It’s also adding 18-character status messages that expire after 24 hours, as well as a feed of nearby users with whom you can exchange messages. "It’s a richer, more engaging, more personal feed," said Tyler Droll, the company’s co-founder, in an interview. "There are people behind each and every one of these posts. It really enhances a sense of community."

"It's a more engaging personal feed."

The app has been slightly redesigned to accommodate the new features. The former "herds" tab, which let you keep track of your favorite communities, has been replaced by "explore." Explore is headlined by "local yakkers," a feed of Yik Yak users in your immediate vicinity. You can tap their faces to see their profiles or send them messages. (You can also opt out of letting random users message you, and you can block individual users.) Local yakkers also show up inside the home feed, which has been redesigned to accommodate them. Then there’s "Now," the short-form status messages that Yik Yak now encourages users to publish. They’re searchable, so if you’re looking to meet locals who are as obsessed with Stranger Things as you are, you can do it with Yik Yak.

The result feels much more like a chat app than the Yik Yak of old, which served as a kind of (anonymous) community bulletin board for discussing in-jokes and campus events. Droll and his co-founder, Brooks Buffington, positioned the new version of Yik Yak as a way to help its users feel more connected to the world around them. But it’s also an acknowledgement of what founders of social networks have come to accept as a law of gravity: apps that don’t require users to establish a persistent identity are doomed to fail. Secret, Ask.fm, Formspring — each app allowed users to post or send messages anonymously, and each saw an early spike in users only to fade when their novelty wore off.

yik yak

Yik Yak, which has raised $75.3 million since it launched in November 2013, has had similar struggles. While it typically spikes in app store rankings around the start of the school year, it has always declined shortly thereafter. It is not currently in the top 1,500 apps in Apple’s App Store, according to market research firm App Annie.

Pilloried for its move away from anonymity

It has also been pilloried by existing users over its move away from anonymity. The app currently has a 1.5 star rating in the App Store. "Please get rid of these profiles," reads one representative review. "It’s contrary to the whole idea of Yik Yak." Droll disagreed. "It feels like we’re going more boldly, more coherently, toward our mission," he said. "We recognize not everyone may welcome this change, or any change. Change is always tough. But at the end of the day we have seen it facilitate some stronger, more in-depth connections."

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I was long out of college by the time Yik Yak arrived, but I immediately understood its appeal. The kind of goofy messages we used to post on fliers inside dorm bathrooms were bound to transition to mobile phones eventually, and Yik Yak built a solid home for them. But it’s a long way from a novelty app to a sustainable business, and Yik Yak appears to have arrived at that divide. The latest version of the app is more fully featured than ever, and yet it also seems to me to muddle the question of what Yik Yak is. It’s a little bit bulletin board, a little bit Facebook, a little bit Highlight — the app that tried to introduce you to interesting people nearby. (Highlight never took off, and its team was acquired by Pinterest last month.) There’s also a bit of Yelp or Foursquare in it, insofar as the founders say they use Yik Yak to ask for restaurant recommendations when they travel.

The founders say the app has a simple mission: connecting people to their local communities. They say it’s easier to meet people on Yik Yak than other social apps. In an extremely crowded market, I think they’re going to struggle to bring back users on a daily basis, even with these new features. But given their faltering growth, I suspect they didn’t really have a choice.