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Yik Yak is secretly pivoting to group messaging

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Yak to the drawing board

In the weeks before it laid off most of its staff, Yik Yak employees believed the company was back on the right track. After a bruising fall, in which users revolted against the end of anonymous posting, the company appeared to have stabilized. “In the weeks leading up to it, everyone was sort of plugging away,” one former employee told The Verge. “There was no assumption like, ‘guys, we’re sunk.’”

Then some employees heard the app’s founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, discussing a secretive new project. A small team would be diverted from the Yik Yak app to begin a mysterious new project. Those outside the team were not told what it was.

“The picture being painted was we tried a bunch of stuff, we enjoyed some success, but maybe it has plateaued,” a former Yik Yak employee recalled. The message was “we’re going to leverage our strengths with Yik Yak, and we’re going to make our new product even better,” the employee said.

The employee never found out what the team was building: on December 8th, Yik Yak laid off 60 percent of its employees. Launched in 2014, the Atlanta-based Yik Yak, which let users post anonymously about life on campus, was a breakout hit at American colleges. Over the next two years, investors poured $73.5 million into the company. But its anonymous users proved difficult to retain, and moves to make users adopt persistent identities — even pseudonymous ones — let to a collapse in usage.

Now the company has quietly started over. On Wednesday, a developer named Richard Guy published an app named Hive to Apple’s App Store. Guy is Yik Yak’s lead mobile developer, according to his Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. An identical Android app — developed by a company representing itself as “Chill Tech Inc.” — was published the following day.

An accompanying webpage calls Hive “an exclusive social network for college campuses.” “Hive’s mission is to provide every college and university with a platform to allow students to freely and easily communicate with everyone on campus,” the company writes. “It shouldn’t be hard to communicate with other students in a class of yours, or with people in your major, or with people at your school who have the same interests as you. A school’s Hive will connect the student body in ways that have never before been possible.”

Neither Guy, Yik Yak, nor Hive responded to requests for comment. Tech companies often test new software under fake company as a means of floating new ideas away from the spotlight. Last year, the company that built Meerkat developed its successor, Houseparty, in private, acknowledging its ownership only after Houseparty neared 1 million users.

And Yik Yak doesn’t seem to be trying particularly hard to disguise its connection to Hive. In addition to using the same shade of green that Yik Yak did for its design, co-founder Buffington is featured in the App Store screenshots.

The core of Hive is group messaging. The app creates chat rooms for every class offered at a school. After joining a class, you can see profiles of your classmates who have also joined and send one-on-one or group messages. It also creates a directory of everyone on campus who has joined the app — a more-or-less direct copy of Facebook’s launch strategy, but tailored to messaging rather than profiles.

The goal, the company says, is to remove some of the friction from common situations of campus life. “Have you ever had a question about a class you were in but didn’t know where to start a discussion, or wanted to exchange notes with someone, or wanted to invite people to start a study group, or just wanted to look up someone in your class or your school? Well Hive takes care of all that and more.”

While you can download Hive today, you probably won’t be able to use it. The app is currently only available at Furman University — the South Carolina liberal arts college where Buffington and Droll met as students. (There’s also a “Hive University” — presumably a place for employees to test features.) Users at other schools can request to join a wait list, provided they have a .edu email address.

So can Hive succeed? On one hand, offering college students a ready-made set of groups to join could represent an improvement over the status quo. And a successful messaging app would likely be catnip for Yik Yak’s investors — messaging apps spread virally and are often used multiple times per day, which would both be essential in helping Yik Yak build a business. (Despite being valued at $400 million, the company has never generated any significant revenue.)

At the same time, messaging is the single most crowded landscape in social media. Yik Yak’s college audience is already communicating via SMS, Facebook, and Snapchat — and maybe WhatsApp, Kik, and Signal as well. And while those apps can all spread from person to person, Hive’s focus on campuses means that it will have to build individual networks at every single college. Then there’s the fact that the more successful Hive is, the likelier Facebook is to simply copy it into its Groups product.

In the meantime, mark Yik Yak down as one more company that tried to build an anonymous social network and failed. (See also: Secret, Formspring, and Ask.fm.) Hive accounts are tied to student email addresses — something Yik Yak users would have rejected.

But Yik Yak users are gone now, and the app’s days are surely numbered. Hive looks like the company’s new focus. And investors have $73.5 million riding on whether it works.