Here’s an idea that could never backfire: an anonymous app that already has a reputation for being abused by bullies and has led to more than one arrest over anonymous threats made by its users has decided to add a new feature to its offerings: photos.
What could possibly go wrong?
Yik Yak, the anonymous app in question, confirmed the news to Mashable Tuesday night, saying in a statement that its users, most of whom are college students, have been clamoring for a photo feature for some time. Now, the company is testing the photo tool on a few college campuses. “There have been some great photo yaks so far, depicting everything from questions to sports victories to random funny moments,” Yik Yak CEO Tyler Droll told Mashable. “We’re excited to see what these communities share.”
Yik Yak’s founders like to talk about how Yik Yak brings college campuses together. And it does. The app, which lets people post anonymous comments to anyone within a 1.5 mile radius, has plenty of positive applications, such as letting users freely engage in community debate. But it also has some well-publicized ugly ones—with many known instances of bad seeds using the app to slander each other and post vile threats. When you add photos to the mix, things could get even uglier.
For now, Yik Yak is merely testing this feature, and its moderators have to approve each photo before it gets posted on the site. As a blog post explaining the new tool notes, there will be no faces or nude shots allowed in the photos. Users also have to take the photo within the Yik Yak app, and can’t simply upload images from their phone.
For Yik Yak, these safeguards are critical. The internet is already overrun with illicit photos—photos taken, in many cases, without the subject’s consent and posted, in many cases, with the intent of ruining another person’s reputation. Larger companies than Yik Yak have struggled to solve this problem. Take Facebook, for example, which requires users to take accountability for what they post by using their real names. When photos are posted anonymously and targeted to a specific geographic location, however, the potential for misuse is even greater.
“We have increasingly seen issues involving compromising sexually explicit images that are taken without people’s permission,” says Danielle Citron, author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. “When the poster is anonymous it’s easy to see the mischief people can reap with this tool.”
To Yik Yak’s credit, the company has gone to great lengths to prevent certain types of abuse, particularly on high school campuses, where it uses geofencing technology to prevent high school students from accessing the app at school. It also gives users tools to police their own community, allowing them to down vote any inappropriate content. Once a post receives five down votes, it gets removed from the site. According to Rey Junco, an associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University, this system is about as effective as it gets at warding off bad actors. “If you look at the development of other platforms, I think they went in with some pretty strong safeguards comparatively,” he says.
It’s promising to see that Yik Yak is taking a proactive approach to monitoring the photos in its new feature. And yet, it’s hard to see how this approach—approving every photo before it posts—could scale. After all, the reason Yik Yak wants to add a feature like this is to make its app more sticky, so users will keep coming back again and again. Adding an extra hurdle to photo sharing could inhibit that growth when other platforms make it so easy.
Which begs the question: how will a photo feature that’s ripe for mischief ultimately affect Yik Yak’s ability to make money long term? Certainly, it would make ads look more seamless on the app, but as Citron points out, Yik Yak will have to prove it has a proven method of curbing harassment before advertisers jump on board. “It’s not that putting up photos is a bad idea or going to chase advertisers away. It’s that they need strong community guidelines to prevent the posting of nude photos without permission,” she says. “Advertisers don’t want to be affiliated with destruction.”