Yik Yak on Tuesday began allowing users to choose a screen name, a shift for the social media app known for anonymity that may help reduce trolling and cyberbullying.
Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, who founded the Atlanta-based company in November 2013, told The Huffington Post in an interview that the new feature is designed to increase engagement and attract new users from outside their core base of college students. It also aims to combat trolling, they said.
"We're doing this to create these tighter-knit communities, but we still do give users that option to toggle [using their screen name] on and off," Droll said. "It'll help them personalize their community more as they start to recognize people they like or don't like."
Screen names have been a social media mainstay since the heyday of AOL chatrooms and forums. Yik Yak, which uses cellphone GPS locators to allow users to anonymously blog to others within a few miles, had been an exception.
It became a huge hit on college campuses with an anonymous platform that allows an unfiltered conversation. However, as anyone scrolling through a Yik Yak comment section can attest, anonymity may not breed a sophisticated community. Protesters on college campuses demonstrating over racial issues frequently cite disparaging posts on Yik Yak as evidence.
By allowing users to create screen names -- but not requiring them -- Yik Yak is nudging users to take ownership of their comments.
User names alone won't solve problems with trolling. For instance, Twitter, which requires users to have a handle, can be a nightmare (just ask HuffPost reporter Julia Craven). Twitter recently started a "Trust & Safety Council" to combat harassment. And people still say offensive things on Facebook all time -- one woman in Texas is on the verge of being elected to the state Board of Education while claiming that President Barack Obama was a gay male prostitute. (He was not.)
Droll and Buffington said screen names will add to a sense of community that also has been helped by Yik Yak's recent introduction of icons that track the original poster of a comment and those who join the discussion.
"Replies increased two-fold due to the introduction of these icons," Buffington said. The company saw a "hunger from users for deeper-level interactions," and "wanted to make it even easier and more natural for them to bond."
Yik Yak's efforts to combat trolling are similar to what Bored@ has done. Bored@, an anonymous forum that predates Yik Yak, closed its Dartmouth College forum last fall, citing foul speech, but the founder said boards at Columbia University in New York and Carleton College in Minnesota have worked well, in part, because of user personalities.
Ninety-eight percent of Yik Yak users are millennials, ages 18 to 34, according to Comscore. A screen name may make for a "much more comfortable and familiar" experience to those outside their core user base, Droll said.
There can only be one person claiming a YikYak screen name, so Droll will be the only "Tyler" on Yik Yak, forcing this reporter to pick "Tyler88" or some other variation. But it's one step that may prevent people from trying to pose as someone they are not, and there will be a way to request Yik Yak investigate if a user believes they are being impersonated.
Some Yik Yak users have already begun manually adding their names in posts, Buffington said. And some users sign their names on restaurant advice.
At this point, YikYak doesn't plan to introduce branded content, Buffington said, "but I do think it does offer the potential for campus administrators or for a local restaurant."
Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter based in New York, and covers higher education and millennials, among other topics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.
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