Yik Yak, Secret, and The Minimal State

Editor’s Note: I’m sharing my research on how to build better online communities by studying internet history. Join the mailing list and follow me on Twitter for more notes and updates!

This week’s focus is on once hugely popular anonymous chat apps Yik Yak and Secret!

Each revolved around being able to share news and chat with people in your network, without anyone knowing your identity.

It’d be difficult to understate the speed and which they grew, and amount of hype surrounding these apps at the time. 

Within the 12-month window between December 2013 and November 2014, Yik Yak was able to raise $73.5 million and Secret $35 million. (6 rounds total!)

They were plagued by many issues, primarily:

  • Anonymity - it fueled their growth AND accelerated their demise

  • Lack of moderation - rampant bullying lead to disgruntled users and a constant stream of negative press

  • Monetization - reliance on venture capital meant they didn’t prioritize sustainability

  • Churn - users never built a sense of ownership or investment in their community (partly due to #1), thus had no reason to keep coming back

This last point reminds me of Sarah Tavel’s Hierarchy of Engagement, in which she outlines three levels of interaction social apps must master in order to build a user base that sticks around:

  • Level 1: Focus on users completing a core action

  • Level 2: Create accruing benefits and mounting losses

  • Level 3: Facilitate virtuous loops that keep people coming back

Yik Yak and Secret excelled at engaging users intermittently (Level 1), but failed to give them a reason (either to gain social capital or avoid losing earned status) to keep coming back consistently (Levels 2 and 3).

Because anonymity was such a core part of both products, both apps also failed to fulfill two of the critical roles of social software mentioned in previous newsletters: 

  • Protect the collective from malicious individuals, and 

  • Protect individual users from each other

A recent episode of the Philosophize This! Podcast touches on a thought-provoking idea known as The Minimal State that I found relevant to this week’s theme.

Political philosopher Robert Nozick basically suggests that while a government can be many things, at its core are two irreducible functions:

  • Monopolizing the use of legitimate force within its borders, and

  • Protecting its citizens from external threats

If this sounds a lot like the necessary features of social software I just mentioned — it’s not a coincidence!

As I’ve said before: building social software is more like establishing system of government than inventing a technology, and it’d benefit the builders of tomorrow to approach it as such.

With that, I humbly present to you the Minimal Online Community - with the three bare minimum functions of effective social software:

  • Protecting individuals from each other (abuse)

  • Protecting the group from individuals (brigading, spamming)

  • Providing a sustainable platform (business model)

This, along with touching all three levels of the Hierarchy of Engagement should take you a long way!

For more how I plan to incorporate this and the rest of the learnings I’ve touched on here into the app I’m building — subscribe and say hello.

Spread love! ✌️

I’ll leave you with this treat — a Yik Yak founder giving a great post-mortem talk:

At the end he mentions one missed opportunity he would’ve loved to have focused more on: owning the interest graph (creating subreddit like groups for each campus).

He also gives great advice on starting your own social app:

  1. Start simple.

  2. Start small.

  3. Start now.