Fast-Growing Social Apps Are Trying to Clean Out Their Darkest Corners

Yik Yak, Meerkat and more look to purge bullies, trolls and criminals

Illustration: Nick Iluzada

"Don't feed the trolls" has never been a more relevant piece of advice. The Web's established social media players as well as startups are trying to not just starve the trolls but to silence them in a battle against a toxic atmosphere that can sometimes scare users and advertisers.

Millennials in particular are flocking to social messaging apps like Instagram, Kik and Yik Yak. And where they go, advertisers are sure to follow—unless, of course, that path leads to dark corners of the Web where bullies roam free and harassment is rampant.

It's not a new problem but has become magnified, according to industry watchers and the tech companies themselves, many of which are rolling out tools to combat meanness and criminal behavior. How successful these apps are in warding off trolls could determine the future of their businesses, as marketers fear stepping through the wrong door. Brands have many more options at their fingertips, after all, and can easily shift to greener (and cleaner) pastures.

"Advertisers will try to figure out how to distance themselves from some networks they just don't want to be associated with," noted Carmen Sutter, product manager at Adobe Social. 

Yik Yak got bad press for incidents involving high school students but has instituted policies to curb abuse.

A push to clean things up is underway. In recent months, Facebook updated its community standards. Newcomer Kik has added Microsoft's PhotoDNA technology to delete child pornography. Meanwhile, Yik Yak, which allows for anonymous messaging, bans some words that could indicate an offensive post is being written. The app is popular on college campuses and in high schools, raising concerns from administrators over bullying.

Reddit also recently unveiled rules aimed at curbing abuse. The social site has implemented policies to combat the posting of nude images without the consent of the subject after several celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, had private shots posted and widely distributed. Reddit declined to comment for this story. 

Twitter last week introduced a quality filter that removes abusive or offensive tweets from a user's timeline.

Meanwhile, just last week, Twitter announced it will roll out a quality filter to screen out questionable accounts as well as abusive or threatening tweets from a user's notifications list (they won't be deleted). The move follows CEO Dick Costolo's recent admission that Twitter has "sucked" at dealing with abuse and that it's one of the biggest threats to the platform.

"Advertising is becoming more important, and Twitter wants to be seen taking a stand," said Sutter. "It's going to be really hard for networks to control this overall." Twitter declined to comment. 

Reddit implemented policies to combat the posting of illegally obtained nude photos after scandals involving celebrities.

Then there's newcomer Meerkat, for which the issue of abusive behavior is top of mind. The app of the moment, it allows users to livestream video from wherever they are—creating their own personal reality shows. But Meerkat, which was the breakout hit at SXSW this month, also urges users to "say something nice."

"We don't tolerate bullying, harassment or criminal activity," a company rep said.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Ben Goldman also took note of the pervasive harassment via social media, building an app called Qork to encourage more positive interactions. "There's not a single exception of an anonymous social app where the community didn't have a severe problem with bullying, gossip, slander and threats of violence," he said. 

Kik added Microsoft's PhotoDNA technology to delete child pornography.

Qork includes mechanisms that foster positivity while punishing abusers. The app employs a tool that effectively silences trolls by keeping what they post from being seen by other members of the Qork community. "The biggest torment for a bully is being ignored," Goldman explained.

Marketers have had their eyes open to this issue for some time. Top brands have dealt with the perils of social media for at least a decade and clearly prefer to be part of the conversation rather than ignore it.

"Look at news sites where breaking news can be horribly negative, and then a brand is right next to terribly negative news," said 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter. "Brands need to remember editorial and advertising need to live in some element of symbiosis."

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