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Yik Yak Is Hot With the Cool Kids, and Now It's in Facebook's Crosshairs

Anonymous, location-based app surges in popularity

Yik Yak is for the young, a group coveted by Facebook. Photo:Getty Images

Any attention is good attention, even if it's from Facebook looking to crush your fledgling startup. That's kind of how the founders of Yik Yak look at recent double-edged praise from a Facebook developer who said Yik Yak is on to something powerful among college kids.

Yik Yak is an anonymous social app that let people jump on and off without giving away their true identities. It's a phenomenon embodied by another app, Snapchat, which deletes photos right after being sent. Nobody wants to be remembered forever online, but they want to be connected.

So Yik Yak lets people within a 1.5-mile radius see what others are saying around them. Last week, the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson gave the app a shout out on C-SPAN after seeing the social network in action when he visited Scripps College. The app's users were buzzing with speculation about why a Secret Service detail was on campus. Was it the president? The president’s daughter? Johnson said his son jumped on Yik Yak to say it was just a Vin Diesel look-alike.

"That's the closest thing we've had to a 'we made it moment,'" said co-founder Tyler Droll during a phone interview from San Francisco today.

The app is experiencing a surge in rankings in the iPhone app store since school is back in session. Yik Yak is ahead of Whisper and Secret in the daily charts.

Now, Facebook is reportedly working on an anonymous app of its own. The head of that project, Josh Miller, tweeted and then deleted a recent post: "The real tech story is that Yik Yak is blowing up."

Droll and co-founder Brooks Buffington are taking all the attention they can get.

"Facebook saw the amount of traffic and popularity Yik Yak is getting," Droll said. "Next to Snapchat, we're a premier app on college campuses."

Facebook thinks a lot about the younger generations because that's its Achilles heel. If the next generation doesn't join, then it can't continue to dominate.

It's a remote but persistent risk. In fact just today, analysts at Piper Jaffray & Co. released a report claiming teens are fleeing Facebook. The survey found only 45 percent of teenagers said they use Facebook, down from 72 percent of those asked just six months ago.

Fortunately for Facebook, they're all fleeing to Instagram, used by 76 percent of teens and owned by Mark Zuckerberg. Still, what Zuck can't buy he clones, or at least tries to, which puts a company like Yik Yak on Facebook's radar along with other startups like Snapchat and Kik.

Based in Atlanta, Yik Yak creators Droll and Buffington came up with their idea as fraternity brothers in college. Since the app launched last year they have raised $11.5 million.

The founders wouldn’t say how many people are using the service. And for now there are no advertising plans, although there could be, Buffington said.

The emphasis on location could appeal to local businesses, who could target Yik Yak users in the neighborhood, Buffington said. He also noted that Facebook this week improved its location-based advertising to reach users within a mile radius.

As for Facebook's anonymous app, the company has been mum. But the head of the project, Miller, tweeted that what he is building is no clone—identity is just a feature, not the core of his creation.

The Yik Yak co-founders feel validated that they are on the right track.

"If Facebook is trying to get a slice, then this pie is pretty valuable," Droll said.

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