During the fall of 2014, Yik Yak was riding high in the App Store. Thanks to how the anonymous social network spread like wildfire across college campuses and high schools, $60 million in venture capital funding was poured into the startup at a valuation north of $350 million.
Fast forward to 2016, and the two-year-old app isn't as hot as it once was. Google searches for Yik Yak have been on a steady decline since November 2015. The app isn't even one of the top 50 most downloaded social networking apps in Apple's App Store, according to App Annie.
Yik Yak built its reputation early, for better or worse, on anonymity. Students can say nearly anything they want without fear of having their name associated, which has unfortunately led to bullying on the platform, campus protests, and even hate speech investigations.
Now Yik Yak is shifting away from complete anonymity by introducing user handles, the app's co-founders told Tech Insider. With an update to the app on iPhone and Android Tuesday, Yik Yak users will be prompted to create a unique account name that others can see alongside their posts, which the app calls "yaks."
Handles, which don't have to be based on someone's real name, can be toggled off on a post-by-post basis. But users will not be able to post in the app without at least creating a handle.
Account handles are the next step towards giving Yik Yakers unique identities after the app started assigning specific icons to posts last year. The icons don't reveal someone's identity app-wide like handles will, but they show who was the original poster in a conversation thread and who replied.
“Just that little bit of extra context as to who was creating the reply lent itself to more of a tight-knit vibe within communities," explained co-founder Brooks Buffington, who noted that replies in Yik Yak doubled after icons were introduced.
Buffington and co-founder Tyler Droll said that account handles are also a reaction to how people are using Yik Yak to create distinct characters in the app, like the campus weatherman or food critic. For example, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, one Yik Yak user called "WeatherSquirrel" posts the weather forecast every day with a picture of a squirrel found on campus.
"I think that people are really going to enjoy this idea of getting credit for information that they may be bringing to their community," Buffington said.
Yik Yakers will be able to mute specific account handles in the app, which should help curb cases of abuse on the platform outside of Yik Yak's own tools for flagging offensive speech. "I do think it will give users a little more control over their feed," Buffington said, acknowledging that cyber bullying is "an industry problem that we all have to deal with."
Yik Yak declined to tell Tech Insider how many users it has in any way besides saying that it is available on over 2,000 campuses in a few English speaking countries. Business Insider reported that the app had "millions of monthly active users" in March 2015.