The iPhone app Yik Yak has gotten a ton of publicity recently, blowing up at college campuses around the country. For people who don’t know, Yik Yak is similar to Twitter, but it is totally anonymous. It is mostly used to talk about a lack of sex lives, complain about the dining hall food, and discuss way too many bodily functions for my comfort. Yik Yak works on the idea that we love to peer into others’ lives, see what they’re thinking, and know their secrets. Additionally, Yik Yak only functions because we WANT to share this private information about ourselves – we crave knowing the secrets of others and we love the recognition we get for sharing our own secrets from behind a curtain of anonymity.
Yik Yak was invented by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, two students at Furman University. While these two students may have invented the Yik Yak app, they are far from the first people to have the idea. The Victorians (of 19th century England) had a very similar creation in their newspapers – something called the Agony Column. According to Matthew Rubery, an expert on the Victorians, “Advertisements in the agony column served a wide range of purposes, from covert notes between lovers to conspiratorial messages between criminals… In this sense, reading the agony column was similar to peeking into someone else’s diary or eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers.”
Rubery’s quote explains the exact idea of Yik Yak – spying into a someone’s personal journal or private conversation. While agony column advertisements were aimed more at the individuals who would be able to identify the message, Yik Yak is usually aimed at the more general audience of a college. What both Yik Yak and the agony columns have in common, though, is the concept of creating a community that revolves around secrecy. They provide an outlet for secrets that are too hard to keep, private information that wants to be shared, secret messages between individuals, and they allow community to bond over a common source of gossip.
To illustrate my point, I will share a few posts and advertisements from both Yik Yak and the agony columns. But which ones are which? See if you can guess.
1. “Very tired of you. Stay away. The world is wide enough for two.”
2. “I don’t stop eating when I’m full. The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself.”
3. “If I’ve learned anything in my life it’s to not fully trust ANYONE.”
4. “Ten pounds reward. Missing, a Gentleman with two left legs, a squint in his right eye, several teeth missing, trousers that declined to fit him, feet that turned in, and a general hang-dog look. The above reward will be given to any one who doesn’t bring him back. (This would seem to be an excellent investment, judging by appearances.)”
While you may have guessed that the 4th quote was from an agony column, it might come as a surprise that the first is also an agony column advertisement; it sounds very much like it could be a Yik Yak post. Yik Yak is amazingly successful, as were the agony columns, and based off the same premise. So who really invented Yik Yak? Droll and Buffington or the Victorians? You decide.
Rubery, Matthew. The Novelty of Newspapers. London: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Punch Historical Archive (London, England), Saturday, February 20, 1875; pg. 86. (119 words).