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Apps Getting Schooled: The Rising, Controversial Trend of Student-Only Platforms

Following the rise of anonymity and privacy in social networking, we’re seeing another trend on the rise: apps targeting students, and giving them an exclusive place to share and connect. They’re popular, but these rising networks have their share of problems…

The last few months have given us a flurry of high school and college student-focused apps that are growing fast and making headlines. The trend is a clear result of the rise of anonymity and privacy in social networking. While older Millennials remember joining Facebook when it was a startup only open to top college students, Millennials in college today have grown up with broadcasting to everyone as the norm. Now, a community that is exclusive to just their peers is a new phenomena for them. They’re seeking out the places where their posts are seen by only a select few and where they feel more comfortable broadcasting things they wouldn’t want their grandmother to see—now that she’s on Facebook, that site serves a different purpose.

But there are serious pitfalls to student-focused platforms. The trend is moving fast, with competition heating up by the day and scandals plaguing the startups breaking new ground in the space. Earlier this month, we wrote about After School, an app that let students post secrets, and gossip, about their classmates and was growing fast, being downloaded by 100,000 students from 14,000 different high schools in just three weeks. It was also stirring up some controversy: posts had already led to an FBI investigation. Today, it has been pulled from the App Store after another school shooting threat was posted on the platform. It’s unclear when, or if, it will return.

Yik Yak, is one of the biggest rising stars of the anonymous app space, surpassing Whisper and Secret in the App Store daily charts just a few weeks ago. Yik Yak allows users to see what other people in a 1.5 mile radius are saying, and arranges the feed according to popularity. It has taken off quickly with teens and on college campuses, and the start of school year pushed the app forward in popularity. In Ypulse’s most recent social media tracker, fielded at the end of November, 8% of 13-32-year-olds, and 14% of 13-18-year-olds had a profile on Yik Yak. But in late November, two high schools in southern California were shut down thanks to threats that were posted on the app. Reportedly threats “of mass shootings, bombings, or other violence” made through the app are becoming a growing problem, though they had already added geo-fencing to ensure that it wouldn’t be used on middle school and high school campuses.

Regardless, schools continue to ban Yik Yak, thanks largely to the bullying that takes place there. While anonymity is in some ways an escape for teens who want a “safer” place to share their thoughts, the lack of accountability also brings out the darker sides of teen relationships. It’s not the first time that allowing anonymous accounts has led to mass scandal—Formspring has completely retooled their site and changed their name due to continued issues with extreme bullying.

Some school-focused apps are taking measures to combat the negativity. DormChat is a location-based messaging app that is targeting college students, and could be a competitor to the already popular Yik Yak. Unlike other messaging apps, DormChat allows users to create chatrooms around topics and locations. Anyone within three miles of the creator can participate in the chat, but more importantly anonymity is optional. The app launched in late October and has managed to stay out of the news—which in this case may be a good thing.

Eliminating anonymity altogether while still maintaining the feeling of student-only exclusivity is WiGo’s tactic. WiGo (Who Is Going Out) is an app for only college students—you must have a .edu email to join—that helps them find out exactly what friends are doing each night, and invite them to join party plans at the push of a button. The app is also much more purpose-focused, and is more about connecting and organizing students than broadcasting thoughts and opinions, which has kept the app out of the fray of bullying and threats. (Heads up: Our interview with WiGo’s 22-year-old founder will be appearing in the next few weeks.)

Student-focused apps are not going to go away completely, but many of these early iterations are likely to die out if the parameters around use aren’t made more clear. Unfortunately, there are consequences to anonymity, and in the hands of young students it seems that things are veering out of control.