A Refreshing Take on Identity

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of attending the Azure Capital Partners CEO day in Mountain View. There were a lot of great discussions over the course of the event. However, one stood out in particular for me; a Yik Yak discussion on identity.

For those of you who don't spend much time in the social media space, Yik Yak is an application that has spread across Universities in the past couple of years like wildfire. The app allows people to communicate with members of their community who are nearby. But in a differentiated manner from other tools that offer social communications, Yik Yak built anonymity into the core offering. And for them, anonymity has worked. They've had extremely successful adoption across the university landscape, kept their conversations mostly positive and humorous, and successfully built a war chest from seasoned investors including Sequoia.

But Yik Yak's early success isn't what made the conversation so interesting to me. It was that their founders, Tyler Droll and Bruce Buffington, had a unique and refreshing take on identity.

Over the course of a 45-minute long fireside, Bruce and Tyler explained how Yik Yak emerged. They articulated a product that was designed to give everyone equal voice - and regardless of how you approached it, identity almost always impacted who had the most voice. On Facebook, your personal brand impacted how you expressed yourself and what you'd be willing to say. On Twitter, there was always the additional challenge of a unidirectional broadcast. Until you depersonalized the speaker, you couldn't equalize the contribution.

Until yesterday, I hadn't thought of the positive attributes of anonymity when it comes to conversation. Frankly, I've always seen apps that leverage anonymity instead of pseudonyms as foolish. Anonymity, in my mind, always had too high a risk of falling victim to misbehavior.

But now the wheels are turning. I actually believe that in a lot of situations, anonymity could be critical to empowering people to participate. With the right community management systems, values, and cultural norms, some powerful tools might emerge.