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The Wild World Of The College Photo Sharing App Yeti

A cross between Yik Yak and Snapchat Stories for college campuses, the app uses students as moderators. It’s wildly popular, and ripe for disaster.

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Let’s say you were looking for an app you could use to share some wild shit troublesome pix with your college bros. You’d probably want something completely anonymous, like Yik Yak. You might also want an app that connected you with other like-minded bros at your university. Well, my horny friend dreaming of a place to anonymously share your semi-nudes and cool bags of weed, your search is over, and it ends with Yeti.

Yeti displays streams of still images and video, often with a text overlay, from various universities. It's like a Snapchat city Story for colleges, but far more raw. Whereas Snapchat stories offer a cheery, family-friendly version of the day in the life of a city, Yeti provides an NC-17 peek into a frat house basement at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. And it’s going buck-wild nationwide.

Yeti was first rolled out at hard-partying Southern universities before working its way north — there's still no Harvard or Yale on it. Today, there are Yeti channels for some 2,000 American colleges and universities. Of those, several hundred are “very active,” according to Yeti spokesperson Ben Kaplan. The app grew out of the ashes of Cinemagram (it’s currently burning through the $800 million Series A investment Cinemagram got a few years ago) and Kaplan’s old app Wigo, which helped college kids plan parties.

Yeti builds communities around individual schools, but it doesn't require a .edu email or proof of attendance to sign up. And once you're in, you can surf any school you'd like or watch overall trending “Yetis” in much the same way you can peek at other locations with Yik Yak.

One key element that sets Yeti apart from Snapchat and Yik Yak is a feature that's one of its best assets — and potentially one of its worst flaws. Each school’s feed is moderated by power users called “campus Yetis." These volunteer moderators sift through incoming images, filtering out spam and harassment (nudity and light criminal activity are not verboten). Campus Yetis are selected automatically via an algorithm that scans for highly engaged users, and Kaplan says these mods are part of Yeti's “secret sauce." He wouldn't disclose the average number of mods per school, but did say there are “tens of thousands” of such campus Yetis throughout the country.

Yeti has just four full-time staffers on its content team. But outsourcing moderation to students has benefits beyond just lowering the company’s overhead — it also lets campuses have their own in-jokes and personality.

“Snapchat has several campus Stories, but it's actually helped us. When Snapchat chooses the content, it’s very bland and PG,” Kaplan told BuzzFeed News. “Whereas for the people who actually go to these schools and have the power to control [their own content], it’s much more personal and fun.”

“Let’s say there’s a landmark on campus you’re not supposed to go on, like a fountain,” Kaplan explained. “So some kid starts swimming in the fountain, and another kids posts a video of it. Everyone in the school understands how funny that is.”

On the flip side, having a small group of college students moderate their own college’s feed is a little like letting the lunatics run the asylum. Using unpaid moderators selected only because they are hardcore Yeti users could leave the app vulnerable to personal bias on a hot-button issue on campus — or poor moderation.

Currently, Yeti offers no report/block function for users to alert the moderators of objectionable content or harassment.

Anonymous social sharing apps and websites targeted at colleges have not had the best track record when it comes to cyberbullying and harassment. The founder of Juicy Campus has publicly bemoaned the gossip site's evolution into a “cyberbullying platform"; Yik Yak has also grappled with harassment and racism, detailed in an episode of the podcast Reply All.

Kaplan says that Yeti does alert authorities in the case of harassment and threats. But the company doesn't pay much attention to photos and videos of typical college hijinks and debauchery. After all, a photo of someone’s weed stash isn’t exactly good reason to call in the FBI, nor would it really be legally actionable.

That said, there's some pretty disturbing stuff to be found on Yeti. Recently, a video of some kids giving what appeared to be cocaine to a house cat went viral on the app, making it to Yeti's trending section. The video inspired lots of outraged discussion on Yeti -- and Twitter and Reddit as well. But it had to pass through Yeti's moderation queue before anyone saw it, and it had to remain unmoderated for people to comment on it.

Yeti is hardly unique as a showcase of college kids behaving like dumbasses. But there’s something about it that hints at a powder keg of bad ideas about to go off. Yet also, it’s incredibly fun. Again, it’s a lot like college itself.


Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.

Contact Katie Notopoulos at katie@buzzfeed.com.

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