Ryan Schiller, BF ’21, is the creator of the campus app Librex, a discussion-based social media platform where all users remain anonymous. Only Yale students can join the app’s community. He and Arthur Azvolinsky, ES ’20, make up the team behind the app’s daily operations. Librex’s App Store description boasts, “We are democratizing college discourse.” YH Features editors, Elliot Lewis, BR ’22, and Macrina Wang, ES ’22, sat down with Schiller to contemplate questions of anonymity, content moderation, and the app’s various similarities to the controversial, now-defunct app Yik Yak.
EL: So what’s the backstory of Librex? What made you decide to create it?
RS: At the end of my sophomore year, I was reflecting on my time, and I felt isolated and alienated and just overall, with everything I said—I wondered, would I be judged for it? Is this something that would put my reputation at risk? And I felt like I might get judged for saying something. I would talk in class and people would come up to me and be like, “I felt the same thing but I wouldn’t have the nerve to say it.” Liberal arts education is really about saying what you’re thinking and learning and really delving into what’s true and discussing the uncomfortable issues. I wanted to create a space for that on Yale’s campus. And that’s why I created Librex.
MW: Could you elaborate on why you felt isolated?
RS: We kind of live in this culture: it’s a “cancel culture,” where you worry everything you say might be interpreted the wrong way. You feel like you’re still trying to flesh out your ideas about something and you’re just asking a question but you might be embarrassed, wondering whether somebody would think it’s not a good question. I thought it would be nice to have a space where the stakes were a little lower.
MW: You’re a Math and Global Affairs major. How did you get the technical background to create an app?
RS: I was asking myself the same question at the beginning of the summer last year. I had no technical skills. I hadn’t coded a thing. But this idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I just thought that there should be a space for people to discuss their ideas and be able to freely communicate with other Yalies. And so I thought, “I don’t know how I’m gonna make this, but I’m gonna make it.” So I just started Googling “how do you make an iOS app,” “how do you get it on the Apple Store.” I took it step-by-step. What’s the first thing you need to do to get into an app? You need to log in. I typed, “How do you log in to an iOS app?” I learned, I programmed, and by the end of the summer—it took a long time, it took a month and a half—I had a really basic app. And it was really bad. You can go look up old pictures of the app. It was the bare minimum. We’re talking black text on a white screen that anyone could add to. The thing was, I didn’t think anyone would use it. But the need was so great—so many people identified with this feeling of wanting to get their perspectives heard—that people even used it at that state. It was at that point that it started getting traction and people actually started to discuss things and you’d have somebody from the Party of the Left discussing capitalism with somebody from the Party of the Right. You’d have people meeting up through this app, like some people started a band through the app recently. And then one of my friends, Arthur [Azvolinsky]—he’s an amazing programmer and one of the smartest and nicest people I know—he saw all of this happening and he was like, “I think we can build this into something bigger.” Over winter break, we worked our butts off and we just grinded and at the end of winter break, we launched the real thing—the thing you see today—and we’ve just been innovating from that. We’ve seen explosive growth since then.
EL: How many users do you currently have, and how many messages get published a day?
RS: I don’t know how many messages get published a day. It probably varies a lot because it just depends upon how much time people have. And we’re not so concerned about that; we’re more concerned about the level of conversation on the app. I can tell you we have over 100 active daily users, so these are people, these are Yalies, who are logging into the app, commenting or posting or voting on different ideas and are really engaged in our community. And that’s what’s really important to us—not so much how many people sign up—but who’s engaging, who’s talking, who’s hearing the conversation.
MW: What does content moderation look like for you guys?
RS: Content moderation was really important to us. Anonymity is a wonderful thing because it allows people to say things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to say and it allows the Captain of the math team to be on the same ground as the Captain of the football team in terms of commenting and getting their voices heard. Again, the Librex community is integral. Anyone can report any concept and if it gets enough reports, it’s immediately taken off the platform. If it even gets one report, I get a ping—that’s one of my jobs. I look at all the pings I get and see what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. Our norms are very clear. They are: no sweeping statements about core identity groups; keep it legal; Librex is about ideas, not people; and no spam. Those are our core messages. Beyond that, we let the community take care of it. If the community wants to engage with it, we let them. If the community doesn’t like it, it goes away.
EL: Some people might say that your app reminds them a lot of Yik Yak.* How would you respond to that, especially with the controversies with which Yik Yak became associated?
RS: Yeah, so the core difference between us and Yik Yak is that we are organization-based. We are about Yalies. We only let Yalies in. Yik Yak was geo-bounded. So anyone in the area—I think it was like a 50 mile radius—could post to Yik Yak. Whereas, here, it’s just Yalies, so it’s our norms, it’s our moderators, it’s our people. And I think that’s the big difference: when you know it’s an identity you all share, and it’s just Yalies, it creates this special community within Yale. That’s the core difference, I think, between us and Yik Yak.
Yik Yak, like Librex, is an anonymous messaging app. It was founded in 2013 and reached peak popularity between 2014-2015, but shut down officially in April 2017 as user numbers declined and its relevance waned. Towards the end of its life, the app was surrounded by controversy, as there were multiple cases of bomb threats, school shooting threats, and sexual harassment occurring on the platform.
EL: In your FAQ, you mention concerns about the app possibly being used as an alt-right platform. You state pretty definitively that your app hates everything the alt-right stands for. Was this a common question you received, and what made you feel the need to take such a clear stance on that?
RS: I just think it’s important for people to know that is not a place for the alt-right. Our app represents the values of the Yale community. So the way the Yale community speaks is the same as the way they speak on the app. And the norms that we have at Yale are inculcated into our app culture. The posts that get the most attention are the ones that reach out to part of the community that wants a voice.
EL: I saw the app is advertising something called “Librex Matching.” Could you talk a little bit about that, and what that is or what that might be?
RS: So, yeah. Just in the past week people have formed a band on Librex. People have—two lovers met up through Librex. I don’t know if you saw that. Two people met at Durfee’s and then they posted about each other on Librex and then they met up on Old Campus. They scheduled a time and a place. And people have just been like, “I want to start a book club.” And so we thought, “How can we create these matches that are already happening and make them easier to happen?” So we’re in Beta-testing for a matching system through Librex.
MW: Would you agree that Librex is totally anonymous? In terms of the amount of anonymity that a user gets when they post something, can you guys see how much data is stored with that?
RS: Apple requires us to make sure that people are posting things that are legal. So for example if someone were to put themselves or somebody else in danger, we would see it immediately and we’d be able to contact the authorities to protect Yalies. That’s the only space where we would ever look at someone else’s post. But we do have the ability to see the posts for two weeks that someone posts—for legal reasons. But beyond that, on the front end, what the user sees is totally anonymous. You can’t see who’s posting what.
MW: So you can track their identities based on the IP address? Is that how that works? If you needed to determine the identity of someone, how would you do that?
RS: What we do is we create these randomized identifiers for each person, which is linked to their email, and then we link those randomized identifiers to the posts. And then those identifiers get cleared every two weeks. No one sees it but us.
EL: You’re a Math and Global Affairs major, but you’re making an app. Do you see app-making as your future?
RS: For me, it’s more about doing things that I believe in and making things that people want or that our community needs. So whether that’s an app or that’s some other product, I’m willing to venture into any avenue to make a difference in our community.
MW: Once you graduate, do you think that you’re gonna pass the app down to other members of the Yale community so that the app keeps going? And do you think that, as the app keeps growing, you might expand your team?
RS: Right now, I’m a junior so I have a long way to go before I graduate. And we’re taking it week-to-week. We don’t even know what we’re gonna do next week. We’ll see where it goes— whether that means working on it and bringing it to other campuses; whether that means going full-time if this is something that really has an impact and we think it requires more attention. In terms of building the team, we’re not actively looking to hire anyone, but we’re always looking for people who are really engaged and want to bring the app to new places and new groups of people. But right now, our team is really strong and doing a great job.