When you tap one of the profile pictures that sprawl across the landing page of the app called Yaheard, you never know what sort of hot take or thought-provoking inquiry might pop up on your screen:
“Why are people refusing to cancel Kanye?”
“Do you believe that a mindset can get you anywhere?”
“On god the milk go BEFORE the cereal.😭💯”
The app allows you a few seconds to digest whatever prompt it displays before it whisks you into a front-row seat for a lively discussion. With their phone cameras on selfie mode, two users take turns debating the prompt through short videos. Once the debaters have volleyed back and forth several times, it’s your turn to cast your vote for either of the arguments. You’re then free to scroll along and view the next debate on your feed, or perhaps to ignite a debate of your own.
Bright, playful, and user-friendly, Yaheard has come a long way since its N.C. State-alum founders rolled out the first version on the Apple App Store in 2016. As one of the founders, Marcus Spruill, puts it, it’s “a social network that takes debating to the next level.”
Yaheard does just about everything you’d expect a social network to do. It has customizable profiles, an endless feed, direct messages, news articles, a robust notifications tab, and hashtags. But unlike most discussion-based platforms, in which debates play out over text or images, Yaheard offers users the chance to engage one-on-one, face-to-face. Spruill says it’s this feature that sets the app apart.
“I think just having that face-to-face conversation—and you know exactly who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about—will help people to learn but then also to understand where someone else is coming from and their point of view,” Spruill says.
Yaheard is the brainchild of Joshua Puente, who thought up the concept while watching the ESPN sports-debate show First Take as an engineering student at N.C. State. Puente pitched the app to fellow students Spruill, Robert Dates, and DomiNick Downing. They went on to clinch a win at the N.C. State Wolf Tank entrepreneurship competition. After graduating, they kept up Yaheard as a side hustle while establishing full-time careers in the tech industry.
“I think that’s been a great learning experience for us,” Spruill says. “All of us were able to bring something that we do from our 9-to-5 roles into the company, whether it’s coding or marketing or advertising. And I think that’s really helped us to get to where we’re at today.”
Yaheard’s user count stands at more than 800, up from the 200 users it had during a beta test in January. Spruill says it has successfully attracted its target demographic of younger folks, especially in high school and college. Users tend to discover it through the ads the company runs on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Yaheard also provides consulting services for other entrepreneurs and reinvests those profits into the app.
For now, Yaheard has no set rules to regulate debating, but users can report content to the team for review. As other social networks have demonstrated, minimally moderated forums are bound to attract trolls. In order to promote accountability, the latest redesign of the app allows for less anonymity, Dates says.
User Jasmine Cazares—whom the INDY interviewed over Yaheard’s direct messaging feature—says she checks the app daily.
“I use Yaheard because I hear back from more people than I would on Twitter,” she says.
Dates says the term “Yaheard” embodies the practice of debating with others.
“When we say Yaheard, it’s like, ‘Oh, I connect with you,’” he says. “Its real origin is just pop culture.”
Pop culture certainly fuels the app. Dates says the subjects that trend on Yaheard mirror those trending on Twitter: TV shows, celebrities, dating, politics, current events. Quips and laughter abound.
But it can also serve as a space to speak about grave realities. Last week, topics up for discussion included, “The current police system is racist and oppresses Black people based on the color of their skin” and “ALM takes away the purpose of BLM. Your life matters but you will most likely never experience the level of disrespect and racism black people will.”
All too often, Spruill says, it’s not until a high-profile tragedy like George Floyd’s murder takes place that society will openly discuss issues like racism and police brutality. But racial minorities, of which the Yaheard team consists entirely, don’t have the privilege of putting off these conversations.
“This is something we live daily,” Spruill says, “and we believe it is time for there to be a social network that facilitates and advances these conversations to produce positive change on a regular basis.”
But even when Yaheard is just silly or funny—which it more often is—Spruill believes in the power of conversations, however trivial, to inspire understanding and changes of opinion.
“You can learn from someone else and understand someone else’s point of view because there’s an opportunity for everyone to think of something differently than you or I will,” he says.
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