What’s the deal with Burnbook?

Last week, San Diego county schools went coo coo for cocoa puffs about the social media app Burnbook.

Megan, our 8th grader, missed school on Monday. When she came home on Tuesday she said the joke on campus was an assembly she missed on Monday. “No one had the app or had even heard of Burnbook. What is it?

Yeah, this is what I mean when I say… “Don’t educate 99% of students about something 1% or less are doing.

Face meet palm. Seriously. 

I see schools do this all the time. And it’s why my social media talks are based in principles instead of a single app… let’s educate the 99% about good, healthy habits, and deal with the 1% of problematic students in the counseling office.

So what’s Burnbook?


Basically, Burnbook is Yik Yak for middle and high school students with a couple plot twists.

Plot Twist #1

You opt into a community whereas Yik Yak merely implies a community based on your geolocation.

So when you open the app, you create an account and you pick your community. (Most users would pick their school)


The plot twist is that you can pick a different school…

Just go to the menu, click on Communities, and you can move from one high school to another, or a college or whatever.

I think this is a problem. Particularly for high schools. You don’t even have to be part of the school to talk about it or be in that community? Moreover, you can just hop from rival school to rival school and post whatever you want?

Meh, not a fan of that. I’d rather you picked a community and the app made it hard to switch to another one. Maybe only allow you to do that weekly? Seems like the current model allows for and encourages trolling.


Plot Twist #2

App administrators are unashamed about monitoring communities.

Don’t get me wrong, every app does this to some extent. But the Burnbook crew is intentional about trying to moderate things by being visible, correcting bad behavior, highlighting the behavior they want to see on their other social channels, etc.

For an anonymous and ephemeral app… this is unique. I like that idea. It’s a little old school but in a good way.

Don’t be fooled. All of the other anonymous apps do this one way or the other. For instance, Yik Yak has paid community people on college campuses which make sure the “Yik Yak game is on point”. But Burnbook seems to have a rather old school mindset of community management from the forum days. They are around and real people. It’ll be interesting to see if this can scale up as the app takes off. But I’m sure that’s something Team Burnbook would see as a good problem to solve.

Plot Twist #3

They aren’t interested in geofencing off schools. 

Last year, Yik Yak very clearly made the decision to target their app at college students by geofencing off every high school and middle school campus in the United States.

I had a brief chat with Burnbook’s creator Jonathan Lucas about his app last week. Flat out, his philosophy is that school campuses are in need of a way for people to say what’s on their mind. He feels like they can help moderate and sell the idea that this is possible… that teenagers won’t just melt down into being a community that bullies or harasses people online… but that anonymity can and will lead to something positive.

So when I asked him if he had plans to geofence schools based on pressure from school administrators… he didn’t have any interest in doing that. Instead, he said that they are doing anything they can do to work with schools/law enforcement to rat out the bad stuff in an effort to highlight the good stuff.

“The majority of people are good,” said Lucas, but you have to “design the app with the most sinister person in mind.”

To that end, Lucas has implemented several key tools for Burnbook. The first, and most effictive, is a simple down vote system wherein five down votes (perhaps 3 soon!) automatically removes a post. 2-4% of posts are destroyed this way.

He also has a “blur” option for every photo to protect people’s identities.


How big is it?

This launched in September 2014. It’s really small. That’s part of why it was so odd that San Diego county schools freaked out about it. I mean, compared to Snapchat it’s tiny. (And Snapchat is tiny compared to Facebook… even among teenagers who say they don’t use it.)

As of right now they are reporting 400,000 users. (.9% of teenagers in America) Snapchat is about 5.4 million teenage users according to Pew. (13% of teenagers in America) Facebook is well over 50%.

What do I need to know?

There’s a few little side stories which I think are interesting.

First, I got clued into Jonathan Lucas’s faith before I spoke to him… he has an Oswald Chambers quote on the homepage of his app. (see screenshot above) He grew up in a Christian home, in many ways he’s a typical student from any of our youth groups. All of that helps me view what he’s trying to do with Burnbook through a certain lens. He’s a newbie to the development world, he taught himself to code, he’s built a small but very interesting little company. All of these are endearing qualities to me. Maybe it shouldn’t– but it makes me a little less judgmental about the whole thing.

Second, Burnbook is a sapling in a forest of ephemeral, anonymous apps. I’m not saying it won’t make it but I’m not sure it should really be on anyone’s radar at this point, while gaining steam it’s also tiny. What I see in the app and the organization is still beta. But who knows? It could be the next big thing and Jonathan might be on next years Forbes list like Snapchat’s co-founder, Evan Speigel?

Acquisition seems far more likely than it becoming a big thing. (Whisper, Secret, After School, on and on) That’s a fine exit plan for a first time developer.

Third, I’m not sure the idea itself is realistic or helpful or developmentally possible. I’m on the fence about it.

The name Burn Book is a Mean Girls reference. It strikes me as weird that the app has an idea that good can come from anonymously sharing things on a school campus when the app is named after something that happened in Mean Girls.

It’s kind of an obvious clash of narratives. According to Wikipedia (the collector of all truth… ha!) the Burn Book is “a notebook filled with rumors, secrets, and gossip about the other girls and some teachers.

Geez, I wonder why this would make administrators nervous?

What do I do?

This is the easy part. 

Keep reminding the teenagers in your life that there is no such thing as anonymity, only perceived anonymity.

In the end, Burnbook is no different than all of the other ephemeral and/or anonymous apps out there. I like to tell teenagers, “The only one that thinks it’s anonymous is the users.

Burnbook does a better-than-average job at telling students that their posting are linked back to them via their phone number and that they will absolutely cooperate with law enforcment if you do something dumb, like post a bomb threat. [You click OK to several acknowledgements when you create an account with your phone number, there are reminders… maybe too often.]

But, in the heat of the moment, it’s easy for anyone to forget that that tiny bit of gossip or bragging about an indiscretion ultimately points directly back to you.

There’s no such thing as privacy online.

There’s not such thing as anonymity online.

There’s only the perception of anonymity or privacy.

Repeat that. Often.







5 responses to “What’s the deal with Burnbook?”

  1. Ansel Taft Avatar

    While ‘burn book’ might be a Mean Girls reference we had something similar in my middle school days (circa 1989). It was called a slam book. Same thing, both with negative connotations. The name may be catchy and age appropriate for the audience but it sounds like users will be predisposed to write nasty stuff, you know, given what the name suggests.

  2. Rob Leachman Avatar

    Great explainer, thanks! BurnBook hit my radar yesterday, I think it was mentioned on the local news? So great to connect with your post and quickly learn what it’s about.

  3. melin2011 Avatar

    Best article I’ve read and I think your observations are spot on. I know that the CEO was also homeschooled and perhaps doesn’t know how mean some kids can be. However, an app doesn’t make a person bad any more than sitting in church makes you a christian. Besides, I’d much rather know about mental instability in my community than live in a fair tale world where just because I haven’t heard it must mean that it isn’t so. My child has benefitted tremendously from knowing whats going on in his school. The app has a new feature (a sifting or something) and apparently it is like 2% of the posts that are not acceptable. So much to do about nothing, is what I say. Freedom of speech lives on, thank you, God!

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      @melin2011 I’m all about freedom of speech and I fully recognize (as danah boyd oft refers) that social media can serve as teenagers only real place to hang out away from adults. (So adults not “getting it” is actually a huge selling point to teenagers.)

      It will be interesting to see if they can navigate it past a place for trolls and “a burn book” from Mean Girls and towards something more positive. My sense is that they’ll have to pivot and rebrand to do that.

  4. concerned parent Avatar
    concerned parent

    Burnbook needs to be shutdown…No good will EVER come of it, its a way for kids to cyber bully anonymously…you say theres no anonymity…well why hasnt Burnbook help catch who threatened to shoot my childs school this week

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