chitter kyle kaiser and sabby choudhary

Chitter team photo in Edmonton, Alberta. Two of the five co-founders Kyle Kaiser (left) and Sabby Choudhary (right). (Amber Bracken/supplied)

A campus social networking app launched in the fall by students from the University of Alberta and Athabasca University last fall has earned a spot with the tech startup fund Y-combinator, which has helped launch 800 startups now worth a combined US$30 billion.

The students will be sent to Silicon Valley for three months and receive US$120 000 to further develop their business, which has more than 20 000 users on campuses around Canada.

The app, called Chitter, has already evolved significantly since its launch in September 2015. What began as a  semi-anonymous forum that allows students to confess and vent has also become a way for people to connect.

"Initially we thought this would be an online platform where you get to know people," said Kyle Kaiser, one of Chitter's five co-founders. "But what we've seen happen is people will often go offline.

"A couple months back somebody posted on there: 'Hey, I baked some banana bread, does anybody want to have a picnic?' "

After that first impromptu plan, now picnics are being organized through the app on a semi-regular basis. The last one attracted about 100 attendees.

What's a Chitter?

Co-founder Sabby Choudhary said the name and logo (a squirrel) for the app was inspired by their environment.

"What is common among universities? There's squirrels everywhere," said Choudhary. "OK, what sound does a squirrel make? And that's how the name Chitter came about."

The founders agreed it had a nice ring to it and played off the term 'chit chat.'

Kaiser said they looked into other possibilities in their research, but vetoed them.

"Wikipedia said squirrels make other sounds like 'quaa quaa' but we didn't think that would be a good name for an app."

Chitter chat versus Yik Yak

Other anonymous campus social networking apps have attracted attention for recent controversies. Apps like Yik Yak have drawn criticism for circulating hate speech or allegedly facilitating online bullying.

But Choudhary and Kaiser are not worried about running into the same problems.

"That's often a big misconception people have when they do compare us to Yik Yak," said Kaiser.  "Anonymity is more a feature than a defining characteristic."

He likens it to the dating app Tinder, where users swipe right or left to initiate or decline a conversation with other members. Once a conversation starts, you can start to get to know a person while gaining more information.

To use Chitter you need to log in with university e-mail and Facebook accounts, which means users are more traceable. Comment threads on Chitter allow people to comment directly from their Facebook accounts.

For now, Choudhary and Kaiser are mostly looking to get more people talking about and using their app, as they prepare for their business venture in Silicon Valley and try to attract investors there.

In a recent informal poll at the University of Alberta campus, about half of the students asked had heard of the app.

"So we still think there's a lot of room for letting people know, and once that happens I think we'll get there," said Choudhary.

Choudhary and Kaiser are developing the business along with fellow student co-founders Mark Galloway, Tamara Bain and Benjamin Lavin.