Breathy think pieces have lauded the latest viral app Yo as “merging the physical and digital worlds” with its focus on “context-based communication.” They naively praised its simplicity: “unlike most other messaging apps, Yo doesn’t collect any personal information from users.” They shouted into the void, “Yo…I am here. Is anybody out there?”
Yo’s sole function is to allow the user to send the word “yo” to contacts. (The app calls this “zero-character communication,” previously manifested by buzzers, pagers, doorbells, and even Facebook “pokes.”) The app was born when the CEO of Tel Aviv company Mobli, Moshe Hogeg, asked his coworker and engineer Or Arbel to design it for personal communication. The pair released their app quietly on April Fools’ Day—and had to fight to get it on the App Store because Apple thought Yo lacked enough substance to be complete.
The app’s creators and investors describe its usefulness outright comically: “Yos are used as verifications (‘Yo, I made it home from school’), acts of thoughtfulness (‘Yo, I’m thinking of you’) and as alerts (‘Yo, I need your help’). Hogeg’s wife, for example, will Yo him daily to let him know she loves him.” Meanwhile, critics of the app like American tech blogger Robert Scoble point out that Yo’s success was largely facilitated by an excitable media. News outlets latched onto the absurdity of the concept and the app creators’ claim that investors have committed to putting $1.2 million into Yo, even though the startup currently has no money in the bank whatsoever.
The brilliant PR campaign for such a ridiculous business could normally be chalked up to amusement, and left at that. But as UpStart’s Alex Dalenberg put it, “When there’s actual money at stake, things start to get less funny.” Last week the fragile app, which was built in just eight hours, was hacked by college students. The hackers had full access to the only personal data solicited by Yo: users’ phone numbers. While Yo’s leak of personal data is not all that dangerous, the poorly crafted app exemplifies how quickly and passively tech consumers will open themselves up to vulnerabilities. Another app, Snapchat, had a similar hack and leak of personal data last year, while archetypally nefarious flashlight apps have been known to track users’ locations. In that sense, the Yo phenomenon is startling in how easily a less innocuous team could have done damage by exploiting consumers’ good humor and boredom.
Yo’s blatant willingness to tap into that boredom is what has won it such appreciation. Kia Kokalitcheva called Yo “a sign that at the end of the day, we want to feel connected to other humans, and sending someone a nudge and getting an acknowledgement in return actually helps, even just a little bit.” Boiling down genuine attempts to reach out into silly notifications of “yo” tries to circumvent the awkward self-awareness that comes with digital communication. If texting is the wrong medium for “I love you,” or Snapchat is an artificial way to say “I’m thinking of you,” then why not reduce the social din to its most absurd manifestation and send out a “yo”?
It is instinctively ridiculous, if momentarily funny and ironic. But as Ian Bogost suggests, “the problem with Yo isn’t what makes it stupid—its attempt to formalize the meta-communication common to online life—but what makes it gross: the need to contain all human activity within the logics of tech startups. The need to expect something from every idea, even the stupid ones, to feel that they deserve attention, users, data, and, inevitably, payout.” The creators, investors, and tech bloggers all outwardly call Yo “stupid” and make no effort to genuinely buy into its joking rhetoric of “context-based communication.” Yet they still went ahead and pursued it.
The culture that produced Yo is grappling with what Nathan Jurgenson has called “digital dualism,” the idea that “online” and “offline,” “physical” and “digital,” are meaningful and separate categories that can be mapped onto different parts of life. Yo is what happens when a creative economy spirals so far into self-parody that such distinctions are forgotten, and it takes the most absurd of reminders to reinforce them.