Looking into the disconcerting aspects of the mobile phone app YO

YO, what the f*ck is going on here?

July 19, 2014 / by / 71 Comments

Yo is a beautiful word.

Yo is an interjection, a Vulcan grip on your attention that closes a sentence as strongly as it can end one. Yo’s gritty staccato reverberates off the tongue with vitality and force and instant-friendliness. Yo is a word made famous by a fictional boxer who couldn’t comprehensibly say much else, a fundamental aspect of two zeitgeistdefining MTV shows, and a goddamn fantastic word to say. 

And now, yo is an app.

More precisely, YO is a mobile software application built by Israeli developer Or Arbel in under 8 hours that garnered over 2 million users and $1.5 million in capital investments in two months. All for an app that sends one push notification and one push notification only to other users: “YO.”1

No longer do you have to survive the arduous burden of calling, texting, Facebook messaging, Snapchatting, or god-forbid (What is this, the 90s?) turning towards somebody and uttering words to another human being in order to send them a message. Just YO them instead. The possibilities extend to infinity and beYOnd.

According to Arbel, YO is a “context-based messaging” service. That phrase — and a lot about YO in general — is just as dumb as it sounds.

First of all, an app that sends your friends a predetermined two-letter message is not “context-based” messaging. Colbert demonstrated that already.

Second, I enjoy YO and all, and I’ll admit that I have pretty seamlessly adopted YO’s system and identity (e.g. user name “STEVIEYONDER”) into my life. But YO disconcerts the living shit out of me.

YO’s communication mechanism is only messaging in the same way that a series of telegraph blips are messaging: The recipient is made aware of an intentional human signal arriving from somewhere else based solely on the YO’s source and frequency. YO strips human-to-human communication down to one of the barest forms imaginable in order to provide a near-frictionless form of messaging. In doing so, YO actually decontextualizes its message by eliminating the myriad of ways that humans illustrate depth and significance of concepts or feelings to one another. Worse yet, YO takes a word with such rich history and novel use and turns it into a bland phrase to alert your coworker that you’re aware of his or her existence while you’re sitting on the toilet.

If this beef with a free mobile application sounds somewhat reactionary and somewhat hypocritical, that’s because it somewhat is. But should an application that increases the noise circulating throughout our technological world while reducing the meaning behind those noises be rewarded with increased cash flow gurgling towards a tech bubble rapidly approaching the size of Steve Jobs’ ego?

That issue is for much smarter, or at least much wealthier, people in San Francisco to decide.

But what’s intriguing about YO — besides the fact that people are more than willing to throw an ungodly amount of money at an app that has less revenue than this humble publication — is the troubling significance behind YO’s simplicity.

Sure, YO has its practical uses, like helping to inform Israelis of impending missile attacks. And YO’s open API in conjunction with such a streamlined design can lead to newfound and practical uses down the road. But when you get down to the nitty gritty,2 it’s not the message or structure that’s important about YO, but the manner in which the app allows us to communicate with one another.

Besides offering a flagrantly stupid color scheme, YO also assuages our growing desire for constant and incessant connection to one another in the digital realm. YO just takes our unquenchable desire for hyperconnectivity to a logical extreme.

Thanks to YO, at any point in time you can instantly make another user aware of your presence, lending a feeling (albeit a surface-level one) of extreme interconnection to both parties that’s helped along by the chummy cordiality of the phrase “yo” itself. And that connection feels good. Little more than anything else, YO allows one person to alert another that you’re thinking of them and vice versa — a benign interaction that seemingly does more good than bad.

Whether you actually are thinking of that other person, though, or just mindlessly tapping away at vaguely-familiar usernames as they flash across a screen while you pass the time on the aforementioned commode, is impossible to detect and at the core of what I find spooky about YO.

Without the adjoining nuances of syntax, word choice, intonation, etc. to discern meaning below the surface message “yo” (delivered in a tone oddly reminiscent of a Star Wars Battle Droid, and with about as much pathos), all YOs become words of affirmation. YOs are like Facebook’s “like” button: there’s no negativity, and barely any engagement whatsoever when you get down to it besides a declaration that you saw the person’s message and would like to respond to it in as minimal a way as possible.

A YO is an instant, insignificant push notification that neither defines nor affects your sense of self. And that can be a freeing sensation. YO eliminates the anxiety or worry (or effort) involved in trying to seem clever or funny or intelligent or smart or not too caustic or inadvertently appear glib or sarcastic with your wording — issues that paralyze us when every utterance online can be edited or reworded or meticulously prepped for optimized social interfacing. But those issues, those thought-straining anxieties regarding the substance and reception and presentation of our words, are what communication and social connection in the first place are all about.

What good is online “social connectivity” if my social connections are constrained to a Morse code of ‘yo’s’ uttered by a droid that sounds like it shoots its laser blaster straight from the hip at an approaching Jedi?

Not only does YO reduce the words and unspoken cues we use to communicate with one another, but it also flattens the emotional variety we can experience or connote when we interface with somebody. When the only option you’re presented with is one single pre-determined greeting, we may as well be speaking in the exclamation points that appear in the voice bubbles of Pokemon characters. If we accept that YO is a form of basic communication, then what does it mean that the broad spectrum of emotions that a person could depict to another is condensed into one cordial, chummy, androidified “yo?”

Look, YO isn’t the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with this generation or its very own impending tech bubble. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sat through a lecture YOing users like Sylvester Stallone on Ecstasy, or ever uttered the phrase “I’ll YO you when I’m ready for dinner.” Just as sending Snapchats to others boosts camaraderie and a sense of shared interpersonal knowledge among two users, YO lets me interact with both new and old acquaintances in a simple and effective manner.

But although the frictionless communication like YO seems fine and well at first, I think that the friction YO does away with — the resistance between two people’s conversation as they verbally slide together — is what makes our human interaction so rich and worthwhile. YO may be a gag app, but it could very well end up gagging us.