Yo, the one-word viral app that somehow raised $1m (and already got hacked)

New app Yo takes our phobia of interaction to a new level – digital communication is now bored of words.

A step too far? Photo: screenshot of logo from Yo's website
A step too far? Photo: screenshot of logo from Yo's website

Why is everyone suddenly saying "yo"? Annoying catchphrases come in and out of style all the time but yo has managed to ride the wave of fickle fashions and become uniquely lodged in our brains. From 70s surfers to US presidents (how else would you address the British prime minister?) this relatively meaningless interjection has joined our everyday vocabulary.

This is why the latest of app crazes -  Yo - has been plastered over the media. Its functionalities are pretty basic: tap a contact’s name and you’ll send them a "Yo" message, along with a highly-annoying sound-bite shouting it out. You then can get a "Yo" in return. That's it. The recipient then deciphers why you’ve ‘Yo-ed’ them based on the circumstances in which you’ve sent it. The key here is anticipating what a friend would want to say.

Speaking to the New York Times, CEO and founder Or Arbel said:

People think it’s just an app that says "Yo". But it’s really not. We like to call it context-based messaging. You understand by the context what is being said.”

This isn’t actually stupid as it sounds. Squillo is a similar concept from Italy. It translates best as “missed call” but that’s a simplification – the quirky one-ring phone call is a way of talking to friends without talking: you hang up before the receiver has a chance to answer. Making uno squillo can have many meanings, ranging from heartfelt sentiments (letting a loved one know “I’m thinking of you”) to timely reminders (telling that friend who’s always late to get a move on). It doesn’t require a response and the meaning of the missed call is meant to be evident from context. 

Yo runs on a similar premise. Software developers are continuously on the look-out for ways to streamline conversation. The last decade has seen us transition from texts to tweets to ‘text-light’ applications like Snapchat. Yo is the natural extension of the trend to simplify speech.

There's a certain cynicism that comes with developments like this – are we really so scared of meaningful communication that we've resorted to sending bland one-word messages? Quite probably. All this technology will invariably lead to the stifling of creativity and the death of society and before you know it we'll be mindless automatons posting pre-programmed messages from app to app.

But until then think about the context in which Italian squilli were formed – free, exciting ways of communicating with close friends in a not-so-bygone age where mobile phones were a technological marvel and apps hadn’t even been invented.  No need for the added baggage of superfluous conversation, when a simple ring can convey the same message. Sending a squillo eliminated the need for small-talk with friends.

Yo is the internet-era equivalent. And it’s doing surprisingly well. For an app that just took eight hours to develop, in the three months it’s been on the market Yo has accrued a following of 50,000 users – who between them have sent over four million Yos.

Even more ridiculously, a group of investors has just poured a whole $1m into the idea, led by CEO of established image-sharing app Mobli, Moshe Hogeg. For such an annoying app, the level of investment in Yo is phenomenal. And it's whipped up a raging media frenzy over the last few days.

Of course, publicity isn't always a good thing. Earlier this morning reports came in that Yo had been hacked by a group of college students, prompting security fears. As well as taking users' phone numbers, the hackers appear to have replaced the 'Yo' shout with an even more irritating jingle:

The hacking reports are still unconfirmed, but that's likely to further fuel Yo's success, as the popularity of the app spreads virally. But tech experts are already awaiting the follow-up product: mood-sharing app Yo-Yo.

Touted to be the next-big-thing in digital communication, it's Yo with a twist – you’ll be able to tell your friends if you’re feeling up or down.