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

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.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.