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

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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