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

New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times