That Yo app is not as dumb as you think

Or, Yo as an absurdist work of product minimalism

When Yo launched on April Fools day as a joke, I wasn’t paying attention. As it gained traction and exploded in the tech press this past week, I thought it was kind of silly. I still do.

For those of you who aren’t terminally addicted to the internet or if you’re fortunate enough to exist outside the echo chamber of consumer mobile apps, Yo is an app (with a delightfully crappy website) that allows one user to send a simple message to someone. That message, unsurprisingly, is “Yo.” Just “Yo.” The receiving party can send a “Yo” back. That’s it.

Now, Yo has caused quite a stir, and understandably. Somehow, its founder, Or Arbel, managed to raise $1.2 million from Mobli CEO Moshe Hegog and a small phalanx of unnamed investors. Then it was hacked by a bunch of college students. And then the media got onboard because, as Robert Scoble believes, a bunch of story-hungry newshounds were seemingly enthralled by a silly app with modest traction that messed with the stereotype that Israeli technologists are super duper smart.

A lot of very smart people have talked Yo up to be something much bigger than it is. Marc Andreessen, for example, said that Yo is a new form of “one-bit communication,” invoking its similarity to the Missed Call Phenomenon. Leo Mirani over at Quartz disabused readers of that notion with ease. Jordan Crook wrote in his piece for TechCrunch that Yo is the contextual death knell of digital dualism before spiraling off into the etymology and semiotics of the word, “yo”.

The fact of the matter is that Yo is nothing new. The Yo, as a gesture, is just 2014's sillier version of the equally content-free and contextual Poke feature created and now largely ignored by Facebook, maybe with the exception that Yo (the app) is “Mobile First”. And let’s not forget that the Poke was itself an iteration of the Nudge gesture implemented in many instant messaging platforms long before Facebook was “a thing”.

But the kind of perverse (and unintentional) brilliance of Yo is that it takes that content-free contextual gesture and does… nothing else besides that. In a time where big content platforms are unbundling their mobile features into separate apps, Yo is the plausible and absurd conclusion of that trend made real.

Many platforms, including Facebook, have de-emphasized this kind of context-free and contextual gesture from their products. Heck, Facebook’s now-defunct Poke mobile app was used for basically everything but poking.

So Yo does fill some kind of market need for meaningless gestures onto which we as users can project meaning, just as this fleeting and meaningless app fills a similar need for a startup scene with little else to talk about.