The Zen of Yo

The app Yo sends friends the word “yo.” That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Pointless? Maybe not.

08.02.14 10:45 AM ET

Yo is the name of a smartphone app. The user selects a username and then adds the usernames of friends, acquaintances, or strangers. When you tap on a username, the app sends a push notification to that user. The push notification cannot be customized. It just says, “yo” in the sexless slang of some tiny robot. That’s it. That’s Yo.

The app has 2 million-odd users, and Mobli, the Israeli startup behind it, recently raised $1.5 million on the laurels of Yo. The company, which has three employees, earned a valuation of $5-10 million. (A developer friend told me the app can’t be more than a few hundred lines of code.) As TechCrunch pointed out, the brilliance in its bare bones appeal could reach a worth of one billion dollars. For Yo to develop beyond its simplicity would pervert its nature. And yet, Yo founder Moshe Hogeg announced that he’ll corrupt the form with Mirage, a spin on Yo that adds pictures. Why? 

I have exactly 17 friends on Yo. It barely qualifies as communication, and is more like a game. That’s the best way to treat all social media anyway. It’s a game I can play in the moving moments of my life, between those when I do the crossword or play chess or read text. I yo my friend BOIBLOG about 15 times on the way to the train station. I yo PAULDERV six or eight times waiting for the train. I yo ITSAJ four times waiting in line for coffee. I yo AIRGORDON and the rest of my Yo friends when I wake up for no discernible reason, other than to assert my existence. The particulars of that existence are no longer remarkable. I simply am.

I have to distinguish between “Yo” and “yo.” As with any emergent technology where an action is involved, the brand becomes the verb. The proper noun when spoken can be confused for the common noun. You google something on Google. You instagram something on Instagram. You yelp something on Yelp.

“I yo’d you,” I text ANDYBURR. He texts back and then yos me and then texts me again and so I open Yo and yo him again. I yo YONKF so much that he texts me that he’s going to delete Yo. I keep yo’ing him anyway. Every time I try, Yo just displays the word “no.” I keep yo’ing YONKF over and over. I text him that I yo’d him and that he should reinstall Yo so I can yo him.

I need my phone in my hand. Every person I see walking on the street has his or her phone in his or her hand. The comfort of the ever-present digital existence translates to knowing others feel the same placation. I’m compelled to expel any bits at all into the universe. A recent New York Times op-ed by digital pioneer Jaron Lanier recants the emotional manipulation of a covert Facebook experiment: “My guess is that the public would choose to outlaw using our communication tools as conduits for secret, algorithmic manipulations of our emotions,” he writes, correctly. Yo doesn’t offer this possibility.

Inside the Yo menu, there’s a record of how many yo’s you’ve received. There’s no leaderboard, no benchmark, no way to ask another Yo user where you stack up. It’s the purest derivation of the digital existence, a little totem of pellets you’ve received, the reciprocity only a hope and a fabrication when it never comes. I have a brief identity that is partially assigned to me: a username of my choice on a field of color merely floating in the bold and cool palette of greens and teals and blues and the signature Yo violet. Tap “WHAT IS YO?” in the settings screen and a square in that radical fluorescent violet appears. No text. No explanation.

And I can tap and tap and tap and yo and yo and yo, contemplating or not contemplating the inanity that is this life. “Yo,” I throw into the universe. It’s not even silence that I’m met with. It is “yo,” the absence of reason, the sound of a simply occupying and desperate stimulus. It is pure, absolute nothingness.