Yo! This is really really dumb!

Perception is a powerful thing.  When something isn’t popular, like Path anywhere outside of Indonesia, people have a lot of opinions on why it’s a lousy product.  When something seems to be a hit, like the Yo app, people have a lot of opinions on why it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

It’s all done on the altar of success.  Traction is the only truth that matters, and people will do whatever mental gymnastics is required to work their way backwards to explain that success (or lack thereof).  Our tech culture prides itself on being smart, but it is still one where outcome rules logic.

I already wrote about Yo, an app so unsubstantial that Apple didn’t even want to publish it to their store.  Yo didn’t make some kind of technological or usability breakthrough — it is successful because it’s so stupid in its simplicity that people find it a hoot to download and talk about.

Remember those “wassup” Budweiser ads that got everybody going wassuuuuup?

This is the tech equivalent of that.  It’s a joke to make our digital lives a little bit more interesting.  You can see that in the app’s flavored reviews:

Since downloading Yo, all my relationships have improved and I’ve regrown most of my hair.

After a while, Budweiser’s meme wasn’t funny any more and people stopped using it.  We might already be approaching that with Yo, which has seen a sharp decline in popularity after a raft of publicity marvelled at how such a simple app could raise $1.2 million in venture funding.

Yo App Store Ranking graph

Yet, look at all the people who saw that initial spike of popularity and were ready to peg Yo as the next Twitter; as if Yo did actually make some kind of technological or usability breakthrough.

Gwendolyn Regina Tan of Tech-In-Asia:

I like what @JustYoApp is trying to do – change the meaning of the push notification, transforming it into a new form of welcome currency.

Transforming into a wha of wha?  Here’s how you smell bullshit: when the description is more difficult to understand than the entire app.

Anthony Wing Kosner on Forbes:

If a ‘Yo’ could also contain a link, the impact would be huge.  Consider the meaning of a ‘yo’ with a map location, with a web address, with a song or a YouTube video? The ability to shout out the immediate context is what Twitter is supposed to be for, but who wants to bother crafting 140 characters anymore?

Hey Anthony, you know what’s more concise than Yo + a link?  Just a link.

David Shapiro on The New Yorker:

Arbel has plans to monetize Yo—when your friend’s plane lands, Delta might want to Yo you. The Cheesecake Factory might want to Yo you when your table’s ready.

God no.  I don’t want to think about why Delta is sending me a Yo.  If my friend’s plane has arrived, tell me the plane has arrived.  If my own flight tomorrow has been rescheduled, tell me that.  Don’t send me a Yo.  Please.

(Shapiro does go on to describe Yo as “easily the worst piece of software that I’ve ever used.”  There is intelligent life on Earth after all.)

Jordan Crook on TechCrunch:

A “Yo” can just be a yo. But you’ll feel a very real difference between a “Yo” you get in the morning from a friend and a “Yo” you get at 2 a.m. from a friend with benefits. Trust me.

Yo as a hook-up tool.  Interesting.  What happened to a good old fashioned text, “Wanna come over?”  I’d much rather get that than an ambiguous two-letter notification.  Especially if I have to decide whether or not to wear my good underwear.  The clean one without holes.

Lest you think I’m only picking on poor journalists, here’s Marc Andreessen on Yo:

1/Lots of Mirth over “Yo” today but actually there’s a fascinating aspect lots of people are missing…

2/Yo is an instance of “one-bit communication” — a message with no content other than the fact that it exists. Yes or no. Yo or no yo.

3/Other instances of one-bit communication: Police siren, flashing stop light, “Open” sign, light turned on, taxicab roof indicator lit.

4/But the most interesting instance of one-bit communication is the global “missed call” phenomenon:

5/Missed call on mobile phone is used as one-bit comm: “Used in South Asia/Philippines/Africa to communicate pre-agreed messages for free.”

6/Aided by fact that missed calls cost nothing to send/receive. “In Bangladesh, missed calls are 70% of mobile traffic at any given time.”

7/So the hilarity around Yo includes two problematic biases: Bias that one-bit comm isn’t useful, and bias that all markets are like the US.

8/I’m not saying Yo will be the next $100B social media powerhouse. But instant dismissal makes little sense; let’s learn & keep minds open.

9/Excellent followup reading: Jeremy Wagstaff on missed calls,

Let me start by saying Andreessen is a pillar of the tech industry, and when he provides an opinion you and I should listen closely.  I agree with the spirit of the message — that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what might seem superficially nonsensical.  But I’ve thought about Yo and I’m not dismissing it out of mirth.

The “missed call” refers to how in some developing countries people purposely miss phone calls because they don’t want to pay for the call — but the missed call itself contains valuable information.  E.g. “I’m here already” or “call me back.”

While this is a good example of valuable one-bit communication, Yo isn’t a good analogy.  People who depended on missed calls in developing countries didn’t have an alternative.  Nobody needs Yo for one-bit communication, because a text with just “Yo” works just as well; in fact, it works even better as no new app is required.  Unbundling in this instance is value destroying, just like unbundling the camera from a smartphone is a bad idea.


Yo isn’t even the first with one-bit communication for the digital world: Facebook’s poke functionality and Blackberry Messenger’s ping accomplished the same thing, and these are merely features of far bigger products.  Not very important features either.  When was the last time you got a Facebook poke?

Yo doesn’t solve any problems.  It’s just a feature.

Why aren’t we showing the kind of skepticism that every struggling start-up gets?  What problem does it solve?  Is this a feature or a billion dollar idea?  I hear investors complain about that in every conference I attend, yet Yo could have raised far more money if they wanted to.

Allow me to guess the answer.  It’s the sceptre of success.  People see Yo has traction and conclude there must be real value that the app is delivering.  Traction is the only truth and all supposition is built on it, no matter what mental gymnastics are required.  “The app doesn’t do anything.  Well, that’s why the app is so great!. It’s the power of simplicity!  It’s the great unbundling!  It’s a new type of welcome currency!”

But when an app has no track record, or worse, is tainted with failure, people become the most skeptical, cynical disbelievers this side of Scientology.  Everything is twisted into a frame of probable failure — a safe bet when 90% of start-ups do.  It’s why people in tech are so obsessed about finding out DAUs, MAUs and retention rates.

Trending towards success?  Let’s jump the bandwagon and wax lyrical on why.  Try to meet the founder for coffee and invite her to your next Christmas party.  Maybe start a clone, or do the it of X.

Trending towards failure?  Don’t touch me, I don’t want to get infected by the walking dead.

As much as we in the tech industry like to talk about the value of failure, in reality, our culture is not much different than any other — one obsessed with success.

Case study: Yo.

2 thoughts on “Yo! This is really really dumb!

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