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April 1, 2024, 2:27 p.m.

Yo! How a content-free social network briefly fascinated the world (and the news media)

Ten years ago today, a new app arrived to strip the “media” out of social media, reducing messaging to two little letters. It burned bright, but not for long.

Did ya hear? Pokes are back.

Everybody’s noticing that Gen Z is pumping life into Facebook’s faded ur-interaction, the lowly poke. The number of pokes poked on Facebook recently jumped 13× in a short span, with more than half of those pokes coming from 18- to 29-year-olds.

(A cynic might note that a big increase is what one would expect after moving a feature from the darkest corners of Facebook to a button next to every search result. Said cynic might also note that Meta declined to release any raw numbers on poking’s popularity, and that Gen Z is famously over Facebook, with only 3% calling it their favorite social network, so any story that suggests a boom in young people using it is a big PR win for Facebook. Good thing I don’t know any cynics.)

The Facebook poke is famously content-free; it’s left to the poker and pokee to assign it meaning. (Gentle hello? “I’m thinking of you”? Sexual harassment?) Even Facebook itself called it “a feature without any specific purpose.”

The poke just turned 20; it debuted with the launch of TheFacebook on February 4, 2004. And it’s fitting, I think, that the poke is having a moment. That’s because today is the 10th birthday of the internet’s other great content-free social media platform.

On April 1, 2014, the Yo app launched on the iOS App Store — a small rebellion against the growing complexity of social media networks, which were already being overstuffed with features. Yo’s idea was stupidly simple: With a single tap, you could send a “Yo” to another Yo user.

That’s it. A single “Yo.” And it somehow, for a brief shining moment, became the hottest app in the world. And it staked out one side of a debate that persists today: How much of “social media” is about the social and how much is about the media?

Yo.

Yo’s origin story is straightforward and kind of dumb. Here’s how Alyson Shontell — now editor-in-chief of Fortune — laid it out for Business Insider a few months after the app’s launch:

Moshe Hogeg was getting tired of asking his employee Or Arbel for a favor.1

Hogeg, the CEO and founder of Tel Aviv company Mobli, had requested a simple way to get in touch with his wife and his assistant on his smartphone. Email chains were burdensome. Even texting encouraged longer conversations than Hogeg had time for. He envisioned a simple app with large buttons that, when pressed, would send a one-word notification to another person: “Yo.” The “Yo” would let the person know they were needed or being thought of.

Arbel was a talented engineer at Mobli who could build Hogeg’s simple product quickly. But when Hogeg told him about Yo, Arbel dragged his feet. It was dumb, Arbel protested. No one would use it.

“I went to him and I said, ‘Develop this stupid app for me,'” Hogeg nudged.

“The ‘Yo’ would let the person know they were needed or being thought of”? Those seem like pretty different things — especially if the recipient is sometimes your wife and sometimes your office assistant? “Yo” had to contain lexical multitudes, everything from “Smooches, babe!” to “Get me coffee, now.” Explaining which was which was “burdensome,” though, so the decoding labor had to be shifted to the recipient.

In any event, Arbel was eventually guilted/ordered/convinced to build the thing, which only took about 8 hours. Why “Yo” rather than “Hey” or “Howdy” or “Sup”? “‘Yo’ is more than ‘hey’…’Yo’ can mean anything. ‘Hey’ means ‘hey,’ but ‘yo’ can mean everything. It’s the perfect word. There’s no other word can be used at much.”

By June 2014, Yo was a bonafide hit — hitting the App Store top 10 in dozens of countries, including briefly No. 1 in the United States. The Financial Times profiled it as “messaging without the messages,” “mobile messaging taken to its logical — if ridiculous — conclusion” — and yet “strangely compelling.” Yo spawned parodies (“Meh”) and lots of knockoffs (“Yolo,” “Ahoy,” “Oi,” “Lo”).

Critics said it was “accelerating the decline of civilization” or “the most annoying app in the world.” But it didn’t take long for the idea of Yo to evolve beyond Hogeg’s command-and-control vision. Yo opened up a basic API, which meant it could be used by anyone as a light-lift push notification system. At that summer’s World Cup, you could sign up to receive a Yo every time a goal was scored. In Israel, someone made a Yo account to alert users to incoming missile strikes. (A BBC caption writer dryly noted: “The Yo alert service is not available to Palestinians worried about Israeli air strikes.” The story also featured the subhead “Dumbest idea ever.”) FedEx could yo you when a package was delivered; YouTube could yo you when a channel you follow posted a new video. Before long, Yo was inspiring news design and inspiring a boomlet of notifications-as-content.

Friends, I even broke down and set up a NIEMANLAB Yo account that sent out a Yo every time we published a story. A total of 944 people signed up to get yo’d.

In August 2014, Yo released a major update that let users attach a URL or a hashtag; soon after, locations were added. The added functionality had obvious value — we could now include a link when we sent out our article Yos — but it also broke whatever was left of the app’s minimalist spell. (That said, it did attract lots of publishers; everyone from The Wall Street Journal to the Daily Mail was on Yo at one point or another.) Yo fell down the App Store charts almost as quickly as it had climbed them. It stayed in active development for another couple of years — Yo Polls! Yo Status! Yo Groups! Yo Photos! Yo for Apple Watch! YO FOR MEERKAT! — before drifting into silence, left on autopilot.2 A Patreon to fund the server set a goal of 5,000 patrons; it topped off somewhere around 32. The revYOlution was called off.

What is there to learn from Yo, ten years on? The easy answer is…nothing. It was a flop, after all. People got bored with it rather quickly. Perhaps it generated some revenue along the way, but if so, it’s not clear how; there was no Pro Yo or Yo+ to lure your credit card.

But I think Yo, like Facebook’s poke, is interesting as a sort of concept vehicle for a certain vision of social media. Those two words, social and media, have always been in tension. How much is it about the social graph — the underlying network of personal and parasocial relationships that apps recode as “friends” or “followers”? And how much is it about the media — the content — that gets distributed and discovered within?

Different platforms have come to different conclusions about those questions. When Facebook first launched, it was entirely about the interpersonal — the friendships on a college campus, recorded in a database. The content, such as it was, was made up of personal status updates, events, and yes, pokes — not news stories or any other sort of professional content. The “News Feed” didn’t arrive until two and a half years later, and it was in no way about “news” the way journalists would define it, instead aggregating all your friends’ personal updates into a single feed. (People hated it!)

It wasn’t until years later that Facebook dialed up the algorithm for publishers, becoming arguably the world’s most important distributor of human attention — arguably transforming social networks into social media. As everyone knows by now, Facebook had decided news is more trouble than it’s worth and is doing all it can to squeeze it out. Friends and family are the north star.

Facebook only ever embraced news because it was born in a web browser, an open platform where linking out was de rigueur. The other great web-born social platform, Twitter, was even more news-centric, but its new owner is now more interested in paying right-wing influencers, suspending journalists, and making links to news stories as useless as possible. Both Facebook and Twitter are trying, in their own ways, to increase the social and decrease the media.

The social platforms that have followed have been born as mobile apps, where incentives point to keeping users inside rather than sending them out. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok — their “media” is overwhelmingly produced in-app, by regular users or by the class of creators happy to build within someone else’s platform. And accordingly, news publishers have been much less successful in finding beneficial ways to use them.

In that context, Yo (at least in its initial form) was an extremophile — all social, no media. All context, no content. Meaningless small talk instead of a packet of information. And while journalists are in the information-packet business, it’s rare for communication to succeed without both.

The late media theorist James W. Carey differentiated between two views of human communication: the transmission view and the ritual view. The transmission view sees media as the movement of information from one brain into another — the acquisitions of facts or ideas you didn’t possess five minutes ago. The ritual view sees the specific information as less important than the social context it lies within and how the communication supports or challenges it. It’s communication as linguistic sibling to communion, community, and commons. Here’s Carey in 1988’s Communication as Culture (emphases mine):

If one examines a newspaper under a transmission view of communication, one sees the medium as an instrument for disseminating news and knowledge, sometimes divertissement, in larger and larger packages over greater distances…

A ritual view of communication will focus on a different range of problems in examining a newspaper. It will, for example, view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world…

The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play. We do not encounter questions about the effect or functions of messages as such, but the role of presentation and involvement in the structuring of the reader’s life and time.

We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is. And it is in this role — that of a text — that a newspaper is seen; like a Balinese cockfight, a Dickens novel, an Elizabethan drama, a student rally, it is a presentation of reality that gives life an overall form, order, and tone.

To my knowledge, Carey never wrote about what we call “social media,” even though the term seems like something he could have coined. (He died in May 2006, a few months before Facebook opened up to the general population.) But I’d like to think he would have seen Yo as the ritual view of communication, refined to purest form and wrapped in an app. As more social platforms push news aside — as they become more social and less media — they may not miss us as much as some think.

Yo.

One final note. I tried to connect with both Arbel, the developer, and Hogeg, the guy with the original idea, for this story, without success. Arbel has gone onto a successful career in tech, cofounding Anima, a tool that converts designs into website code, where he is now CTO.

Hogeg — well, his story is different. After Yo, he got rich in crypto and bought a team in the Israeli Premier League. In 2021, he was arrested and detained for a month over alleged sex crimes and crypto fraud. Last fall, Israeli police recommended charging Hogeg “with fraud, theft, money laundering, and sex crimes,” claiming he raised $290 million for crypto projects that he then used for his personal benefit. (Hogeg has denied the charges.) The police’s findings have been submitted to Israeli prosecutors, who will now decide whether to press charges. Hogeg is now pushing a new crypto coin named Tomi, which is currently down 85% in value from its peak last year.

Okay, one final final note. As I was finishing this piece, the @YoApp Twitter account came to life, announcing a return!

Perhaps appropriately, that link goes to a dead website.

  1. I should note different stories about Yo’s start differ on some details; for example, the FT version says Arbel was a former Hogeg employee at the time, not a current one. It also describes the original target as just Hogeg’s assistant, not his assistant and wife. ↩︎
  2. My favorite Yo update was when it jokingly claimed to be the 32nd social platform to have invented Stories↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     April 1, 2024, 2:27 p.m.
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