By Ian Bogost
Are you here?
That’s all I want to know. Are you here, reading me? Clicking our links? Viewing our ads, or at least, allowing your browser to load them? Liking or faving or retweeting me? It’s what you want to know when you text your significant other or your child. Are you there? Is everything okay? Yes, yes, I’m here. All good. Okay.
This truth of contemporary communication practice is undeniable, yet we persist in using tools that exceed it. Natural language, even when condensed into txtspeak. The rising popularity of emoji. We often want to communicate, but even more often we simply want to meta-communicate, to possess the knowledge that an individual or group will acknowledge us.
Enter Yo, an app created by Israeli entrepreneur Or Arbel, reportedly in a mere 8 hours time. All it does is send the message “Yo” to an interlocutor. Arbel has raised $1 million in angel investment, a fact that the Internet has responded to with reasonable astonishment. “Not an Onion article,” your friends may already have written in captions on Facebook posts or Twitter links to news of Yo’s yodelers.
It’s stupid. There’s no other word for it. But according to TechCrunch, 50,000 people have sent 4 million Yos since the app was launched on, uhm, April Fool’s Day of this year. But sometimes in stupidity we find a kind of frankness, an honesty. For his part, Arbel has rather overstated the matter. “We like to call it context-based messaging,” he told The New York Times. “You understand by the context what is being said.”
This sort of fancy talk, combined with an influx of investment capital and the attendant expectations of billion-dollar valuations, rankles the everyman. It sounds like nonsense and duplicity: Another tech buffoon trying to dupe the world into enough attention to yield a quick, profitable exit. And it is that, make no mistake. But there’s something undeniably true about the underlying premise of Yo. Not its story as a tech startup—Arbel has moved from his native Israel to San Francisco to work on Yo full-time—but about the way constant, always-on, always-available communication devices and networks have amplified the function of meta-communication. When we talk online, mostly we say variants of one thing: Here I am. Are you here? Yes, yes I’m here. And these statements have just as much meaning when withheld: No, I’m not here, not for you at least, or not right now.
But like Facebook Poke before it, Yo might send the wrong signal about the way we send signals. Despite its creator’s insistence that Yo eliminates meaning in favor of context, it actually adopts a very particular and specific meaning. “Yo” is a dudebro’s term. It’s stocky and aggressive. It doesn’t just say, “Here I am,” it does so by thrusting its chest out at you. Just as Poke felt creepy—a bad, unwelcome touch—so Yo installs a similarly invasive subtext.
And speaking of that, one can’t ignore the context of Yo’s creation. Arbel is a young, white male engineer financed by a group led by other white, male entrepreneurs—a club of Israeli business compatriots that one might not be wrong to call a fraternity. Meta-communicative though it may be, “yo” doesn’t say, “Are you here” so much as it says, “I expect something from you.”
Perhaps the problem with Yo isn’t what makes it stupid—its attempt to formalize the meta-communication common to online life—but what makes it gross: the need to contain all human activity within the logics of tech startups. The need to expect something from every idea, even the stupid ones, to feel that they deserve attention, users, data, and, inevitably, payout. Perhaps this is the greatest meta-communicative message of today’s technology scene. And it might not be inaccurate to summarize that message with a singular, guttural “yo.”