Yo Is a Terrible Idea for an App, But a Great Sign for San Francisco

Scott Lucas | June 20, 2014 | Story Tech World

Fifty thousand active users since its April 1st launch. Four million Yo's flung. Writeups in every major news outlet. A segment on the Colbert Report asking "Y?" Most of all: Yo, the "context-based messaging app" that allows users to send a single word, "yo"—and nothing else—has raised over $1 million in venture capital. We are having a Yo moment, and it is, as almost everyone seems to have noticed, profoundly stupid. Like Pets.com long before it, Yo is the symbol of a tech boom out of control. It is, as Valleywag put it, "fucking insane."

And yet it's also evidence of just how vital San Francisco is right now. Really. Because, here's the thing: It takes a hundred Yo's to get one Google. And if you want the system of money and talent that produces the next Google, you have to deal with the system that produces Yo.

But before we get more into that, let's review just how deeply dumb this is.

It's not new. Marc Andreeson calls it an experiment in "one-bit communication." But that's just spin; when you push the overhead button to summon a flight attendant to give you another Bloody Mary, that's a push notification. A doorbell is nothing but a one-bit communication. When you ignore a Poke on Facebook the way you have been since 2005, you're ignoring a push notification. You can't defend Yo on innovation grounds.

It's also not the germ of a bigger idea. It's just a gag, and a stupid one at that. Of course, stupid ideas grow into big companies all the time, but if you think that this is one of those, you probably lost a lot of money on Webvan stock. If Yo is lucky, it's the next Pet Rock. At best. When TechCrunch compared it to the earworm song Friday, it was being unfair to Rebecca Black.

You also can't defend Yo on social utility grounds. This is actually where those folks who vomited on the Yahoo shuttle in Oakland weren't totally incorrect. A great deal of money is flowing to a great deal of ventures that don't improve anyone's life in a meaningful way. This sure seems like one of those. Will it make any money? Oh, hell no. Even the lead investor and the CEO as much as admit that.

To review: It doesn't really do anything technically impressive, it won't turn into something big, it doesn't make the world better, and it won't generate any revenue.

But other than all of that boring stuff, here's the thing: In terms of what is says about San Francisco at the moment, Yo is amazing. Rebecca Solnit will probably want to gouge her eyes out, but economically speaking, it's better to exist in an environment in which a ridiculous stunt can pull down $1.2 million in funding, than in one where such things are impossible. Why? Because every once and a while, a bad idea isn't. Yo's CEO Or Arbel is an Israeli developer who moved to San Francisco to work for the social network Mobli before striking out on his own. The project that he had been working on, called Stox.com, stalled out as he turned his attention to Yo. Now's he's hiring Android programmers and getting mocked on the Colbert Report. If this man isn't living the American Dream, he certainly is living the San Francisco one. This is what progress looks like: People come up with a sucession of bad ideas until they hit one that isn't. You can't throw out the grape juice during fermentation becuase it doesn't taste like wine.

It's worth looking at Yo in light of Jill Lepore's full-throated assault on the idea of disruption—and the corporate culture it has spawned—in this week's New Yorker. Her argument against innovation and disruption is the case against Yo writ large, though it's not just individual apps that she's after, but the whole intellectual inrastructure that leads to them. Exhibit A is the concept of disruption, which she argues is but a myth, with not enough empirical support. "Ever since 'The Innovator’s Dilemma,'" she writes, "everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted." And the professor of American Studies at Harvard it not pleased.

She makes a cogent case that the theory's foundations are weak—even after having been disrupted by the introduction of minimilling, the world's largest producer of steel remains U.S. Steel, she points out. But it's clear that her real animus isn't motivated by a dispute about the evidence—it's about structure.

She just wants you damned tech kids off her lawn. Partly she's anxious about her own status: "journalism isn't an industry," she writes, in the same way that a steel mill or disk drive manufacturer is. She even compares what she does to working in a hospital or church. (Confidential to JL: It isn't. We don't save lives or souls. We write link bait roundups.) She's also clearly uncomfortable with what she takes to be the status signifiers of new industries, much in the same way that Bill Cosby is uncomfortable with hip-hop: "The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long," she writes. "They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories." Which: Okay. Sorry that they don't let you wear jeans at the Harvard Faculty Club.

But it's just a short line from Lepore's argument to the widespread dismissal of Yo. Yo is a small version of that point of view. The impulse is to reject that which you can't understand (or make yourself). But there are virtues in being in favor of dumb ideas—even if the people with the dumb ideas are clogging the roads with shuttles and making the rents rise.

San Francisco is a city that was founded on dumb ideas and hucksters. Let's all wade into the rivers to find gold: Not a smart idea. Let's expand our watefront real estate by sinking a whole bunch of wooden ships into the bay. Insane. Let's read poems in public about "alcohol and cock and endless balls." Who's going to remember that?

This has always been a city in which the snake oil is indistinguishable from the kombucha (or the kale juice). Rivets sewn into your pants? Dumb. Internet browsers? Dumb. Fortune cookies? You get the idea.

So let us praise Yo for what it represents: A godawful idea in a city built on them.

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