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    Real talk: The rise of context


    Yo had me at Yo.

    Perhaps you were also among the throngs drawn to download the one-note siren song of Yo, a ridiculously simple free app with but a single purpose: to facilitate the sending of “Yo”s between friends.

    That’s it. No chat. No pics. No votes, no likes, no dyspeptic birds. You tap a friend’s name, and their phone goes “Yo!” — in the voice of founder Or Arbel, who built the thing in eight hours.


    While most of the tech world considered Yo a joke (it was, after all, launched on April Fool’s Day), its million-plus users and million-plus dollars from investors suggest otherwise, with both staying true to Yo even after some college students hacked it and mopped up users’ phone numbers. One hacker even took the now classic Rickroll approach — swapping the “Yo” for a jaunty snippet of a Rick Astley hit.

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    The think pieces didn’t need much time to think. Yo was immediately deemed “the world’s dumbest app” (Gawker), “stupid” (Bloomberg), “gross” and “instinctively ridiculous” (The American Conservative), and, once hacked, “dangerous” (The Verge).

    But it wasn’t long before Yo’s outright silliness started to seem more like Yo’s subdued brilliance. As entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen pointed out on Twitter, Yo is “an instance of one-bit communication,” a transmission which performs its duty just by existing — like a barber pole signaling a barber shop, or the “Open” sign hanging in its window. He went on to compare Yo to the “missed call” tactics employed in South Asia, the Philippines, and Africa, where callers deliberately cut off calls to communicate “pre-agreed messages” without the charge of a connection.

    As the tech world processes where the app’s absurdity ends and its ingenuity begins, Yo has taken the heat with pride (a tweet announcing its more secure version proudly trumpeted: “New features: None”), and the hacks in stride (they held an open hackathon this past Friday in San Francisco to explore new uses of Yo).

    But more important has been Yo’s claim on a crucial, if abstract, element that’s increasingly become a buzzword among techies: context. As Arbel told Mashable: “If you think this is just an app that says ‘yo,’ you are getting it wrong. . . . We like to call it context-based messaging.”


    With only one word to send, all that’s left for Yo users is whatever interpersonal understanding exists between them — that is, context. Depending on the Yo-er, the Yo-ee, and the circumstances surrounding one’s “Yo,” a “Yo” could mean just about anything, from “I’m pulling up outside,” to “I miss you but I’m in a meeting,” to, “You were right, he’s gay,” to well. . . “Yo!” Any practical use of Yo is predicated on the assumption that you have something worth Yo-ing about in your real life.

    And increasingly, our apps and devices are relying on our living, breathing, real lives to fuel their functionality. In TechCruch, Jordan Crook cites the “death of digital dualism” (the idea that our lives online and off are distinct from each other, even as we continue to further integrate them) as responsible for the shift. For evidence of this, look no further than the rise of wearable technology, with personal activity trackers like Fitbit concerning themselves exclusively with your offline mobility, and devices like Android Wear and Google Glass purporting to deliver the info you need, at the specific times and places you need it, in glanceable form and with nearly unconscious ease.

    Similarly, app developers are learning how best to make use of the heaps of real life data our devices collect. Dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have proven that location-based meat-marketing is a winning proposition, with Tinder alone boasting 10 million daily users. (Of course these apps present a very clear, and often urgent, end, that can help explain their success.)

    While Yo uses the context of unspoken but understood messages between friends, other apps are highlighting the value of context by discarding notions of identity altogether. The increasing popularity of anonymous apps like Secret and Whisper signal a desire among users to “speak freely,” and unburden themselves of the exhaustive identity construction and maintenance demanded by Facebook and Twitter in favor of a looser exchange, connected by only the slightest strands of context. The “secrets” you encounter come from your friends, their friends, and people nearby. That context is what supplies the little thrill of disclosure.

    Another intriguing new entry is Slight, an anonymous chat app that uses the immediate context of physical location to make itself useful. It allows you to communicate incognito with anyone within 40 meters of where you’re standing. You can even drop “pins” on a map to initiate location-specific discussions. It’s easy to imagine Slight coming in handy at a music festival, or a boring convention, or a crowded nightclub — or alternatively, a stuck elevator or the scene of a disaster. The potential is huge.


    Of course, all this potential is just that: potential. When I first logged onto Yo and fatefully offered my phone number in an attempt to locate friends within its purple haze, only two contacts showed up — and our eager Yo-ing at each other went quickly from cute, to silly, to quite enough.

    Similarly, Slight revealed only a few faintly hued pins (i.e. barely active chats) dropped around the map of Boston, and apart from a MassArt student offering a report from his bathroom stall, there wasn’t much discussion happening. Even most of the “secrets” I read on Secret come from a thin network of participants (the app discloses only that 49 of my direct contacts are signed up).

    For now, these apps are as hungry for context as they are for adopters. But this resistance makes sense. After all, Twitter and Facebook have helped cultivate an online world in which, but for those loose lassos of hashtags, information floats free of context. This next wave of wired culture is asking us to dissolve the distinctions between our real and digital lives — a wall many of us have spent the better part of a decade carefully crafting. And our technology would like us to believe it’s less interested in who we are than what we’re up to, when we’re doing it, and where it’s happening.

    It was only a matter of time before our technology started suggesting what our more luddite-minded friends have been urging all along: “Get a life, yo.”

    Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.