You might have heard of Yo.
It’s the app that lets you buzz a friend’s phone with a "YO" push notification. If you swipe on it, you’re brought into the app where you can proceed to send a Yo back to your friend. It sounds a little ridiculous, and a Yo war may ensue, at which point you might delete the app. But hold on a minute — beneath all the Yos, there’s the seed of a very interesting idea.
Yo presents an almost absurdly simple mechanism to quickly subscribe and unsubscribe from push notifications. There aren’t many services taking advantage of it yet — for now, you can only Yo WORLDCUP to turn on notifications for when there’s a goal — but in the future, you might receive a Yo from a restaurant to say your table’s ready, or from an airline to say that your flight’s boarding, or from your weather channel that there’s a flash flood warning. Yo the account again and notifications are turned off. Like with most apps, you can bring your subscriptions with you from phone to phone.
The lock screen has become "the new News Feed," filled with dozens of notifications from every app we’ve ever used. But in today’s app-centric world, notifications are hard to manage because they’re tied to individual apps you have to download and sign up for. The Katy Perry app, for example, might ping you each time Katy sets a new tour date, or the ESPN app might notify you about your favorite teams. There’s no easy way to turn notifications on or off in any of these apps: controls are often hidden inside layers of settings screens, with little flexibility over which notifications you get and which you don’t. Yo, on the other hand, imagines a world where push notifications aren't tied to apps, and where you can add and remove push channels from within one interface as you go about your day.
In its current incarnation, however, Yo is mostly a nuisance, but ask creator Or Arbel and he’d tell you that this is just the beginning. Getting Yos from WORLDCUP is only the first of many channels he envisions to encompass all of your interests. "So you have the website The Verge, and you tell your readers ‘Yo us and we’ll Yo you whenever there’s a breaking story’" says Arbel. "The ones that are busy see the Yo and they know something is up, but if you’re interested you can open The Verge." How long does it take to set up a Yo channel? "Half an hour," says Arbel, "and that’s only because I’m out. Once I get back to my apartment I can do it in minute!" Brands and businesses who want to use Yo as a service can do so from a mobile app or from an upcoming web app.
Yo's potential as a broker of push notifications was what enticed venture capitalists
Arbel admits that it’s his app’s potential as a broker of push notifications that enticed venture capitalists, who have invested $1 million so far — not the app's one-bit medium for Yo-ing friends. But he’d better hope that the 1 million users who have downloaded Yo haven’t already deleted it, frustrated by a cascade of meaningless Yos from friends.
Yo’s mechanism for subscribing and unsubscribing to push notification channels has been done before, but not recently, and certainly not at this ridiculous level of simplicity. SMS notification services have existed for years for all kinds of things, but have become so spammy that neither I nor anyone I know uses them. Arbel says that users are hesitant to give out their phone numbers, whereas Yo asks only for a username.
On the push notifications front, other services have tried and failed to help manage your notifications in an app-agnostic way. App.net’s Broadcasts feature wanted to let any site or RSS feed ping you when something happens, but the service was too complex to set up. Boxcar is another good option, but treats notifications how an RSS reader might treat posts, and isn’t very lightweight. IFTTT is a third option, which lets you set up push notifications for just about anything — but it hasn’t yet caught on with the mainstream. All of these options require a lot of work to set up.
SMS notification services have existed for years, but no one uses them
Yo is by far the simplest of the group, letting you add and remove subscriptions in seconds, but it also comes with limitations. Yos from WORLDCUP won’t tell you who scored, but they will let you know to look up from your desk to check the TV. It’s the glanceable nature of Yo that makes it a million-dollar idea, says Arbel. "You get a lot of emails, but when you get a Yo you don’t need to read anything. You don’t need to remove the badge from the app icon, and you don’t even need to open the app," he says. For better or worse, Arbel notes there are no plans to add any kinds of content to Yos, like URLs or images. Once a user gets a Yo, it’s up to them to figure out what it means without the benefit of any additional context.
"When the notification itself is the whole message, you really cut through the noise," says Arbel — but without more content, Yo might not offer enough signal either. How useful is a Yo from your airline when it doesn’t tell you that your gate has changed, or a Yo from The Verge that doesn’t tell you what news is breaking? Additionally, Yos, like any other notifications, could become overwhelming — especially if businesses are using it to advertise (granted, it’s easy to block or unsubscribe from any Yo user with a swipe). And no doubt, dozens of apps will arise to do the same thing. Yo may not be the app that succeeds in divorcing apps from notifications, but one will.
And so the service that seemed like a million-dollar joke might actually have some method to its madness, believe it or not. At the very least, Yo isn’t begging us to bury our faces in our phones like every other app. It isn't telling you to look down — it’s telling you to look up. There may be some virtue in that.