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Is this real life?
A dangerous new battleground in Middle Eastern conflict is emerging—and it’s sitting in your pocket.
“Zero-content messaging” app Yo was born in Israel, making the rounds of the Tel Aviv startup scene as a kind of inside joke for weeks before it exploded in popularity. Now, as a result of the rapidly-intensifying Gazan conflict, it has been adopted with renewed purpose in its homeland: as a missile attack early warning system.
Yo is an almost absurd exercise in minimalism; the app allows you to send and receive “Yo” with your contacts—and that’s it. There’s no content, no options, no customization… just “Yo.” Oh, and it’s already raised more than a million dollars in investment.
When the Daily Dot interviewed the app’s Israeli inventor, Arbel Or, he painted a wildly ambitious vision of Yo’s potential. Without content, it is the context of Yos that will rule the day, and brands and companies will be able to use the app’s “lightweight notifications” to their advantage, Or said. Starbucks might Yo you to tell you your coffee is ready, or American Airlines might fire you a Yo when your gate is boarding.
One early implementation of contextual Yo was the account WORLDCUP—if you add it, it will automatically Yo you every time a team scores a goal in the 2014 World Cup.
In a year’s time, Arbel had proclaimed confidently, “if you have Whatsapp, you will have Yo next to it.”
That was a month ago, and so far the innovative implementations of Yo promised have largely failed to materialize. There are websites that will send a Yo when celebs update their Instagram profiles, and some enterprising journalists have found novel uses—but that’s about it.
I’m a coder now, it’s official: if you Yo ALEXHERNPOST, it’ll Yo you back when I’ve published a new piece to the Guardian.
— Alex Hern (@alexhern) July 1, 2014
And that’s what makes the work of Ari Spring and Kobi Snir so interesting.
Having previously developed the Red Alert: Israel app, they’ve now turned their hands to Yo, producing an automated account that will Yo users whenever a missile is inbound from Gaza. In recent weeks, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have flared up dramatically—Palestinian militants have fired rockets at Israel from Gaza, and Israel has responded with intensive aerial bombardments of the coastal strip, and has called up tens of thousands of reservists.
— Andrew Couts (@AndrewCouts) July 8, 2014
The Palestinian rocket attacks have yet to cause any Israeli casualities, and it’s unclear whether the account—called REDALERTISRAEL—has actually saved any lives. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating, and genuinely useful implementation of Yo’s technology. Most developers haven’t cracked the Yo code yet, but if Red Alert is anything to go by, Arbel Or might not be quite as crazy as he sounds.
But how long until someone creates an account that will warn Palestinians of brutal Israeli reprisals? It’s only a matter of time. Our Israeli correspondent Nimrod Kamer has already reported on the growing potential of using Tinder for political purposes in Israel and Palestine, and now Yo risks becoming increasingly militarised.
Rob Price is a technology and politics reporter who served as the U.K.-based morning editor for the Daily Dot until 2014. He now works as the news editor for Business Insider, and his work has appeared in Vice, Slate, the Washington Post, and the Independent.