Yo and the complicated world of simple expression

In past commentaries, I’ve talked about Leonardo da Vinci’s notion that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Where that notion needs better understanding is in the subtle complexities of communication.

Nothing proves that point more than the latest media-darling app, “Yo.” The blogosphere is teeming with stories about this one-word app, which was started as a joke, built in eight hours and launched just after April Fool’s Day. Yo’s developers have raised $1.2 million in venture capital from investors including Mobli co-founder Moshe Hogeg.

Yo reduces communication to a simple blurting of “Yo,” which apparently means as many things as there are people using it. Yo’s designer Or Arbel has been widely quoted as saying Yo’s appeal is in what they’re calling “context-based messaging.” As Orbel puts it, “You understand by the context what is being said.”

Opinions vary from Yo being the harbinger of the end of civilization to the beginning of a new way of communicating. There’s no denying its appeal: According to Tech Crunch, Yo already has over 50,000 active users. Users have sent over 4 million Yo’s to each other.

You can’t top Yo for simplicity, I suppose. And it does validate the argument that, when it comes to the usefulness of technology, simplicity beats everything else. People want a simple thing before they want more sophisticated functionality -- or so they may think. They want to see technology do one thing very well -- it makes the application or device more likely to be trusted.

But what’s important to remember in all this talk of simplicity is that “context-based messaging” does not equal communications. Reducing expression to what you can fit in a tweet or a short text is the opposite of communications.

Communication can always take one of two paths: Kneejerk reaction or storytelling. There will always be room for a “shock the monkey” version of expression, where a response can be reduced to a “Yo” or a “like” (the latter of which could replace the word altogether with its thumbs-up icon).

But for most of business, communication is more like storytelling. In business, the context that Yo developers believe is implicit in their mono-syllabic messaging only comes at the very end of a sometimes long collaborative process, where the context-based message may ultimately be “yes” or “no.”

The trend toward micro-expression as the norm is leading to a dumbed-down version of communication. If you take “context-based messaging” to a logical conclusion, it’s easy to see that we’re creating adult consumers with no ability to communicate complex ideas to anyone other than a close circle of friends.

If you think this argument reduces the debate to absurdity, consider that the simple and low-risk communication means of voice mail is greatly on the decline. According to The New York Times last month, a spokesperson for Vonage reported that voice mail deposits had dropped by 8 percent from October 2013 to April of this year.

The Times (and bloggers discussing the article) suggests that voice mail produces similar feelings of anxiety as public speaking, because it “represents a gesture of vulnerable intimacy.” One young woman was quoted as saying, “The only reason you leave a voice mail is so the person can hear the sound of your voice. It almost seems presumptuous, for that reason.”

How presumptuous are you being when you want to convey a message’s importance -- or when you want to be certain you are not being misunderstood by the lack of tone in text communications? Have we really gotten to the point that we’d rather not be bothered by the subtleties of the spoken word?

Business communications will always be the domain of storytelling and real conversation. The simplicity business people need from technology is not an application for people who find 140 characters long-winded. We’re looking for a simple way to let people work together, share important information, and understand unspoken aspects of communication such as body language and tone of voice. Technology like video conferencing, that makes this type of collaboration and communication more effective, is getting to a level of simplicity that allows the complexities of communication to be more effortless and inclusive -- leading to better business results.

At that point, you can feel confident about making the most effective simple context-based messages: “Yes” or “No.”

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine July 2014