Yo, the short form messaging app that glibly flaunted its ability to raise $1 million for a jokey premise, has found a use case to justify its existence. The Times of Israel reports that the smartphone app is helping alert Israeli citizens about incoming airstrikes during the recent wave of attacks from Hamas.
The Times of Israel makes it sound as though the potential for public service didn't stem from Yo's founders (or investors like Moshe Hogeg who told Valleywag it was a "stupid app," but with a viral appeal that should not be ignored). Rather, the Times says Ari Sprung, cofounder of an app called Red Alert: Israel, partnered with Yo to expand its reach during the current heightened confrontation between Hamas and Israel.
Sprung and his cofounder Kobi Snir launched Red Alert after Israel's Pillar of Defense operation in 2012, out of concern that residents in affected areas might not be able to hear the new "Red Color" emergency sirens that were supposed to go off 15 seconds before a rocket explosion. Red Alert warns residents on their phones at the same time as the siren. Sprung and Snir thought Yo's popularity could bolster their mission, says the Times:
In an effort to get the information about what is going on in Israel to even more people, said Sprung, he and Snir have teamed up with the people at Yo!, the "joke app" that made headlines a few weeks ago when it raised a million dollars from investors. In an example of how "socially redeeming" Yo! can be, users of the app who subscribe to updates from Red Alert: Israel will get a "Yo!" every time a warning is sounded anywhere in Israel, said Sprung.
Friends and relatives of residents overseas have been downloading Red Alert, overloading the app's servers over the past several days.
The app sends out its warning at the same time the military's Homefront Command issues an order to activate the warning system, said Sprung. The app gets its information from the IDF and the Homefront Command, he added, but declined to discuss the process by which the data gets into the app. "It's classified," Sprung half-joked. The app also features a chat area, where residents — or anyone else — can comment on their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
Unlike Yo, Red Alert does not benefit from venture financing:
Sprung and Snir are trying to figure out how to ensure that their app gets maximum exposure. "We don't charge for the app, and it's supported strictly by donations, which somewhat limits us," said Sprung. For example, the Android version of the app is available only in Israel, because it's stored on the Israeli servers of the Google Play app store. "We need more server space so we can get this app into the hands of more people," said Sprung. "More people than ever want to know what is going on in Israel in real time, and our app, unfortunately, is necessary in order to spread that information."
The Arab Spring exposed the potential utility of networks like Twitter and Facebook for more serious political action than their founders perhaps originally intended. Yo's founders like the tell the story of how the app only took eight hours to code. But the ability to broadcast using short form messaging is an idea that's been percolating for some time.
An entrepreneur in London claims to have been working on a "one word messaging app" called Babl since last October. In June, an app called Wut announced a round of funding from Google Ventures, SV Angel, Dave Morin, and others. According to TechCrunch:
Wut is an almost absurdly simple app that takes over the lockscreen. It's basically just a text screen with a fluorescent background. You type in what you want to say, and then it shoots out as a push notification to all of your friends. You never reveal who you are, but it's probably pretty easy to guess.
As with Snapchat and Tinder, it seems like an app is defined by how it's used—and founders can influence the direction it takes.
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