Yo, Emoj.li and the Rise of the Gimmick Social Network


On Facebook you have the ability to talk to friends publicly and privately, share your thoughts, photos and videos, chat, play games, sell things, promote your business or product, organize events and much more. On Yo, you can send your contacts a message containing only one word: “yo.” Launched 2 weeks ago and having already garnered a surprising $ 1 million in funding, Yo is the perfect example of a new trend in social media: the rise of gimmick social networks.

What is a Gimmick Social Network?

After Yo garnered so much attention, Tyler Hendrick, an iOS developer for blogging site Medium, created an app called Yo, Hodor. Fans of the incredibly popular HBO show Game of Thrones might know where this is going, but on the show character Hodor can only say his own name and nothing else. Now, you and your friends can be just like the poor oaf, by sending each other “Hodor” messages and nothing else.

A slightly more versatile gimmick social network is the recently announced Emoj.li. Emoj.li is an emojis-only chat tool, meaning it supports the tiny illustrated icons popularized by the iPhone, but no words, photos, or videos. Its users are encouraged to choose an emoji or combination of emojis as their username, and chat with friends in easily the most pointlessly confusing way possible.

All three of these tools have emerged in the last 2 weeks, the latter two created only after their founders heard about Yo. But there are several other examples that we can point to (Ding Dong comes to mind), most of which have lived their quick lives and fallen out of use.

And that’s kind of the point. To me a gimmick social network is one whose premise is fundamentally based on a tech trend or timely bit of pop culture, with little focus on providing value, especially long-term value, to its users beyond simple entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with apps whose sole purpose is to provide entertainment, of course. That describes about 50 per cent of the apps on my phone. The challenge of gimmick social networks comes when they’re placed alongside major social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

The creators of emoj.li describe the app as “a really elaborate joke.” Yo wasbuilt in 8 hours. The creator of Hodor built the “parody app” in half that time. And while we’ve all heard the story of Facebook being built overnight in a dorm room, the major social networks took months, even years to build and refine into something really influential, especially for business. Do we really want companies putting time and effort into building out their Yo profiles? No… at least not yet.

Growing Gimmick Apps Into Substantial Tools

In an interview with Fast Company, the inventors of emoj.li responded to the question of whether the world needed an emoji only social network with “It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. But the Internet didn’t need Twitter either, and look where we are a few years later….”

The comparison of such a gimmicky tool to Twitter is a stretch, but the idea that a gimmick social network can evolve isn’t.

In fact, Yo has already made significant efforts to add value to the otherwise nonsensical tool by turning it into a notification service. Yo has already been integrated with IFTTT for functions like turning hue lights on and Tweeting. And, if you send a Yo to “WORLDCUP”, it will respond with a Yo every time a goal is scored during this year’s tournament— great for soccer fans at work.

Yo’s founder Or Arbel told the Wall Street Journal that he’s meeting with people in Silicon Valley who are interested in the tool as a “new way of getting notifications” and that he’s working to build out Yo’s ecosystem. Arbel also said Yo is “built to last” and, if he can actually expand its purpose and provide the apps over 50,000 users with real value, he may be right.

The real test of these gimmick apps comes over time. How many of us will still be Yo-ing or Hodor-ing our friends in August? What about in August, 2015? A gimmick app is still an app, with a purpose and a structure. While many of these apps start as a practical joke, they can also turn into real social networks, depending on the drive, ingenuity and flexibility of their founders.

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