Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962. It’s like the “Yo” of painting.


As you may have heard, “Yois a social networking app has distilled social networking into its most elemental form. Basically, you can’t share any content on Yo–no words, no images, no links. All you can do is exchange the same monosyllabic ping, “yo.”

It’s so simple, many find it laughable: what, indeed, is the point? Well, it’s certainly not to communicate content. In the same way that a Yves Klein painting is about the medium of paint (specifically, color), Yo is about social networking. If “content” is traditionally a means to the end of clicks, Yo cuts out this middleman. It’s more efficient than traditional social networking–no content to waste our time, or for a company to waste money producing, transmitting, and supporting.

Yo isn’t a novelty. It’s the quintessence of communicative capitalism. As Jodi Dean defines it, “communicative exchanges, rather than being fundamental to democratic politics”–for example, as the deliberative exchanges among citizens [1]–“are the basic elements of capitalist production” (56). Put differently, communicative exchanges have no “use” value–their message doesn’t matter; rather, they’re just empty exchange value like any other commodity. Thus,

a constitutive feature of communicative capitalism is precisely this morphing of message into contribution…The message is simply part of a circulating data stream. Its particular content is irrelevant. Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That it need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool. Any particular contribution remains secondary to the fact of circulation” (58).

Yo embodies Dean’s definition of communicative capitalism: it’s a platform that eliminates message in favor of pure circulation. This works because the circulation is what generates value for data collectors, brokers, and analysts. It doesn’t matter what we say, only that we ping one another, that we establish patterns of relationships, patterns of behavior, patterns of circulation. “A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Circulation is the content, the condition for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution” (59): these are Dean’s words, published in 2005, but they’re also a very accurate account of Yo.

Dean thinks that “the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics” ( 54). On the one hand, this is basically the “slactivism” objection. On the other hand, it’s more nuanced than that: Dean thinks that communications have been evacuated of all use value–words have no power anymore, they’re just fungible units of value, like money. This means we can neither (a) debate their substance, nor (b) use speech as a political tool to effect changes in policies, laws, and the organization of society.

Speech, understood as the transmission of meaning, that might be relatively obsolete these days. But circulation might have its own politics, its own political possibilities. In fact, I would argue that most contemporary concerns about, say, data surveillance, these are actually contests over the politics of circulation, not the politics of speech. (Or, maybe more accurately, they’re primarily about circulation, secondarily about speech.) Going back to that block quote from above, the rise of metadata analysis shows us that who sends a message, who receives that message, who both sender and recipient also talk to, when, where, and for how long, all these things matter. Again, it’s not the content that matters, but the metadata–the qualitative features of that circulating datum. So when we think about having real, tangible effects on the organization of our social, political, and economic relations, we ought to think about the means, methods, and qualities of circulation. And maybe Yo, or something similarly simple, is just the sandbox we need to play in to hone our skills?


[1] In other words, Habermasian deliberative democracy.


Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.