Famed venture investor Marc Andreessen made an observation yesterday about the hoopla around Yo, the messaging app that sends only the message “yo” (and which has already turned out to be embarrassingly flawed):
A “one-bit communication,” Andreessen explained, includes many things, among them the so-called “missed call” in poor countries:
And so, Andreessen said, commentators who disparaged Yo were merely displaying rich-world bias:
Andreessen was right on both counts: One-bit communication can useful, and (as we’ve written before) rich-world tech people are all too prone to succumbing to rich-world biases. But even as he warned against these biases, Andreessen fell into their trap himself.
The “missed call” communication is when you call someone but hang up as soon as it rings. The idea is to send a simple, often pre-agreed, message without having to pay for the call: “I am waiting outside” or “Deliver some milk” or “I vote for this candidate on Indian Idol.”
As the last example suggests, the missed call is now used by savvy businesses who know people don’t want to spend one rupee, let alone dial a premium number, to participate in their marketing exercises. For instance, a clever promotion by Unilever relies on missed calls in one of India’s poorest states.
But that is as far as the similarity goes. And even that is superficial, for three reasons.
First, a missed call is useful only because it does something that you can’t otherwise do. If Yo did not exist, anyone with a smartphone would still able to send a message via WhatsApp or Facebook or countless other apps that read, simply, “yo.” But if all you have is a landline or simple cellphone, there is no zero-cost way to replace a missed call.
Second, even though a “yo” is notionally free, it does extract a hidden cost: access, at the very least, to your smartphone’s contact book. A mobile network knows only your number and the number you’re calling. The hidden price in so many “free” apps—giving the app-maker access to your personal data—is something both the developers and users of these apps often forget about.
Third, the missed call was born out of economic necessity. Hundreds of millions of people in the poor world came up with the idea independently of each other, and they did so because it was a way to save a rupee, a taka, a shilling, or a cedi. The “Yo” app was invented, as far as I can tell, because one guy was too lazy (paywall) to call his secretary.
None of this is to suggest that Yo does not have a place, or that there isn’t potential in one-bit communication for the rich world—just that the parallel isn’t as straightforward as Andreessen makes out. He still has a little more US-centric bias than he thinks.