Yote app and its downtown social lab strive to reinvent social media


“Yote is sort of like a virtual billboard that you can carry around with you,” explained Grand Rapids native and Yote co-founder Tony Warner.

He paused, outlining a billboard figure with his finger, figuratively painting a vision of the innovation so deeply engraved inside his mind.

“It’s like a thought bubble,” Warner continued. “And so you can broadcast any information that you want to broadcast. We call it pertinent metadata, but it’s metadata about you related to an immediate intention.”

Pausing again, Warner began to describe a social setting. In this scene, several people sit adjacent to one another in a coffeehouse, isolated and limited in communication. He added that all of these people have something in common with another– perhaps a communal interest, social attraction, or a professional goal.

The common interest itself is not what holds the value; rather, Warner is intrigued that these people are missing a possible interaction that could lead to deep connection simply because of a lack of extending out.

These individuals share a spark of common interest between them, and thousands of these sparks burn out every day due to lack of connection.

“This is it,” Warner said. “Imagine if you walk into a room, and you hold up your phone, and above everyone’s head was a little thought bubble that had their name, title, something that they aspire to be, or some position that they hold. It informs me of whether or not I should go up and talk to this person.”

Though this specific concept may seem implausible or futuristic, its basic theory is the foundation of Warner’s new social media app, Yote. Warner and his team at Yote are striving to unearth the millions of possible interactions between people that are missed each day simply because of a lack of connection.

From a psychology background at Michigan State University to stints in Los Angeles and New York City, Warner’s broad early life experience opened his eyes to the need for people to connect. His passion for the project and desperation for it to succeed rendered him utterly devoted to Yote, from self-teaching himself how to code to headlining the app launch process.

Since starting the project, Yote has expanded their team from solely Warner and his brother to interns all over the country and a permanent Grand Rapids staff. One of those staff members is FHC graduate and Grand Valley State University freshman Neha Singh. Since joining the team, Singh has channeled the same enthusiasm held by Warner.

“The significance of Yote to me is [it’s] not about popularity, gaining likes/followers, or putting up a facade about one’s life through posting only the positive moments of life,” Singh said. “Yote is about making real-life connections and gaining experiences one might have not known about before.”

Warner recognizes the distinct divide between the “socially-rich” and the “socially-poor” within society, differentiating those who easily form these connections with others from those who do not. Much like the co“yote” that the app is named after, the Yote team strives to mend the rift between these two groups, allowing for freer communication between all, much like social and communicative wild coyotes.

Most prominently, the team is achieving this by deviating from the shared path taken by most social media platforms, one that encourages an emphasis on the “perfect.” Commonly, this leaves popular social media posts of today with a lack of “real” experiences, promoting a toxic, fake facade.

“There’s this dopaminergic reward system where you’re seeking self-affirmation, but from a platform that doesn’t really make sense,” Warner explained. “Like you’re getting these fake Internet points, and you can exchange your face for these fake Internet points. I don’t know how that improves our self-esteem, and I don’t know how exactly, but we gave it value.”

In conjunction with the app, the Yote team has developed a physical space on Grandville Avenue, dubbed the Yote Social Lab. A calming, industrial building with a modern touch, the lab serves as a concrete representation of the mission behind Yote– bringing people together.

Contained within the lab is a variety of open seating for both collaboration and individual purposes. And tying the lab together is the food service near the front, serving an assortment of food and drink, from exquisite lattes and juices to mouth-watering ramen and toast. It matches their philosophy fully as strong connections are formed over delicious aliment.

“Just by being in the lab once a week, I’ve made a lot of new friends and connections I wouldn’t have made before,” Singh said. “The physical lab impacts the project of the app as it becomes more real for our users. They get a sense of how the app works and connections that can be made through the app.”

For now, the app is based in Grand Rapids, though there are users all over the US and in ten countries worldwide. Within the area, partnerships with local businesses like the GR Ballet and Le Bon Macaron and with colleges like Michigan State, Grand Valley, and the University of Michigan are helping Yote take off.

The vibrant social scene of Grand Rapids allows the Yote team to use the city as a model for future plans, of which the brand has many.

“Longterm, we expect a Yote lab space in every major city across the world, as many cities as it makes sense,” Warner said. “We want to make everyone’s social lives more enriched. So if we trend towards, let’s say, 100 million users, I think it would be really apparent that the social 1.0, which was all social media, is no longer the technology that people want.”

All in all, Warner and the Yote team are striving to boost the app into the spotlight and engage with the community. With the aid of the unique social lab and a passionate staff with members like Singh, Yote’s distinctive mission is set to revitalize the social media sector and transform the industry for good.

“I don’t think people want ‘to media’ anymore,” Warner said. “I think people want social, but they don’t want social media. They want social, like truly social, a social utility that allows them to engage with the world more easily and exchange what they consider their best attributes with other people and with other people’s best attributes.”