Yubo app is a haven for Gen Z, safety concern for parents - Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech
yesAnna Kramerwith min-height for mobile ads

Get access to Protocol

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber

How a social app you’ve never heard of became a haven for Gen Z

More than 40 million teens are using Yubo, a place for them to connect with strangers who share similar interests. Could this be a path toward healthier online habits?

How a social app you’ve never heard of became a haven for Gen Z

Yubo rejects almost everything about traditional social media and instead draws heavily on the culture and structure of gaming platforms.

Image: Yubo

If you were to do a Google search of the social media app Yubo, you'd mostly find news articles warning parents about child predators.

Here's a brief selection: "Yubo is not safe for young users." "Parents, here's a new app your kids might be using." "Parents growing concerned over the Yubo app."

This apparently dangerous, child-oriented social media app has been having a moment among the kids these days, albeit a quiet one. Engagement on the app — its users are mostly teens ages 13 to 25, based in the U.S., Canada and Australia — increased nearly 400% in the last year, and while the founders won't provide daily usage statistics, they've collected at least 45 million users.

At its core, Yubo turns the idea of "stranger-danger" on its head. The app very openly wants young people to make new friends with strangers on the internet. If that makes you afraid for your own children, or for the future as a whole, you're not alone. And, in the eyes of Yubo CEO and co-founder Sacha Lazimi, you're also very wrong.

"There is no difference for this generation between online and offline," he said. "Older generations don't understand this. When you don't understand something, you are scared right away. This is normal, for them to be scared."

Yubo doesn't aim to facilitate relationships with child predators, or introduce preteens to twenty-somethings; in fact, those kinds of things would get you banned from the platform. Studies show that young people are lonelier than ever before, and that's where Lazimi sees an opportunity: He built a social media company that helps teens make friends with others their own age. He wants his users to be able to safely meet and befriend new people online, all while living in a virtual world that operates with the exact same rules as the physical one.

According to Ariel Fox Johnson, a senior counsel for global policy at Common Sense Media (which advocates for a better and safer internet for children and teens), social media poses some special risks for kids: It can exacerbate mental illness and loneliness, introduce children to potentially predatory strangers and adults, expose their personal information to private companies and governments and preserve what they say online for an unforgiving future. Everything Yubo is trying to create sits right at the tangle of this web of problems — and the app's founders say they are trying to solve them.

The birth of Yubo

What eventually became Yubo was once just a Snapchat discovery tool. Lazimi, Jérémie Aouate and Arthur Patora, friends at an engineering school in Paris, wanted to build a simple tool where people could find new friends on Snapchat. They had noticed an increasingly odd phenomenon, where Snapchat users were posting their usernames on Facebook, on websites, anywhere they could find, all so they could get new people to add them on Snapchat.

So Lazimi and his friends built what was essentially Tinder for Snapchat friends. You could swipe left or right on someone to decide if you wanted to add them to your Snap. And tens of thousands of people started using the tool, eventually prompting them to ask: Why?

They landed on loneliness. All of the people using their tool were teenagers. They just wanted new friends online. "At this point, we understood that they were mainly looking to have meaningful interaction with other people, and there is a strong need for socializing online," Lazimi said.

But taking a basic dating app for Snapchat and turning it into a massively successful social platform is not something that just happens. Especially when you are trying to build a self-sufficient app that not only rejects the traditional revenue models for social but also creates productive friendships for perhaps the most difficult audience.

So Lazimi and his friends got their start with $20,000 from a group of investors. They had to find a way to make the money last for a year in London, split three ways, so they rented a house and then sublet one of the bedrooms to another renter for extra cash. With one person sleeping in the living room, they spent almost an entire year building the first version of Yubo, almost never leaving, hardly sleeping. If there's a stereotype for the early life of a startup, they were living it.

It worked, sort of. They eventually ended up in an accelerator in Paris, and now, five years and three funding rounds later, they've made about $20 million in one year of revenue and feel confident they could be profitable if they wanted. (They currently reinvest their profits into marketing for the app.) Because they rely on in-app purchases rather than advertising for monetization, they feel more comfortable about their long-term financial future. Their last funding round, in November 2020, raised $47.5 million.

But Lazimi isn't interested in the traditional startup model of long-term dependence on VCs. Raising money has been difficult, at times, and the investors don't always understand Yubo's goals. "The investors said, 'You don't make friends online, you make friends offline,'" Lazimi explained. He gets the sense that they invested mainly because they believe in the team and the company structure, not the product itself.

"We are much more independent in this model. It's a healthy model. We think it's the future of any social platform if you want to monetize today, because if you monetize through ads then you compete with the big players that have lots of users," Lazimi said.

A fresh take on social media

Researchers have found for years that younger generations are lonelier than their parents, and many studies blame traditional social media for that divide. "Young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are nearly twice as likely as those without depression to say they use social media almost constantly (34% vs. 18%)," according to a report from Common Sense Media released Wednesday.

Most of Generation Z spends their free time on "traditional" social networks like Instagram, which are designed to reward content performance, Lazimi explained. "The teens have lots of followers, but very poor interactions. Likes, views and comments are not meaningful, and that's why they feel very lonely. They can't discover other groups of people like you would on a gaming platform or in real life," he said.

Yubo rejects almost everything about traditional social media (there are no ads, no likes, no algorithmically-driven content discovery) and instead draws heavily on the culture and structure of gaming platforms. Gaming worlds like Fortnite and Minecraft are among the few virtual places where children reliably make friends with people they don't know (and these platforms are equally rife with allegations of child predation). So Yubo built small rooms where people can video chat, livestream and play games together, get invited in and out of the conversation, and even buy "add-ons" to improve the group experience. It's Fortnite, but for actual life.

Which brings us back to where this story literally and metaphorically began. All of these new and different ideas about social media sound wonderful, but can Yubo really keep people safe? Content moderation is still a difficult problem to solve. And according to Fox Johnson, when 13-year-olds use social media, there will always be a few adults who would lie about their age for the chance to talk to them.

Marc-Antoine Durand, Yubo's chief operating officer, told Protocol that he thinks the company's age verification programs, including a contract with age-verifying company Yoti, actually work. Yubo requires everyone to verify their identity, and if the app later thinks you may have fooled its system, it will require even more methods of verification. Fox Johnson noted that it is important for companies to delete the data they collect for these kinds of verification programs, which can include sensitive documents; Yubo's privacy policy says it does this.

Yubo uses the age data to sort people into rooms restricted by age, so everyone interacts with people within their own age group. And then the app educates users about its safety policies relentlessly. "We really try to prevent things from happening, rather than just moderating," Durand said. "One example: If you're trying to send private information about yourself, we send a warning pop-up to tell you that it could be dangerous to do that. And it usually works."

The company takes a very involved approach to content moderation; text and photos posted to profile pages are approved before they go live, and the app's content moderation systems will stop or interfere with livestreams or conversations whenever behavior might violate user policies. It's a much more heavy-handed approach than what someone might usually experience on Facebook or YouTube, albeit at a much smaller scale.

The internet's fundamental problem might be that people feel free to ignore normal social expectations online. It's cyberbullying 101: Anonymity lets you be a jerk. Lazimi rejects that paradigm for his app. "We want our users to behave as they behave in a public space, as they behave in a university. If this is something you can do in real life in a public space, then you can do it on Yubo. It's that simple," he said.

"We've seen that some of the more damaging parts of social media for teens' mental well-being are algorithmic amplification of content that can keep them hooked, and the very public visualizations of popularity. So I don't think getting rid of those is a bad idea," Fox Johnson said of Yubo's premise. "Obviously we see that teens are getting some positive benefits from social media, in particular during the pandemic. So it has to be possible to create a space where teens communicate with friends in a safe and positive way."

Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Image: Protocol

This week on the Source Code podcast: Issie Lapowsky joins the show to talk about why researchers and social platforms want to work together, and why that's a lot more complicated than it sounds. Then, Joe Williams explains why the digital signature industry is so hot right now, and where it goes from here.

For more on the topics in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

For corporate IT managers, there are many motivations to move dynamic workloads to the cloud. It provides an irresistible trifecta of flexibility, scalability, and costs savings for those managing varying workloads.

The past year of widespread shutdowns caused by COVID-19 have increased this demand. That's one reason the global cloud computing market size is expected to grow from $371.4 billion in 2020 to $832.1 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 17.5%, according to Research and Markets.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth on building AR assistants

The company says the assistants of the future need to be more aware of what's happening around them. But how far should the technology go?

Andrew "Boz" Bosworth thinks you need to think very differently about how assistants will work in AR.

Photo: Christian Charisius/Getty Images

To make AR glasses useful, we may have to forget everything we think we know about virtual assistants.

Facebook gave the public a sneak peek at some of the AR technology it is developing in its labs Thursday, showing off wristbands that detect electric signals traveling through the muscles to your hand in order to measure finger movements down to the millimeter. This is impressive technology, and could one day be used to control AR glasses without the need for voice commands or finger tracking.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Protocol | Policy

Tech spent years fighting foreign terrorists. Then came the Capitol riot.

"Nobody's going to have a hearing if a platform takes down 1,000 ISIS accounts. But they might have a hearing if you take down 1,000 QAnon accounts."

Photo: Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

On a Friday in August 2017 — years before a mob of armed and very-online extremists took over the U.S. Capitol — a young Black woman who worked at Facebook walked up to the microphone to ask Mark Zuckerberg a question during a weekly companywide question-and-answer session.

Zuckerberg had just finished speaking to the staff about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend before — and what a difficult week it had been for the world. He was answering questions on a range of topics, but the employee wanted to know: Why had he waited so long to say something?

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Latest Stories