Stolen!, the addicting game app that in its few weeks of life earned such accolades as “problematic” and “a privacy minefield” — that referred to itself in its own App Store description as “literally the worst” — is no more.
We've decided to shut down the Stolen! app and service until further notice. Thank you for everyone's support.
— Stolen! (@getstolen) January 14, 2016
The app is no longer available in the App Store. We've heard everyone's concerns and have decided the best thing to do is to shut down.
— Stolen! (@getstolen) January 14, 2016
For those of you who weren’t one of the app’s estimated 40,000 active users, Stolen!, which launched on New Year’s Eve, basically allowed you to buy and sell the Twitter profiles of other people. Creator Siqi Chen has likened the game to the good, clean fun of trading baseball cards. But others saw the app’s potential to exacerbate online harassment, and questioned whether the app was essentially gamifying human trafficking.
“Our goal with taking it down today has just been to make sure we stop what is happening — that we stop the harm, real and perceived, that people are getting from the existence of our product,” Chen told the Verge shortly after the app was pulled from the App Store. “We didn’t spend hours and months, sweat and tears to build something like this and have people see it this way. This is not who we are.”
Although Stolen! lived for just weeks, the idea of trading people in a game is actually one that has been successful for Chen before. His old company, Serious Business, made the 2007 Facebook game “Friends for Sale,” which also allowed you to buy other players (Serious Business was later acquired by Zynga).
Chen decided to revive the idea of “Friends for Sale,” he told Fortune this month, after working for years to try and make his non-gaming journaling app, Heyday, happen. The remaining venture money for Heyday went to the creation of Stolen!
Stolen! was a surprise success, and started to take off before, it seems, Chen and his team were really ready for it. It’s obvious that the game was missing several features that a more planned launch might have incorporated. “You can’t even search for a user, which is absurd for a game,” Chen told Fortune. “This was not a planned launch at all.”
The app’s Twitter feed reveled in that attitude, and tweeted with an affectation of hilarious, confident incompetence. “this is ridic we growing faster than we can bring servers up but don’t worry fam we’ll get there,” Stolen! tweeted just a couple of days after its launch. And here’s how it announced a beta launch for Android: “so i just learned what android is n it’s a kind of phone so we gonna put stolen on it lmk if you want a beta k”
can people send me resumes for social media managers this one rn is unprofessional af
— Stolen! (@getstolen) January 6, 2016
The app basically worked like this: Every Twitter profile in Stolen! is assigned a value, in an app-specifc currency. That value goes up or down based on how many times that profile is purchased. While you own a profile — which can be for just a brief amount of time, the app tells you that the person “belongs” to you. In an effort to allow the game’s developers to keep up with increasing demand, Stolen! was invite-only for anyone who wasn’t verified on Twitter. But soon, people started desperately seeking invite codes for the game, only increasing its intrigue.
— Mike Shinoda (@mikeshinoda) January 5, 2016
Many users found the app to be addicting, fun, and harmless, as a Motherboard look at life on Stolen! makes clear. But remember how we mentioned that perhaps this game wasn’t as fully thought out as it could have been upon launch? That seems to have played a big role in the abrupt decision to abandon it.
That became really clear Wednesday, when Holly Brockwell,founder of Gadgette, who received an onslaught of unexpected online harassment after writing an article on how she doesn’t want to have kids, found out about the app and decided to interview Chen about some of its problems.
The interview begins with Chen apologizing, unprompted, to Brockwell, who first learned of “Stolen!” when someone sent her a screenshot proving that they “owned” her in the game. The exchange sets the tone for the rest of the conversation:
Gadgette: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me.
[Chen]: I’m so sorry. [Siqi had seen my tweets about someone having messaged me to say they own me now]
It was just a bit of a shock, really.
That’s just not okay. Like, I totally get it. I know the things that are happening to women on Twitter, and yeah, I’m honestly appalled and horrified that that’s how we made you feel. We didn’t design this product to do that.
In the lengthy interview, Brockwell grills Chen on the language used for the app, including that of a person “belonging” to the user, and a feature that allows a profile’s “owner” to add a “nickname” to any of the profiles in their “collection,” whether that person is actively playing the game or not. Chen makes an effort to defend his intentions, but ultimately seems to leave the interview with a lot to think about.
For instance, when Chen said that the game would, in the future, allow users to purchase in-game “currency” to have more spending power for profiles and nicknames, Brockwell countered that Chen was setting himself up to profit from harassment:
So that means that you’re taking money from people to allow them to harass somebody, which doesn’t put you in a very good position at all.
So if we ban people for harassment, we will not recognize that revenue. But honestly I’m saying that just thinking about it. You raise a really good point, we should not be profiting out of it. So you’ve made me consider something new, yeah.
In response to Brockwell’s questions, Chen said that an already-promised opt-out feature for the game would be available that day. When the opt-out feature launched using Twitter’s authentication method for apps, many saw a big walking privacy concern in the amount of data Twitter users had to give to Stolen! in order to opt-out. The opt-out terms were loosened once more. Then, Stolen! announced that Twitter users could simply DM their Twitter account to opt out, bypassing the need to give Stolen! your user data.
On Thursday afternoon, things escalated again when U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) sent letters to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Apple CEO Tim Cook asking them to ban Stolen!
“The Stolen! application will only provide another tool to harass, bully, and intimidate,” Clark wrote. “Imagine the implications for the domestic violence survivor who receives a notification that their former abuser now ‘owns’ them.”
About an hour after Clark posted her letters to Twitter, Stolen! responded: