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How Stolen — that app for ‘buying’ people — is trying to find redemption

Famous app logo. (Courtesy of Hey Inc.)

Few stories at the intersection of start-ups, harassment and media attention seem to have happy endings. Siqi Chen is optimistic that his new app, Famous!, might be one of the rare ones.

Weeks ago, Chen launched another game with a very similarly-styled name: Stolen! It became a surprise success, even to Chen. The game was his last ditch, somewhat unlikely, attempt to give his floundering, small company a hit. According to Fortune, Chen gave Stolen! until the end of January to take off; it took three days for it to do so.

Stolen! lets users buy and sell the Twitter profiles of anyone, a setup that Chen once likened to the old-fashioned fun of trading baseball cards. And while the app may have been harmless — if addictive — fun for many, others said it had potential to become a nightmare for online harassment. Those worries became a full-blown Internet controversy in mid-January, with Chen at its center.  Many negative headlines and one particularly enlightening yet excruciating interview later, and Chen decided to destroy Stolen!. He wanted to “stop the harm, real and perceived, that people are getting from the existence of our product,” he told the Verge shortly after he pulled Stolen! from the app store. “This is not who we are.”

The brief life and sudden death of Stolen, the app for trading people

There were a couple of things that seemed at least a little unusual about how this story unfolded. First, as is obvious in the interview we mentioned above, Chen seemed genuinely concerned about the possibility that his product could aid harassment — something he hadn’t thought of before launch — and appeared to leave the interview with quite a lot to think about. And second, Chen’s apology seemed to indicate that he ended up agreeing with the criticism of Stolen!, after doing all that thinking. He wasn’t sorry if anyone was offended, he was just plain sorry, it seemed.

Famous!, Chen said in a Friday email to The Intersect, “is what Stolen! should have been.” Where Stolen! may have launched before it was ready, Chen feels confident that the team behind Famous! has considered and solved every major trust and safety issue that the original app had.

But developments just days after the new app’s launch made it clear that while Famous! might be reformed, the Stolen! debacle has lingering consequences for the app’s future. Apple removed Famous! from the App Store over the weekend, a move that Chen initially suspected was a mistake due to “the last round of press” — the company cited its policy banning apps that are “defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm’s way,” according to Chen.

Chen appealed the decision, confident that Apple would “do the right thing and put us back.” Apple’s reply was not what he expected: This week, Chen emailed The Intersect to confirm that Apple had permanently banned Famous! from the App Store. But this time, Apple gave a different reason to Chen for the ban: apps that “assign numerical values to human beings and ranks them” are inappropriate, he was told.

Apple didn’t return our request for comment on Tuesday morning on the ban itself, or whether, as Chen pointed out, the stated policy banning apps that assign numerical values to humans would also apply to several other apps currently for sale through the store, including Klout, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, and pretty much every fantasy sports app.

But Chen isn’t giving up on Famous!: the app launched in earnest for Android just as it disappeared from the App Store. The company has also indicated that the app will launch a web version.

Chen explained how the team behind Stolen! worked to create Famous! to the Intersect on Friday, before the App Store ban.

Days after Chen pulled Stolen!, as he was waiting for all the media attention to turn toward something else, he got a supportive Twitter message from Zoe Quinn, the game developer who faced sustained online harassment after allegations from an ex about her personal life created the Gamergate movement.

“I was feeling less than okay on Sunday,” Chen explained to The Intersect, after facing the closure of his briefly profitable company. “It was one thing to see your name in print associated with all of the problems we caused, but it was another to see our team be impacted by their association with our company and product.”

In the battle of Internet mobs vs. the law, the Internet mobs have won

“But out of the blue — Zoe DM’d me on Twitter, and all she wanted to know is if I was feeling okay,” Chen added.  “I was blown away in the moment. But in retrospect it makes sense — she knows what it feels like to be the center of an Internet s— storm where it feels like everyone is against you, and how much it sucks.”

Two years after Gamergate began and multiple restraining orders later, Zoe Quinn opens up about her harassment. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Quinn told the Verge that she’d previously reached out to Chen’s company with a “sharply-worded” message requesting the removal of her profile from Stolen!, which didn’t launch originally with an opt-out feature for people who weren’t interested. As Stolen! gained popularity,  many anti-harassment activists were disturbed to find their profiles were included in a game they’d never heard of, which allowed strangers to “own” anyone’s Twitter account, including theirs. For a time, the game allowed “owners” to edit the text on a profile to add  “nicknames” — the implications of which were obvious to those who had experienced harassment, but not initially to Chen.

Quinn decided to reach out to Chen, she said, because “I know how nasty backlash can be on the Internet.” Chen asked her for help making Stolen! work, and the two met to discuss it. After that first meeting, Chen said, “I was blown away by how much I didn’t know, even as someone who thinks of himself as pretty informed [about] the abuse that people can get on the Internet.”

Chen ended up hiring Quinn as a paid consultant for the app on trust and safety issues. Her suggestions as a consultant contributed to the relaunch of what he’s hoping will be a triumphant revival of a game that, he believes, is a good idea at its core.

“Details very much matter in game design,” Chen said. “There were all of these connotations associated with collecting and buying that we didn’t anticipate, and obviously that was a huge oversight.” Chen added that his team originally envisioned Stolen! as a game for buying and selling the profiles of celebrities. “It’s easy in retrospect to imagine why a non-celebrity Twitter user would be disturbed to see a tweet saying essentially ‘You belong to me’ on this game you’ve never heard of, that you never joined, especially when our codes were so scarce that you didn’t even have a chance of seeing the game for yourself,” he added.

Famous! takes the central addictive drive of Stolen!, which Chen describes as “I like this person and I want them to notice me,” but changes the terminology. Instead of “owning” them, you become their biggest fan. “Instead of stealing and collecting, you’re competing to be the biggest fan of your favorite people,” he said. Famous! looks and feels a lot like Stolen! otherwise, even down to the vaguely incompetent, fun-loving voice that Chen used to promote the original app on Twitter.

But Chen is hoping that the changed details will be enough to stop Stolen! from becoming a tool for harassment. He said it’s “hard to imagine” that someone finding out about Famous! for the first time would be offended to find that someone had become their biggest fan.

Chen is cautiously optimistic that Famous! will find its footing in the same way that Stolen! did, and that he’s thought through all of the possible safety implications of the app this time around. If he hasn’t, he said, the responsibility lies squarely with him and his company to fix it quickly.

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“My biggest takeaway is that it is possible to grow too fast,” Chen said of what he learned from all this. “Our initial launch was really designed to get maybe about a few thousand users, not hundreds-of-thousands. When your product goes viral you have a responsibility to make sure it’s safe at scale as soon as possible, and we failed at that with Stolen!.”

Finding the right balance between experimentation and safety is a difficult one for most start-ups, Chen said, but he hopes that Stolen! might serve as a cautionary tale on how that balance can go very wrong — and how to take steps toward fixing it.

“As a start-up you’re just trying to find something that works, and most start-ups die because they never find that thing. If you assume everything that you build is going to work, and you build every safety feature in from the start, you’ll probably die before you ever find something that works,” he said. “On the other hand if you don’t, and you go viral, you’ll end up with a story like ours. ”

Famous!, like Stolen!, is an invitation-only game — though Chen and his company hand out codes on their Twitter account. It’s now available on Android.

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