The Rise and Fall of Stolen, the Hot Twitter Game That Enabled Harassment

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Earlier this week, someone sent Holly Brockwell, editor of tech news site Gadgette, a disturbing screenshot: “Boom!” it said, “Holly Brockwell belongs to you now.” She’d been “owned” in a game called Stolen. But what the hell is Stolen? Brockwell understandably wanted to know.

As it turned out, Stolen is — now was; it was closed Thursday — a gamelike app that let players spend points to “steal” others’ Twitter profiles, basically buying and selling them like baseball cards. You could pay real money for more points to “steal” the accounts of friends and celebrities from their current “owners,” but no one was allowed to own their own profile. Stolen launched earlier this month to hyperbolic praise from the business press — “Stolen is the Insanely Addictive Viral Game That People Are Begging to Play,” raved Fortune — and shut down this week in the face of harassment and privacy concerns raised by Brockwell and others.

A number of commentators (and one U.S. congresswoman) pointed out some legitimate problems with the game — problems that should have been obvious from the get-go — but the kids who were actively playing Stolen are still pissed to see it go away.

In the post-Gamergate era, where Twitter is a minefield of harassment for women, the issues with an app that lets you “own” someone and write whatever you want on their virtual trading card, without giving any Twitter user a way to opt in or out, should be obvious. But it appears the company behind Stolen, Hey Inc., hadn’t considered any of them until a handful of female journalists published editorials on the subject.

Brockwell, writing for Gadgette, was one of the first to raise the alarm, writing Wednesday that “it’s tremendously unnerving to have someone tell you out of nowhere that they ‘own’ you now. That your name and likeness is being traded on an app you had no knowledge of and hadn’t given permission to. The whole concept of people being able to own, buy and sell other people without their consent is absolutely abhorrent to us, and raises a slew of problems that it’s clear the team at Stolen haven’t anticipated.”

The CEO of Hey, Inc., Siqi Chen, apologized to Brockwell and said he’d add an opt-out option to Stolen. But, as games journalist Leigh Alexander pointed out in The Guardian, it still required Twitter users who didn’t want to be “owned” to send a direct message to Stolen. And anyway, the fact that Chen never considered the need for an opt-out in the first place shows how crazy, broken, and completely divorced from the realities of online harassment the Stolen concept really was.

The Next Web’s Lauren Hockenson pointed out another problem with Stolen: Not only is it jarring to suddenly find yourself “for sale,” but Stolen’s core concept just doesn’t seem enjoyable at all.

So, that’s it. You buy people, and then other people pay more than you to take that person away. This drives up the value of certain usernames — say, more than 54 million for @justinbieber. And that, the app tells me, is what is supposed to be fun,” she wrote.

After all of this commentary, and a letter of concern from Maryland representative Katherine Clark, Hey, Inc. decided to shut Stolen down “until further notice.”

But here’s the strangest thing about this whole saga: Stolen looks to adults like a gross, unfun app with meaningful privacy and consent issues, but the kids were eating it up and didn’t understand why it had to close. The Verge reported Stolen had 40,000 active players, and several of them reacted to the shutdown announcement with disappointment, confusion, and “bruh!”

This seems absolutely crazy to me — and so does spending real money on more points to “steal” people with — but it was a viable business model, supported by a generation unencumbered by our apparently naïve grown-up ideas about privacy and personal autonomy online.

It’s comforting to see this unsettling vision of the future rejected — for now. But it’s going to keep knocking, and one day we might let it in.