The notifications began rolling in a week ago. "I just stole @CaseyNewton on Stolen for §782,590 on @getstolen," went a typical tweet. I ignored the first few, but eventually curiosity got the better of me. I downloaded the app, Stolen, and saw that it had turned my Twitter profile into a trading card. Anyone who had an invite code to play the game could buy me so long as they had enough in-game currency. According to my profile, a PR person I’m friendly with had scooped me up. Her profile listed me as part of her "collection." And at the time, there was nothing I could do about it.
In the days since Stolen’s launch, it generated an outsized buzz for an app that had only around 40,000 people actively playing it. As recounted by Fortune, the game represented a last-ditch effort by developer Hey, Inc. to create a hit following the failure of Heyday, a journaling app that stalled out around 1 million downloads. But amid withering criticism over privacy concerns and the game’s potential to enable abuse, the company pulled it from the App Store on Thursday evening. "We’ve heard everyone’s concerns," the game’s official account tweeted, "and have decided the best thing to do is shut it down." Anyone who purchased in-game currency can get a refund through the App Store.
"We've heard everyone's concerns."
Hey founder Siqi Chen told me he made the decision to shut the game down after concerns that it was negatively affecting some of its players, particularly those who were being "stolen" without their consent. "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," he said. "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." Chen said the company had not yet decided what to work on next, but said it did not plan to revive the Stolen concept.
Chen had previously founded Serious Business, a company built on Facebook’s once-thriving games platform, and with Stolen his team decided to revisit their biggest hit from that era. Launched in 2007, Friends for Sale! was a popular Facebook game that let you "buy" your friends with in-game currency. In one creepy twist, the game referred to your friends as "pets," and in another, it let you sell them to others for in-game profit. But there was no similar outcry about the game, or about the clones that followed it. "That's one thing that surprised us," Chen said. Still, he said: "That's an oversight on our part. The market changes. People's expectations change. And we didn't account for it."
Chen pitched Friends for Sale! as a humorous app for socializing, though it profited by aggressively monetizing users’ power fantasies. According to VentureBeat, the game’s business model was born when a rich user offered Chen $10,000 for $1 million in in-game currency. More than 25 million people played Friends for Sale!, and one person eventually spent more than $70,000 building their digital human zoo. But the novelty eventually wore off, and Facebook's game platform deteriorated rapidly after it shut down the spammy tactics many games employed to acquire users. Serious Business never had a follow-up hit anywhere as big as Friends For Sale!, and Zynga acquired the company in 2010.
Stolen was Friends for Sale! for the Twitter age. It mimicked the game’s basic mechanic of buying and selling people in an effort to turn a virtual profit. It also let users buy in-game currency using real money. But instead of (only) acquiring friends, Stolen let you acquire celebrities, politicians, actors, investors, journalists, and brands. Anyone who uses Twitter, in other words.
Stolen's premise contained the seeds of its demise
The premise contained the seeds of Stolen’s demise. Journalist Holly Brockwell gave voice to a number of concerns generated by the app in an interview with Chen published Wednesday. Chief among them: that it allowed strangers to trade users’ names and likenesses without their permission; and that trolls could post abusive comments on profiles they had acquired. Chen apologized, and promised the company would closely monitor any abuse of the platform. It also created a way for users to opt out of having their profiles listed for stealing. But the next day, the company threw in the towel.
Stolen’s abrupt demise is likely to obscure the fact that for thousands of people, it was actually a lot of fun. I hated the idea of the app, but after I downloaded it I found myself playing every day. Stolen was addictive because it played on the anxieties so many of us have about Twitter and other social platforms. Who’s following me? Who’s ignoring me? Do my contributions here have any value? Are my peers more popular than I am? Stolen looked those worries in the eye and said, here’s a giant stack of money — why not simply buy your way out? You couldn’t make Justin Bieber follow you. But you could absolutely steal him.
And indeed, I found myself buying profiles of people who I admire and who never followed me back. (Hi Felix Salmon!) When a high-profile person stole me, I felt a surge of pride. I compulsively checked my in-game value, which peaked around $1 million before edging steadily downward. And I relished stealing friends from other friends: a magnificent, harmless troll that always made me smile.
"We were trying to build a positive product, where people compliment and show how much they care about the people they care about," Chen said. "I love Justin Bieber. I love Rihanna. William Shatner joined today! And William Shatner gets to say, I care about these people. These people I like. And he gets to see who his biggest fans are. That's the design we intended to build."
Stolen was addictive
All of this distracted from the fact that, as a game, Stolen felt rather pointless. There was no way to win, or, outside of spending lots of money, even to stay ahead. You could spend $1 million to steal someone only to have them stolen back from you seconds later. Once you acquired someone, the only thing you could do with their profile was to watch its value decline. The app’s system for valuing users and distributing cash bonuses appeared for the most part to be entirely random.
At first I wondered when Stolen’s novelty would wear off. When it didn’t, I wondered if Twitter would shut it down. (The company never said anything about Stolen, but Adam Bain, its chief operating officer, was an enthusiastic user.) What I never saw coming was that Chen would pull the plug himself. But pressure was mounting: Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) sent letters to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Apple CEO Tim Cook today urging them to ban it.
Every concern I read about Stolen in its short life, I shared. The last thing Twitter needs on its platform is a new way to enable abuse. And yet part of me is sad Stolen never got a chance to make it right. For willing participants, it was a flirty game of tag. And that, I think, is the crux of it. Had the game started by asking for our permission, perhaps it wouldn’t have had to ask our forgiveness.