📰 News

Interview: Stolen, the problematic app that lets you buy and sell people on Twitter

"Most people are intrigued and find it to be a compliment"

By Holly Brockwell, Editor January 13, 2016
jack

Update 15/1/2016: Stolen has been shut down.

The original article appears below.

Last night, I was sent a screenshot out of the blue:

stolen 1
whiteblock

My response was less than eloquent: “WTF? WTF is that?!”

As it transpires, it’s from an app called Stolen. I’d never seen it before, was entirely unaware of its existence, and certainly hadn’t opted in. Stolen is a new iOS app that allows you to buy and sell real people’s Twitter accounts as if they were trading cards. Now, before anyone gets too panicky, this doesn’t give you access to their account – it’s more of a bragging rights thing. “I now own @Jack! Yeahh!” – like being the Mayor of somewhere on Foursquare.

Still, 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.

Shortly after the first message, I got another one from the person who ‘bought’ me letting me know that I’d now been sold to a stranger.

stolen 2
whiteblock

As someone who’s received a fair amount of harassment and trolling over the last few months, I can’t tell you how disquieting it was to see a total stranger’s name plastered across my Twitter account as my “owner.” And worse, once someone buys you, they can write whatever they like on your page, giving you a ‘nickname’, advertising their products, whatever they want. There doesn’t even seem to be a swear filter in place – someone sent us this screenshot of what they were able to write on a company’s account:

6auwvnOm
whiteblock

Anyone who’s been on the internet for more than five minutes can immediately see the problems with this. Any platform – no matter how well-meaning – will be used to abuse and harass people, and Stolen seems an absolute gift for the trolls of the world. This app allows men to buy women, racists to buy minorities, Gamergate supporters to buy games journalists – and so on and so on.

At the time of writing, Stolen has 40,000 users. Rather than use an opt-in system whereby people can CHOOSE to be traded on the app if they so wish, anyone who signs up automatically adds all the people they follow to the service. So I’d been added without my knowledge or consent, and at the time there was no way of opting out. Stolen has since added one – see our note at the end.

At the time of writing, you have to have a code to use Stolen – so most of the people who’ve downloaded the app can’t get in. Verified accounts don’t need a code, though, presumably to encourage celebrities.

I spoke to Siqi Chen, CEO of Hey Inc (the company behind Stolen) about the app and the inherent problems, and while it was clear a lot of the issues hadn’t been thought through, he was keen to stress that “unlike Twitter we are not a neutral speech platform – we are firmly against the any kind of harassment, abuse, misogyny, or racism in our product and our policies and tooling will reflect that.”

Here’s how our interview went.

Gadgette: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me.

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.

Is it something that you’re hearing a lot?

No, actually. People generally understand the game. The idea of the product is, you’re collecting and trading your favourite people. Like your Babe Ruth baseball cards. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just collect all your favourite people that you follow on Twitter,’ and that’s what we designed the app for.

I know what’s happening, and honestly it is our fault, because we have this currency in the game, and in these two particular areas it says ‘belongs to’ and it says ‘buy’, and there’s a reason we call it ‘stolen’ because we didn’t want for there to be any inkling of, ‘Oh, this is about buying people and I own you.’ That’s horrifying and disgusting and not what we want to be associated with.

And so, in our next update that we shipped last night, we found that Mike Shinoda is actually playing, and Jack Dorsey and Adam Bain [from Twitter]. We saw at least one person say to Mike Shinoda, ‘Oh, you’re mine now,’ and we were like, ‘Why are they doing that?’ and we looked through his Twitter like, ‘Oh my God, we have this one thing where instead of ‘steal’ it says ‘buy’ and it says ‘belongs to’. We need to fix that right now.’ So we just pushed it out, and it’s approved by the App Store. It’s going to say ‘stolen by’ because it’s not supposed to be about ownership.

But you can’t steal something that isn’t owned. You have to own something for it to be able to be stolen.

Yeah, that’s a fair point. But I feel like the skinning of a game is really important. Brenda Romero designed a game that was about the Holocaust, right, and the same set of rules could just be Candyland, and that’s the way we think about it too. It’s not supposed to be about people, but about these representations of them as cards and you’re collecting them because you like them, not because you want to own this person.

But if you’re going to do it that way, doesn’t it make more sense to let people opt in and say, ‘I would like to be traded. I would like to have a card on this site and for people to be able to steal me’? Doesn’t it make more sense to do that than to bring in people without their knowledge or permission and not even let them know?

The way we think about it is it’s a game on Twitter and so it doesn’t really work if we can’t show you the people that you actually follow and care about on Twitter.

But you don’t own my image, you don’t own my name, you don’t own the copy that’s on my Twitter page. You’ve essentially taken that without my knowledge or permission. I haven’t agreed to be part of your app. I’ve only agreed to be part of Twitter, and you’re not part of Twitter.

We are on the Twitter platform, though, so we’re just using their API, and that’s – all of these things are really valid questions, and the reason why we don’t have them yet is because this app was really designed for 1,000 people. The most people who played this before we put this in the App Store was about 100. And so we are locking down to invite only, and it continues to be invite only. We’re trying to make sure people don’t download as much. We have hundreds of thousands of downloads, and 90% of them don’t have keys and they’re not finding the keys for this reason.

stolenbeta

How many people do you have at the moment?

We have about 40,000 people playing.

Do you have every account on Twitter on the app?

No we don’t, just the people that those people follow.

So essentially my friends have added me by joining the app?

Correct. There’s no way for you to appear in the app without someone who follows you going in and stealing you because they bought you and they’d like you in a collection. That’s at least the designed intention and what’s happened to you is not okay.

I’ll come back to my previous question. Wouldn’t it be better to have people adding themselves? Isn’t that fairer?

There are advantages to it, but the problem is when you’re just 1,000 people you come in and there isn’t anyone interesting for you to steal so you have to bootstrap it some way, and the best way we could think of is the people that you already follow on Twitter. We were hoping, and so far this has been the case, most people are intrigued and find it to be a compliment, which is what the copy was designed to do. We don’t say, ‘Oh, I own you now,’ like, that’s not in the app. That’s not a thing that we want to do. It’s gross.

Well, it is in the app at the moment, because obviously it says, ‘You own this person now. This person belongs to you.’

We don’t say that. We’re just saying, like, ‘This card belongs to you.’ That’s the intention of it right now.

I’m looking at the screen right now. It says, ‘Boom, Holly Brockwell belongs to you now.’ That’s not a card, that’s me as a person.

Yes. That- we need to fix that.

So what will it say?

‘@Username’s Twitter card belongs to you’, or ‘stolen card belongs to you’. We want it to be a representation of who you are.

But you’re not planning to make it opt-in. It’s always going to be that people can be added without their consent?

We want people to trade the people they follow on Twitter. You’re not going to be able to play the game if you don’t have the app. But yeah, the design intention is you should be able to collect and trade the people that you follow on Twitter.

You don’t think it’s a bit weird doing that without those people’s permission?

So far we haven’t heard much of that, no.

Even if you change the copy within the app so it says ‘your card,’ it still has a value on it. I seem to have a dollar value attached to my account. What is that based on?

It’s based on how popular you are and how many people want you in their collection.

So somebody has to pay that amount to be able to steal me.

Correct.

So even if you change the copy then you’re still buying someone.

Uh… I don’t see-, it’s not-, it’s our fake virtual currency. We don’t see it as money at all.

But it has a dollar sign next to it. Of course it’s money.

It’s actually not a dollar sign.

It looks like one.

It was very intentional to not actually be a dollar sign because it’s not real money. It’s kind of a social currency that people can use and say, ‘Okay, I care about this person, and I want to be associated with this person.’

So it’s more like share prices?

Uh, no, we consider it more like your follower count. Like, if you have a lot of followers, and that’s useful to you, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make that a fungible currency that you could use to get closer to the people that you care about.

Stolen's Twitter account. You may need a translator.
Stolen's Twitter account. You may need a translator.

Are Twitter involved? Are they playing the game?

They are playing the game, yeah.

So they’re okay with it? They’re on board with it?

As far as I know, yes.

That’s interesting. Obviously you’re relying very heavily on their API, and sometimes when somebody uses their API to do something that they’re not a fan of, like Meerkat for example, they’ll cut them off. You’re not worried that that’s going to happen to you?

So far that doesn’t seem to be the case, but Twitter has done things to turn off other people’s clients. So that could very well happen to us. We haven’t been in contact with anyone at Twitter as to whether they approve or disapprove.

So it’s in your interests to keep Twitter users happy, and part of that is to work really hard on getting the opt-out ready. When are you expecting to have that up?

Today. We’ve been working on it ever since we launched. That is our first priority. It’s just actually a little bit complicated to do, because everything is tied to everything, so if we remove you we have to make sure you’re fully removed from the system, all your information is gone and you are untradeable, and we need to make sure the form is up.

So right now what I’m doing is every ticket I see, every tweet I see, I am on it immediately saying, ‘We are adding you to our opt-out list right now,’ and today it will be done and you will be off and you will never see us again.

Update: The opt-out page is now up, but read our note at the end before using it.

And they get confirmation?

Yes. As you mentioned it’s our interest to keep Twitter users happy, and the truth is if you look through Twitter the masses already find it really interesting. You have Linkin Park playing, Jérôme Jarre, very well-known Twitter people, and they enjoy it because they understand that this is a compliment and it’s a way for fans to show appreciation by having them in their collection, and that’s absolutely what we designed it for. So it’s up to Twitter users to come in, they come and they play it and they really enjoy it. So that’s why we have an opt-out versus an opt-in system.

With a lot of products that are developed in Silicon Valley, because it’s a very male-dominated environment, people who develop things like this often don’t know what it’s like as a woman or a minority on the internet where you are already targeted and attacked by people a lot, and any platform, no matter how good the intentions, is always open to being used for that kind of thing.

Your platform, it seems to me, is particularly useful for that. For example, when you ‘own’ somebody you can give them a nickname, and you can write things on their profile. There don’t seem to be any swearing filters on there. You’re able to put all sorts of quite abhorrent things on people’s profiles without any kind of filtering. Do you not see that being open to abuse?

I do see that being open to abuse, and that is yet another reason why we are not launching and we are beta invite only. But, I mean, the concept of this is this is a thing that was not designed for this level of traffic. It was not designed for this many people looking at it. It was designed for 1,000 people where we had relatively close ties with them and we could monitor it. So yeah, the nicknames thing is absolutely open to abuse right now, and what we’re working on right now is you should be able to clear your nickname.

If there is an offensive nickname, you should be able to report that, and unlike Twitter we will ban you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I follow that very intimately, and I am absolutely sympathetic to all of that, and we are not going to be a platform where people like [famous troll] or whatever gets to just harass and put offensive names on women. The minute they do that, once we have the tooling in place, they are gone. That is not okay. That’s just not part of how we want people to use the product.

That’s good, because I think Gamergate and those kinds of people would just jump on it. If Zoe Quinn, for example, was being traded, the things that would be written on her account. I can’t even imagine.

You know, I think you’re absolutely right. If we were public, that would happen. And that’s why we’re not public. The minute that happens, he’s gone. Whoever did that is off the system, the economy is reset, all of their currency is taken away, and they can’t do it again.

Is it going to be like Twitter, though, where you can just make another account?

So, there’s an interesting thing about this – you accumulate social currency, right? We call it ‘social currency’, not money. So when we ban you, all of your accumulated social currency that made you even be able to collect someone like Zoe Quinn is gone. So it’s not just you could create a new account so you could do that again.

How do you get that currency?

By playing the game, grinding a lot, right, by being active. So it’s a much higher bar than, you know, opening up a new Gmail and signing up for Twitter. It’s not like that at all.

So they’d have to work quite hard to be able to buy someone again.

Yeah, and that’s kind of why we’re excited about what we’re doing with the social currency system. We can do things like moderate and there are real consequences to you violating these rules. If you’ve been playing the game for a little bit and you go harass someone, you’re gone, and to even get to that point where you can even have any kind of communication with someone like her it’s a month of work that you’ve just thrown away.

And that’s kind of why we’re excited about this as a new social platform, and why we’re working night and day to do it. We’ve been working as a startup for four years and we have one year runway left, and this is a last-shot experiment that has kind of taken off virally.

It sounds like it’s gone very big very quickly. How did that happen?

We put it out there New Year’s Eve. We are less than two weeks old. And we started with 100 people. We’re working day and night because what’s happening is we’re growing 10x day on day, and we are locking down invites. 40,000 users is not a lot, and is it a lot, but, you know, a couple of hundred thousand downloads is a lot, and there’s a reason why we’re not letting those people in. We could be making ten times more money today if we just opened it up, and for all the reasons that you listed and what you personally experienced that’s why it’s not open.

How are you planning to monetise it?

We have in-app purchases that you can purchase more social currency with, so that’s-

Hang on. You just said that somebody who wants to buy Zoe Quinn has to grind for a month. If they can just pay money to buy her, doesn’t that destroy the whole thing?

Uh, well, I mean, you can consider this, though. On Twitter, someone signs up for Gmail, signs up for Twitter, and can harass them. On here, if you have to pay, like, 50 bucks every time, I mean, that’s a huge-

Yeah, it’s gonna cost you, but it’s possible.

Um, that is true, but, you know, that’s kind of true of any kind of, any communication platform in the world, and, you know, on Twitter, on Facebook, on anywhere, anyone can do that, like, signing up for a new account and there’s no bar, and-

And it’s a huge problem.

There’s no way to prevent anyone from signing up for a different account at some point, right? That’s just, like, an impossible security problem. All anyone can do is make the bar very, very high, and ours is. I can’t think of a service that actually has a higher bar than saying, ‘You either need to spend a month or you can pull out your credit card and pay 50 bucks just to get your jollies off and harass somebody.’

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 recognise 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.

It wouldn’t look great if you were taking money for people to be able to harass others.

I mean, it would be wrong.

So that’s something you’re going to look into?

We are, absolutely. I mean, it hasn’t happened yet, though. We’re trying to keep it small and build the right tools for it, and as much as I think there’s a lot of harassment going on, even the threat of having this available to us has made the community relatively well behaved so far. But yeah, in that hypothetical scenario where someone pays 50 bucks just to harass Zoe Quinn, will we profit from that? Do we want to profit from that? No, that’s not in our interests.

So what would you do in that situation?

We would keep the money and probably donate it, I think is probably the best thing. So donate it to some kind of women in technology organisation. I think that’s the right thing to do.

Agreed. Can you ban people by IP address? Is there a phone number tied to it or their Apple account?

Yeah. There’s multiple gates here, and one of the things that we’re working on putting in place before we go public is, at least for new accounts created after our app is launched, there will be phone number verification before you can get any additional currency and before you can go on the app and harass people.

We’re an entertainment product that helps people connect with the people that they’re interested in. We are not a free speech type of platform like Twitter, and we are very comfortable banning any kind of misogynistic harassing, racists, or any problematic kind of speech. That’s just not what we’re a platform for. If you want that, use Twitter.

That’s good to hear.

It’s not in our interests. I mean, in defence of Twitter, they’re about free speech, they’re a communication platform. I understand why they do it, and so I don’t necessarily have an opinion on what they should do, but for us it’s really really clear.

When are you going mainstream?

When we get this huge problem solved. It’s not just technology. We need to have people in place. We need to have an around-the-clock moderation team monitoring our chat, monitoring our nicknaming, monitoring our wall posts, because we don’t want this stuff to happen.

And that takes time. So I can’t give you a date, but I can tell you that if we wanted to be ten times, a hundred times our size right now, and making that much more money we could, and we’re choosing not to.

That’s a good decision.

And again, I just want to apologise profusely for what you experienced. I follow this stuff closely and I understand everything that’s happening, and I’m so sorry.

Thank you, I appreciate that. Thank you for speaking to us.

Opting out of Stolen [updated]

Since our interview, Hey Inc have added a page that allows you to opt out of Stolen.

Originally, this page gave you one option for opting out: authenticating your account through Twitter.

stolen opt out

Authenticating originally gave Stolen the following permissions:

stolen2

After publication of our article, stolen changed the permissions to these:

auth

And after our protests that it is wildly unfair to opt people in without their consent and then demand Twitter authorisation to remove them, Stolen added a second option: you can now send them a DM (their DMs are open, they don’t have to follow you) on Twitter to be removed. We would 110% recommend that everyone does this rather than the authentication method – why hand over the keys to your Twitter account if you don’t need to?

I’ve already opted out. I’m not remotely OK with being bought, sold, or stolen on this app. I don’t want someone to be able to buy me and someone else to ‘steal’ me like it’s the 1950s and I’m their property. I’m a person, not a trading card.

Update: Edited to include details of the amended opt-out process and permissions.

Update 2: Stolen tell us they’ve wiped all ‘nicknames’ from owned accounts on the app, and will not be allowing these in future for accounts that aren’t actively playing the game.

Update 3: Stolen has shut down.