Stolen, an iOS game that shot to viral popularity in recent weeks, and which let Twitter users "own" each other, has shut down.
The game was simple: You could use virtual in-game currency to buy other Twitter profiles and hold them until someone else paid more for them. By default it included every Twitter profile not just people who were actually playing. Once you paid for a profile, the app would notify you that you "own" it — since most profiles are people this meant that it was typically using language notifying players that they owned another person. But players did not get to keep profiles once purchased, they could be "stolen" — the namesake of the game — by any other player who had enough to pay for the profile in question. To get more money (and thus steal and own more profiles) players could exchange real money for in-game currency.
The app's viral popularity was bolstered by its sparsely-worded, mysterious app store description and a sense of exclusivity — new players needed an invite code to join the game, unless already verified on Twitter.
It was to some extent its vocabulary — "owning" and "stealing" people that exist in the real world, without their permission or even knowledge that the game existed — that appears to have prompted Stolen's shutdown. Gadgette's Holly Brockwell complained on Wednesday that her Twitter persona was being swapped by strangers without her permission, echoing a host of complaints for the game's basic premise, and published a damning interview with its creator.
In an interview conducted Thursday morning — before the shutdown — Siqi Chen, Stolen's 32-year-old founder, told BuzzFeed that his staff was "scrambling" to update the app in light of complaints from users that it created a venue for harassment. Chen noted that Stolen had just made some semantic tweaks to its UI today; instead of "owning" other players, users could only "steal" their profiles.
"We threw it on Product Hunt on New Year's Eve and we expected maybe 500 people to download it," he said. "It was not at all ready for general public consumption [when it went viral]."
"We take responsibility for these problems," Chen said of the complaints. "It's our product. We put it out there, and it got viral and out of control."
Following the announcement that Stolen was being removed from the App Store, BuzzFeed again reached out to Chen to see what drove the decision.
"It's just the right thing to do," he said via text message. "Whatever our intentions are, our perception and perceived harm has been out there and we didn't see any quick fix to make sure people are and feel safe."
The company announced that refunds would be available through Apple.
Brendan Klinkenberg is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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