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15 January 2016

Stolen!: the Peeple for your Twitter feed has been shut down

The app let you "buy", "sell", and edit facsimiles of other people's Twitter accounts. Unsurprisingly, it's already closed. 

By Barbara Speed

The first many heard of doomed app Stolen! was through a screenshot. Holly Brockwell, editor at tech website Gadgette, recounts in this piece how she found out that her personal Twitter account had apparently been sold: she was sent a picture of her account with a yellow banner across it, announcing “Boom! Holly Brockwell belongs to you now.”

As you can imagine, this was a little disconcerting. The app, it transpires, has collected all public twitter accounts together for a kind of large-scale buy and sell game. You could aquire and offload other people’s accounts, which gain and lose value accordingly, and even give theim nicknames – all within the framework of the app itself. The bad part is, your profile is automatically included in this mass marketplace, and, until after Brockwell spoke to the app’s founders, you couldn’t opt out, either. It had this in common with last year’s most-hated app, Peeple, which planned to allow people to rate you online without your consent. 

The opt-out option introduced within the past couple of days really just turned insult into injury: in order to opt out, you were required to hand over various Twitter permissions to the app, including the right to post tweets to your feed. Not ideal. 

Today, the app announced it was closing its doors to users altogether: 

This seems to be a result of the fact that the app was more open to harassment and trolling than its founders at Hey Inc initially realised. Founder Siqi Chen told The Verge that the shutdown aimed to “stop the harm, real and perceived, that people are getting from the existence of our product”. He also said there were no plans to revive the app. (Users can now get a refund from iTunes.) 

So what about it made everyone so angry? After all, Stolen! was only utilising already-public information in a new way. The founders had previously run a similar game, “Friends for sale!” on Facebook, without any similar backlash. But the two cases are quite different: on Facebook, you buy into a relationship with your “Friends” far more than you do with the public at large when you create an open Twitter profile. Stolen!’s existence reminded internet users that something like this, with the attendant discomfort of someone “owning” you, could freely and legally operate on the internet. Lots of our information is out there – it just takes a malevolent troll or a misguided app to draw it together and put it to disturbing use. 

Apps like Stolen! do have a duty to try to curb harassment on their platform, though. A congresswoman from Massachusetts wrote to both Apple and Twitter asking them to cut Stolen!’s access to the Apple store and Twitter’s API, respectively, until it stopped harassment, saying the app “allowed online abusers to ‘own’ people’s profiles”. Meanwhile, in-app purchases allowed users to acquire more desirable profiles, meaning Hey Inc would presumably have raked in profits from the app’s more obsessive, trolling users. 

I spoke to Brockwell about the app’s closure and she told me the swift uptake of the opt-out option may have had something to do with it: 

It’s not surprising to see Stolen pull their app. They’ve been deluged with opt out requests from angry Twitter users, and it’s clear that they didn’t think through the problems with the app. The way it was set up would have allowed Hey Inc to profit financially from harassment, and that evidently hadn’t occurred to them. I can’t see how it could have continued in its current form.

With Peeple, there’s still a fighting chance that the app’s more shocking features (the fact you don’t opt in, for example) were used as a marketing stunt – it will be launched in a watered down form this year, by which time it’ll already be a household name.

To give Hey Inc some credit, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Stolen!. Instead, the creators seem genuinely surprised by the outcome. Chen told The Verge: 

 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.”

It looks like Stolen! was born of thoughtlessness, not an attempt to drum up press. But I’d keep an eye on its social feeds (18k followers on Twitter alone) over the next few months, just in case.