It's 3 AM and while you sleep, I steal.
The dim glow from my phone the only light in the room. My battery burnt hubristically low as I check to see what I can thieve. I need something valuable, something that will turn a profit, and with mere seconds of power remaining I snatch Apple CEO @tim_cook. He's mine for the briefest moment, but just as fast as I grab him, he's taken away. And in a cruel irony, it's then that my iPhone battery decides to die.
It's 3.15 AM and Tim is gone. As I lay in the dark, cursing my luck and fumbling for a charging cable, I realize I might have a problem. The secrecy, the withdrawal, the continued use… all classic signs of addiction. But they say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So I'd like to use this public forum to acknowledge that I need help.
Hi, my name is Tom and I'm addicted to Stolen!
I don't suffer alone. There are thousands of users who, just like me, are awake in the middle of the night playing Stolen!, the viral phenomenon, which self-identifies in its Twitter bio as "Literally the worst app."
If Stolen! hasn't consumed your every waking moment then let me break down how it works. it's a task that's easier said than done, though when I've explained to friends they've only stared at me blankly like a cat that's been shown a card trick.
Let's imagine Twitter is a virtual mine, where each social account is a commodity. In this vast social colliery all accounts have a value, but some are worth far more than others. Your job is to "steal" accounts from other users and add them to your own collection, paying the cost of each account's value with in-game currency ("§"), which can range wildly from a few thousand to hundreds of millions. Every time an account is "stolen"—including your own—it rises in value, and begins to earn incrementally small amounts of currency, based on the account's net worth. Sounds simple, right? But the kicker is that once you've "stolen" it, your acquisition immediately starts to slowly lower in price.
With every one of Twitter's 250 million active twitter accounts up for grabs, anything can be yours; whether you want to "own" media outlets (@motherboard), celebrities (@taylorswift13), multi-national brands (@kfc), landmarks (@LatourEiffel), regular people (@tomdefeat), sports teams (@arsenal) or just the pub down the road. If it has a twitter account, you can steal it, whether the owner is an active participant in the game or not.
But while a highly desirable account may be snatched away from you quickly (turning a tidy profit) things can just as easily go the other way. And if you get stuck with an account too long it might drop below the price you initially acquired it for, losing you money when it eventually gets taken (I'm looking at you Beyoncé… I want my §1.6 million back!).
"What if friendship was scarce and people can then choose who they want to be friends with through a market economy?"
Siqi Chen, the man whose company Hey Inc. is behind this devious app, explains the background. "Social networks are basically graphs which have no weight to their edges," he said. "You're either friends or you're not, and I thought it was unreflective of real world relationships. So I thought, how can I add weight to the edges of this graph? What if I inject a market economy? What if friendship was scarce and people can then choose who they want to be friends with through a market economy? So we built on that idea and —through various design decisions—it ended up looking like a game."
But that app wasn't Stolen!; it was 2007's Friends for Sale, a self-explanatory trading game built in the dark days before Twitter and based entirely on Facebook. It found massive popularity and was eventually acquired—along with Chen's first company Serious Business—by gaming monolith Zynga. "People were so intense about that game that after it got shut down they built their own version… I've been to Friends for Sale weddings" laughs Chen.
Since parting ways with Zynga in 2012, Chen has been hard at work on a variety of apps, each with a strong social aspect, but definitively no games. "What I didn't want to do again was make a game," he tells me. But after a series of only moderate successes which failed to set the world alight, Chen realised he had one last shot at making this company work, so he turned back to the concept that had given him success in 2007 and applied it to the far broader field of Twitter. "We realised we had one more bullet left in our chamber and while I didn't want to make a game"—he pauses—"I guess it is what it is!"
At present, the game is still in a beta/invite-only phase, something which seems to have only driven desire for the app to new heights, with ten times as many downloads in the app store as people who actually have invites. Both fake and genuine access codes are trading for real-world cash on some parts of the internet.
Someone give me one of them stolen codes, I need to buy some people
— Jake Clemmence (@mrclemmence) January 4, 2016
"People are DM'ing me saying, 'I can't eat, I can't sleep, I must have a code,'" explains Chen, "It surprised us, because we designed it to be an asynchronous game that should be played every few hours when you get a notification, but people seem to have it open all the time." Chen continues, "Honestly, I'm amazed people are still using an app that's only half functional. But if people are playing as much as they are now when we fix the game and it it's going to be pretty interesting to watch."
One of the most intriguing parts of the game in its current version is the lack of search and complete absence of any playing guidelines, but as Chen explains, this was far from intentional. "People have been saying it's a brilliant design idea to not include search, but we totally want search; we just haven't had time to build it yet! It's the same with the help file," he laughs. "I mean, we just thought a thousand people were going to play it so we didn't have time to do it… but now people are saying it's a genius launch, but it wasn't like that at all."
The motivation behind each user's approach to the game varies: for me it's all about earning a huge net worth through fast trading, buying and selling a fresh account before the price rises too high and I get stuck with an overpriced albatross—building up wealth so I can eventually do something stupid like…. buy Kanye West. Or the Pope.
For some, the goal is for their own account to be traded back and forth to get a higher buyable value, rising from anonymity to Stolen! superstar, with an account that might one day be as desirable as Google or Drake. Others just want to own every member of One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer, or their best friend's boyfriend. The latter tactic can be a weakness, especially when users make it abundantly clear they'll immediately buy back their favorite account.
At the moment, Chen and his team are trying to be as patient as possible and create something sustainable for a wider audience. "Obviously, if that means people already playing get frustrated while they wait for search or chat, then we feel terrible about that, but we're trying to do the best thing over the long term, because we want this to be a safe place where people aren't harassed and have fun and that takes some work," he says.
"It's conflicting—because we could have thousands more users overnight, but I try to remind myself and my team that there's a long view here," he continues. "If we were going to build a product that would only last a month then what's the point?"
Stolen!'s success, thus far, has been entirely viral. And as with many apps which ride that rather uncertain wave, there's the chance it might burn out just as fast as it's arrived. Whether it can keep up its current momentum as Chen and his team implement new features—or end up as another unused viral app like Yo! —remains to be seen. But for now at least, "Literally the worst app ever" is literally the most compulsive app on the internet.