Tech by VICE

‘Stolen!’, Pulled Over Harassment Concerns, Belongs to a Kinder Internet Era

With typical irony, Twitter trolls target journalist Holly Brockwell after the app is pulled over harassment concerns.

by Tom Fenwick
Jan 15 2016, 8:00pm

Stolen!, the fun little twitter profile trading game which we wrote about only three days ago, has been unceremoniously closed. The developers voluntarily removed their game from the App Store after they were unable to answer criticism over the potential for harassment and broader complaints about social media profiles being "traded" without consent.

As soon as it was cancelled, knees began to jerk on Twitter like it was a Riverdance convention. Holly Brockwell, founder and editor of Gadgette, became a target for heavy-handed harassment in the wake of the game's closure (which, once again, was voluntary).

Brockwell's interview with lead developer Siqi Chen was one of the first to raise concerns about how Stolen!'s trading card-style game (which used Twitter profiles as cards) might deal with potential risks of abuse. Issues she highlighted included the "anything goes" nicknames you could give other users; the inability to stop people from "owning" you, whether that person was a friend or a violent ex; and the inability to opt-out from a game that included profiles of people who didn't sign up to play.

Of course, Twitter being the Möbius strip of trolldom that it is, she's now undergoing exactly the kind of harassment she was raising awareness of potentially happening in Stolen! in the first place. "People are angry with me because they seem to think I was saying it should be shut down." she told me over the phone.

"But I didn't say it was unworkable and should end it. I was just addressing ways they could do it better and things they could improve on," Brockwell continued. "If you're going to make something that's going to make a lot of profit, and be available to hundred of thousands of users, you have a bit of a responsibility as a human being to look at the worst possible way it could be used, and put some safeguards in place before putting it out to the public."

While I, like many others, enjoyed the game a great deal, I never considered it as a potential avenue for harassment. But that's a viewpoint which mirrors my own experience on social media—it's all just a bit of fun. For many people, fears about Stolen! were linked to a more widespread problem of online harassment evident on platforms like Twitter.

"People have made the valid point that if you sign up to Twitter you can be harassed, therefore why should this app be singled out for potential abuse?" said Brockwell. "It's because, while Twitter might not do much about it most of the time, they don't really have much to gain from harassment. But Stolen! would have gained financially from people being bastards to one another." One reason for that is the fact users could pay real money to buy in-game currency, used to "steal" profiles—potentially including those of people they wanted to harass.

If the internet has taught us anything in the last ten years, it's that we get the world we deserve.

While it's arguable that Twitter does make tangential gains from abuse—outrage and drama are the fuel of social media—targets are not so much a passive cog in the machine. We follow and are followed back, and both the abuser and abused are given a voice. But therein lies an innate flaw with Stolen!, as Brockwell highlights: "In this case, the people who could be abused weren't users. It's an important distinction from something like Twitter, because if you're on it, then you've agreed to their terms and conditions."

Looking back, the fact that this wasn't a concern for the developers from day one appears more than a little naïve; although speaking to Chen it's clear it was an oversight born out of haste rather than malice.

Naturally, the discontent rages on across Twitter, shifting between angry users who feel like fun has been banned, others offended by a game they probably never played, and bandwagon-jumpers rallying on both sides.

The truth is that Stolen! is a game out of time; born in the soft-play arena of idealism that was 2007-era Facebook, it's incompatible with the foreboding world of Twitter in 2016. If the internet has taught us anything in the last ten years, it's that we get the world we deserve. Stolen!'s closure emphasises the responsibility developers have to guard against online harassment; its short life is symptomatic of just how big the problem has become.

Video Games
Social Media
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Holly Brockwell
Siqi Chen