On the 20th February 2016, I was given the opportunity to hold an exclusive Skype call with the creator of the hugely controversial App ‘Stolen!‘ to discuss the backlash, his future plans and to give a message to any critics still present. Siqi Chen was cheerful and had a fresh voice, giving hope to the future of ‘Famous!’ and all it’s fans, despite a recent upset with Apple where they removed his App from the Apple Store on the date above.
He assured me this should be reversed, and that the future is bright for his creation. Read my full interview below:
It’s great to finally talk.
Yeah, sorry I’m late.
Yeah, no problem. I’m guessing it’s because of this whole App Store thing?
Yeah I just saw that.
*laughs* Yeah, we’re figuring it out. We got in touch with them, and they seem surprised that we made a ‘good case’, but they can’t do anything until our team comes back from the weekend so it’s a pretty big bummer.
Why do you think they shut you guys down?
Why they took us off? Umm, I think it’s because they probably remembered ‘Stolen!’ and they didn’t like that concept and that’s why we took it off and re-did it to be more positive; we got rid of all the harassment potential, and this and that. They probably just took one look at it and kind of like squinted and said, “oh, this seems like the same thing so we better take it off.” But I think, uh, I have faith. I think if any reasonable person looks at it, famous, I mean there’s no possible bad thing that we’ve done here. It’s positive, it’s harassment-free, so you know, we’re pretty optimistic that once they get back to us, we’ll be fine. It’s just a bummer for the next couple of days.
So how’s the new App actually going so far?
It’s going really well! It’s growing 10x faster than when we, uhh, launched our first ‘Stolen!’, so it seems people still enjoy the same game; the mechanics are still strong, and people are Tweeting a whole lot. People like being fans of other people and it feels good to have a fan.
How many current users are there on ‘Famous!’ now?
Uh, we’re not sharing numbers right now. I can tell you it’s growing 10x faster than what it was before.
Is the social media buzz still as prominent as it was before?
Um, it looks like it is. We’re getting, you know, one Tweet every couple of seconds. By day ten or so on ‘Stolen!’ we were getting like one Tweet a second, so even that looks like its keeping pace with the original ‘Stolen!’.
In terms of the original ‘Stolen!’ game, a lot of people got into it to own verified accounts; when you saw a new verified account, you’d rush to buy that. That’s one way people stayed engaged within the actual game itself. So obviously this new game is an ‘opt-in’ game, so to be in the game you have to own it. How do you think you’re going to combat the issue of people being engaged through owning verified accounts?
Yeah, it’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem, for sure. Umm, I mean we were live for around 24 hours before we got pulled from the App store, and the idea with the game is to like, you know, the more people who join, the more people who join that have fun. So we’re starting on a little bit of a slower burn, but as we grow, and we get more users, it gets better and we have more verified accounts over time. The game is already kind of fun to play with your friends, even without celebrities. You know, 99% of people couldn’t afford to ‘steal’ a celebrity anyway, um, so that’s kind of the plan. You know, when Twitter launched, for the first 3 years they didn’t have any celebrities on there, right? That’s kind of our plan too, to make a fun game as we grow, and more and more verified accounts will join. We hope that will happen – not in 3 years, but over the next couple of days.
Who are some notable users that you have at the moment?
Sam Pepper, Sam Pottorff, Product hunt, Ryan Hoover, Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park. Right now, it’s basically concentrated in ‘tech’ because that’s where a lot of people find us. The COO of Twitter is on it, Adam Bain. So yeah, it’s mostly in tech because we launched on Product Hunt and that’s mostly their viewership, but that’s what happened with the original ‘Stolen!’; it penetrated tech first, then into other communities. That’s what we expected to happen with this one.
So where did the idea for the original ‘Stolen!’ come from?
So, I’d been thinking of this idea for a long time and the problem is, what Facebook did when they first launched, their mission was to map the social graph of the world, right, your connection between all of your real life friends. This is kind of nerdy, but you know, the graph theory – a graph has these nodes and these edges wherein the nodes are the people and the edges are the relationships between people and there is concept called the weights on the edges so, um, you can have – you can in theory have a relationship between me and Michael Jackson and me and some random person on the street, and you can say, “hey, that relationship between me, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan is way more interesting and important and valuable to have”. And so I thought, well, how can we, like, map that? You know, the different weights and different degrees of importance to different kinds of relationships. One of the ideas that I have to do that is to limit the number of relationships you can have, and then add a market economy to it. Umm, so that was the original concept for ‘Stolen!’ and we started to make our ‘card game’ out of it. Obviously that had some big backlash along some areas on Twitter and the press, so we decided, “okay, I think we can do the same concept but get rid of all the negative connotations around it and, uhh…” Why were people stealing people in the first place? They weren’t trolling people, they were trying to say “hey, I like this person and I want to have a close relationship with them” so, at its core it’s about being a fan, so why not just do that? We did it, and we got some experts involved. The press has completely come around with it this time round, so that’s why we’re hopeful with Apple but we’ll see.
I think it should go well.
Yeah, I mean there’s no reason not to. I mean any reasonable person will look at it and be like “yeah, there’s nothing possibly offensive about what they’re doing”.
Yeah, I noticed that straight away; the whole language is completely different. I mean it’s the same game at core, but everything is different, it feels different.
Yeah, it does feel different.
So at the peak of ‘Stolen!’, how many users did that have?
We had close to 1 million downloads, but only around 100,000 of them ever found a code *laughs* so about 90% of the users that downloaded it couldn’t even play it.
I remember trying to find a code myself and took like a week straight, it was crazy!
Yeah, it was tough. It was tough. I mean, part of the reason it was so ‘scarce’, we weren’t trying to be difficult about it, it was really because we had these issues in the app and we were trying to fix it as fast as possible before we got big.
I think it created good buzz, through the scarcity, I mean for an app to offer code-exclusivity was pretty unheard of.
Yeah, yeah it was pretty wild. I mean the last time I’ve seen invite codes being sold on eBay for like, you know, $30 each was Gmail, which might be before your time, but that was like 2001. Yeah, its been a while.
Obviously, a lot of the negative attention came around from different notable Twitter users. There was Zoe Quinn, and the one that really stood out was Congresswoman Katherine Clark.
I mean, that was crazy! I saw that and just thought, “wow!” As if she’d write something about an app?
I mean, yeah, that was…I didn’t see that coming at all.
What was your reaction to that, the first time you read it?
People have claimed that we took it down because of the Congresswoman, but that is actually not the case. So the first time I saw that Tweet, we already took down the app. It was more of, like, “well, I’m glad we did that!” *laughs* We read that and just thought, “oh my god…wow, wow”. We were blown away, but we were blown away by any number of things. We were getting press; international stories – The Guardian, French press, courts, I mean the headlines were just awful. Washington Post, too. I think one person linked to our interview and titled it, “interview with a vampire”, it was like “agh!”. It was going to get worse before it got better.
I had something similar to that. Obviously I’m not an app creator, I’m a student journalist, so I did a report last year; the backlash I got from that was crazy. I didn’t quit, but it gave me massive insight for future actions, so I’m guessing this is similar to you?
Yeah, I mean I don’t know if you followed it, but we brought on Zoe Quinn as a paid consultant. She didn’t offer or reach out, she just messaged us out of the blue just to see if I was okay and that was pretty amazing. I was not feeling okay. So we started talking, and she’s really, really smart and good at what she does, and I thought, “you know, if we don’t want this to happen again, we should probably have an expert involved”. The thing with start-ups is – I mean we’ve been at this for 4 years, trying to find something that works the fastest way you can. The truth is, you know, most things that you try just don’t work. You don’t assume that anything you do is going to work, so you don’t always prepare for it blowing up the way that we did. It was unprecedented how fast we blew up. It’s a difficult balance, but this time around we think we have something here; it’s fun, we know it’s going to grow, so let’s get it right.
So what exactly is Zoe’s role?
Her role is very specific; it’s to advise on trust and safety issues. She doesn’t make any final product decisions, she doesn’t review things before we release them, she doesn’t give us a stamp of approval so we can release anything. It’s nothing like that. She’s simply a consultant giving us advise to make sure that we’re not missing things that she’ll see. That’s it.
What are some of your plans for ‘Famous!’ in the future?
I can give you broad strokes. It’s hard for me to talk about specifics, especially given the Apple situation. The broad strokes are getting fans closer to the people they’re fans of, and connecting fans with each other. Right, so, if you’re into E-sports, and you’re fans of all the top E-sports players, then you should be able to get closer to them and you should also be able to connect with others that are into the same people as you are. You can apply that to any kind of community, whether its NBA, NFL, or music or movies. That’s what we’re trying to do. To move away from this one, global giant list and be like, “here are communities that you care about with people that care about the same people that you do”.
Is that what you were trying to do with the category implement in ‘Stolen!’?
Correct. Exactly, that’s exactly the type of thing that is coming very, very soon.
The new ‘item’ feature in ‘Stolen!’, what is that?
We’re still trying to figure it out! It could be a number of things; things to help you earn more hearts, things that help you decorate your profile – imagine adding particles, flames to your little card as people scroll through the list. Just things to help you stand out to make you more appeasing. Customisations, functional achievements, that kind of thing. Upgrades, even.
Would you want an area for people to write on in the app, like a message board? Are you worried that would give way to trolling?
Yeah, that’s why Zoe Quinn is so important to us. We have to be sure all that stuff is locked down, and we have some very, very good ideas to ensure that won’t be an issue. Not to go into any specifics, but we can do things in terms of moderation and communication that no other product can do because we have ‘our’ currency and economy. We can make it very, very, very expensive to troll. We can do that.
What message would you give to sceptics of this reformed version of your game?
The way I think about it, it’s more true to our ‘original’ intention. Obviously, there’s a lot of similarities with ‘Stolen!’ but what we were trying to do with ‘Stolen!’ is, “I’m a big fan of this person, I like this person so I want to get closer!” With ‘Stolen!’, the theme didn’t come off that way, I think rightfully so to a lot of people. This is our way of fixing that.
It’s been great to talk to you, Siqi!
Yeah, thanks for taking the time to talk. Thanks man.