Stolen, the app for buying people.

The App Where You Can Buy and Sell Justin Bieber, Cheryl Strayed, and the New York Times

The App Where You Can Buy and Sell Justin Bieber, Cheryl Strayed, and the New York Times

Notes on the culture of the Internet.
Jan. 14 2016 4:06 PM

Stolen, the App for Buying People

The strange allure of virtual human trafficking.

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The most-valuable profiles on the app Stolen are Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reuters, Getty Images.

Update, Jan. 14, 2016: The proprietors of Stolen announced on Twitter that the app is no longer available, writing, “We've heard everyone's concerns and have decided the best thing to do is to shut down.”

Social media turns our boring daily lives into a bunch of slightly less boring minigames. On Instagram, teens gamify the high school popularity contest. On Tinder, singles gamify their sex lives. On Facebook, retired people gamify their scrapbooking. On Twitter, comedians gamify their routines, rappers gamify their beefs, and journalists gamify their creeping career anxieties. It’s easy to keep score, with followers and retweets and likes streaming in (or not) every second. Now, there’s an app where the score-keeping is even more explicit, one that transforms the social media game into a literal game.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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The app is called Stolen, and for now you need an invitation code to get in, though verified Twitter users get ushered past the velvet rope without that hassle. Once inside, you’ll be swept into a bustling virtual marketplace where Twitter personalities are traded for imaginary cash. In my first couple of hours on the app, I bought actor Bradley Whitford, podcaster Starlee Kine, novelist Cheryl Strayed, Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner, the New York Times, and a few personal friends. “Boom! Ta-Nehisi Coates belongs to you now,” the app announced when I snapped up the MacArthur genius.

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Stolen assigns each Twitter profile a mostly arbitrary value expressed in a made-up currency. That value rises and falls depending on how eager other users are to “steal” the profile from its current “owner” (plus some other mysterious forces that aren’t immediately obvious). While values are constantly changing, the most-valuable profiles as of Thursday afternoon are Justin Bieber (46,260,796 units) and Ariana Grande (37,489,323 units).

The quicker people snatch a profile from one another, the more expensive it becomes. (I am worth 39,954 units, and dropping fast.) Upon sign-up, Stolen gifts each user a pile of digital coins she can use to “steal” profiles of her own and add them to her digital “collection.” The app’s developers have compared all of this to trading baseball cards, except there’s just one card in existence for every player. It feels more like a virtual bidding war over human beings, and the auction never ends.

For as long as a Twitter personality remains in your “collection,” a little sticker appears on his profile that says he “belongs” to you, and for an additional fee of 1,000 units, you can give him a nickname of your choice or scribble notes on his profile that other users can see. Most of the personalities I bought slipped from my grasp soon after I acquired them, “stolen” by another user willing to front more fake money for a claim to the human in question.

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By buying these people, I’d signaled to other users that their stock was on the rise—and I netted a small profit for snatching these people when they were cheap. (In Stolen, as in life, buying a media company is a poor investment: The Times was the only steal on which I lost money.) Users can also “earn” more fake money by checking in to the app every day, inviting new users to the service, or just straight-up buying it with real money.

Early reviews of the app have knocked the human-trafficking theme. It also holds obvious appeal to online abusers, who can “own” their targets and rebrand them with a vile nickname. There’s a lot for Twitter personalities to hate about Stolen. For one thing, the app pipes in their profile data and puts them up for sale without their consent. In response to complaints, Stolen has instituted a system where Twitter users can opt out of the game, but a) they’re forced to hand over the keys to their Twitter accounts to “confirm” their identity, and b) they can’t opt out if they aren’t even aware that their online presence is being traded on some underground marketplace.

In an interview with Gadgette, Siqi Chen, CEO of Stolen’s parent company Hey Inc., said that “very well-known Twitter people” have enjoyed the game “because they understand that this is a compliment” and they know they can leverage it to burnish their statuses as online celebrities. But for minor Twitter personalities and normals on the network, the appeal is less clear. Even those who are sadomasochistic enough to pursue another metric for ranking their popularity won’t get much of a buzz from Stolen, where values feel too random to deliver a self-esteem spike.

But from the perspective of, say, a teenage Ariana Grande fan, Stolen represents a tantalizing new opportunity. Chen told Gadgette that the game is “a way for fans to show appreciation” of their favorite celebrities by competing to add them to their collections. He sees the app’s monetary system not so much as a way to put a price tag on a human being but rather as “a fungible currency that you could use to get closer to the people that you care about.”

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Social media is a tool for celebrities to perform intimacy for millions of strangers, but connected young fans are savvy enough to know that the stars they worship are unlikely to actually read their Twitter at replies. It doesn’t much matter whether Taylor Swift or Zayn Malik or Kim Kardashian West is even aware of the social platform on which the fans are expressing their love. The social interaction plays out between the fans themselves.

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Before Stolen, fans developed their own virtual emblems to signal their proximity to the stars: a line in a Twitter profile noting that her favorite artist liked her tweet (even if a social media manager pressed the button) or the date she met her fave social media personality at a live meet and greet. When Twitter introduced group DMs last year, a cottage industry quickly arose among enterprising teens who figured out how to entice popular accounts to follow them, invite unconnected users to join them in a three-way chat with a chosen star, then exit the conversation, leaving the unconnected Twitter user alone in the DM window with the celebrity. These “solo DMs” are a valuable commodity. Hundreds of Twitter accounts constantly whir with offers to get virtual alone time with a star; in exchange, the accounts that arrange the DMs get loads of followers of their own, increasing their own online power along the way. The celeb behind the account never responds to the DM or even sees it, but that’s not the point. The celebrity Twitter profile itself has become such an icon that fans covet closeness with it.

Now, these fans are competing to “own” celebrities not because it actually gets them “closer” to the stars, but because it increases their status in relation to other fans. The same Twitter user, “Dianna,” owns both Bieber and Grande on Stolen. She has spent enough time and money trading personalities to accumulate the virtual wealth needed to purchase the service’s two most valuable stars. Dianna has been rewarded with digital trophies no one else can claim … until they’re stolen out from under her, and she’s forced to redouble her efforts to win back her icons.

Dianna’s success as a profile wrangler has given her a celebrity status of her own—she’s worth 1.7 million units herself. I sent her a DM to request an interview. Like a true celebrity, she has not replied.