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09 Feb 2014

iOS hit Flappy Bird came out of nowhere, blew up the Internet for a couple weeks, and is now dead and gone. During its short time in the spotlight, Flappy Bird attracted a lot of attention, and not all of it was positive.

First came the accusations of iOS chart manipulation. That story was picked up by Newsweek and The Telegraph, among others, but every one of those articles sourced only one person: Carter Thomas, who had this to say:

Looking at some of the top apps in the store by Dong Nguyen, I hate to say it, but it looks really similar to bot activity. Of course, I can’t prove this and there are strong cases for lots of different potential growth strategies, but I do want to bring this up to engage a discussion and get industry leaders to weigh in with some analysis so that we can find out how this happened.

Thomas goes on to provide exactly two pieces of "evidence":

  • The game came out in June, but its app ranking didn't skyrocket until December.
  • A "quick snapshot from a 3 minute scroll through Flappy Bird's reviews" showed lots of 5-star reviews written in a tongue-in-cheek style, including quotes like "I hate this game so much but I can't stop playing it".

As if those couldn't be trivially explained by, you know, "going viral", he then concludes with:

I’ve seen a lot of shady stuff in the app store and this is textbook.

Speaking of shady stuff, this is the same Carter Thomas who recently posted that awful article about app-flipping. To wit:

Leverage the work that someone else has done by licensing or purchasing source code. My drug of choice is Apptopia because you can get an app in the store immediately before having to re-skin. [...] 33 days is my window for making a 100% return. If I spend $600 on a re-skin, I give it 33 days to make $1,200. I’ll watch it and update it and do whatever, but after 33 days, I forget about it. Everyone’s got their own number, but after the first month, these low quality games really aren’t worth your time relative to the value you get from focusing on the next game.

Let me be clear: the accusation of Flappy Bird's iOS chart manipulation comes solely from the app-flipping guy (isn't that the pot calling the kettle black). Carter Thomas is literally the only person cited in every story I've seen on the topic. He has no evidence, and none of the journalists that cited him -- not Newsweek, not The Telegraph, no one -- fact-checked any of his claims before regurgitating them wholesale.

Then, as if that wasn't enough media abuse, Kotaku decided to pile on with a breathtakingly poorly-researched accusation of ripped artwork. It was so bad that the author later posted an apology:

UPDATE (2/8/14): This article was originally titled "Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art." Given that the word "ripped" can be interpreted as "lifted," I've decided to change the headline for the sake of clarity. Before scrutinizing the two pipes side by side, I believed that Flappy Bird's art was directly taken from Mario—however, when examined, it's clear that Flappy Bird's pipe is a new albeit unoriginal drawing. The similarities are apparent, as I originally noted, but "ripped" may have been too harsh a word.

...but he left the original article up anyway.

Understandably, it apparently all became a bit much for Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen, and he decided to pull the game:

To which the Internet hate mob responded in what's become an all-too-familiar fashion:

In the end, an independent game developer's project was destroyed by Carter "I flip apps" Thomas making a wildly unsubstantiated accusation of chart manipulation, several mainstream journalists regurgitating those claims without even a pretense of fact-checking or journalistic follow-up, a major game news site piling on with a completely false charge of sprite ripping, and an Internet hate mob metaphorically running the developer out of town with torches and pitchforks held high.

Is this what we've become?

UPDATE, FEBRUARY 10 - Kotaku has posted a sincere apology for their earlier reporting. Editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo had this to say:

Dong Nguyen, I'm sorry about what we wrote about your game's art. And I'm sorry if what we wrote contributed to any harassment you received about your game. Even if it didn't I wish we could do that one over.

And the author of the original piece, Jason Schreier, also added:

Over the past couple of days, I've spent a lot of time reading reactions and feedback to the article I published last week, and I've spent a lot of time regretting it. The post was rash, and hasty, and below my usual standards. To Kotaku I apologize for allowing that to happen. To Dong Nguyen, I apologize for my poorly-chosen words, and I hope that you find peace.

While it would obviously been better had Kotaku reviewed the original piece much more carefully before publishing it in the first place, this sincere apology is worthy of at least some commendation.

Tellingly, I've seen no such acknowledgement from any of the other, often considerably more-mainstream press that also pushed unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims.

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