Saturday, June 21, 2014

Return of the cow clicker

I've previously written about Cow Clicker, a Facebook game in which players would click on an image of a cow, and later just the space where a cow had once been, thereby sending a message to all their friends that they had done so.  While not a runaway hit, Cow Clicker did manage to attract some 50,000 users, some portion of whom paid real money for the privilege of clicking more often, or on a fancier cow (Bling Cow could be yours for only $100).

The idea behind Cow Clicker was to reduce social gaming to its barest elements, partly as parody and partly as a study of social gaming behavior.  Fast forward a few years, and someone has done the same thing for mobile phone apps.  The Yo app will send a message to any of your contacts saying, simply "yo".  Unlike Cow Clicker, Yo has attracted hundreds of thousands of users so far, who have already sent millions of yos.

This popularity has had two not-too-shocking consequences.  On the one hand, it has attracted $1 million in funding.  On the other hand, it has been hacked.

Actually, the hack doesn't seem so much a hack as a matter of the app leaking confidential information and someone noticing it.  Three college students using the app were able to get the personal phone number of the founder, text him and get a call back.

What does it all mean?  Anyone who thinks it means the end of civilization as we know it is forgetting that civilization as we know it produced the tulip mania, phone booth packing, pet rocks and any number of other major and minor follies.  Nor can it possibly be surprising that an app, however trivial, that could gather hundreds of thousands of users in short order might attract investment money.  Whether or not you believe that the attention economy is anything new or different, getting people's attention is potentially worth money ... "This Yo brought to you by Spümcø".

Somewhat more concerning, though still not surprising, is that even a simple app like Yo would leak confidential information.  Security in applications of all kinds is still something you have to build in, or at least you can't assume that your app is secure just because you haven't done anything to make it insecure.  To some extent this is a hard problem.  Any useful app will involve some form of communication, and any communication exposes information, even if it's only who's communicating with whom (which can reveal much more than you might think).

It's been a couple of years since Cow Clicker's heyday.  Most likely the ruckus about Yo will die down and in another few years another minimal app will take its place.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

1 comment:

earl said...

Sic, indeed.

I did follow the link to the Paul Revere paper, and was just a little disturbed (in context) by the invitation to "like" it.