Flappy Fraud?

Flappy Bird's Meteoric Rise

By Myron Chiu

As a little bit of background info, Know Your Meme has a pretty well documented timeline of events for Flappy Bird's rise to the top of the charts. There is no concrete conclusion drawn in this post, but some deeper analysis of Flappy Bird reveals some interesting patterns.

TL:DR

Flappy Bird has an usually high proportion of reviews that are very long, with similar phrasing, tone, and overall message. I'm not sure if that is due to genuine virality & copy cat commentors, an army of keyword-fed reviewers, or an advanced spintax generator. Regardless, the verbosity of the reviews is noteworthy.



Flappy Pagans? What Is Going On Here?


At the time of writing this article, 56% (704/1261) of all mentions of 'Satan' in the iOS app store are in Flappy Bird reviews. That seemed a little suspicious, so I took a closer look with our review analysis module.

Some other fun search phrases I ran across:

  • "evil genius"
  • "satan himself"
  • "i was browsing the app store"
  • "do not download this game"
  • "normal day"
  • "worst mistake"
  • "it all started"
  • "ruined my life"
  • "throw my [iphone/ipad]"

After reading through a few hundred of them with a handful of ibuprofen to treat the resulting headache, I think the most likely possible scenarios (in no particular order) are as follows:

Scenario A: Viral Explosion

Found by a few key individuals who felt it necessary to share frustration and anguish in social circles, and the app was organically disseminated. People wrote a couple of ridiculous and exaggerated reviews, others thought it was funny and emulated the style, tone, and syntax of the reviews. Some youtubers showcase the game and resulting frustration, exposing the game to millions of potential users. A few hundred thousand bored school children and teenagers (that enjoy imitating each other's comments) tumble, pin, like, upvote, and tweet the app into the stratosphere.

Scenario B: Army of Review Generators

Via whichever mechanism allows you to coordinate dozens or hundreds of people (digital sweatshops, a less regulated mturk alternative, etc), the participants are given the task of creating new iTunes accounts, downloading and installing Flappy Bird, and writing a ridiculously over the top review (most likely touting the app's poor quality, yet rating it highly on average).

I was able to create a new iTunes account with the same billing info and address of my normal iTunes account and leave a legitimate review on Flappy Bird in 2 minutes, 24 seconds on my first try. Someone who was doing that task for hours a day could probably get it down to under 2 minutes per account.

[By the way, this was done only with a computer (no iDevices), and can be done on any type of hardware, assuming internet access and a supported web browser.]

Admittedly, the slowest part of the process aside from actually writing the review would be creation of the email address -- however, if the team had a domain with dummy addresses already assigned (1@digitalsweatshop.com, 2@... etc) and created for use, this step would be negated.

Scenario C: Morbid, Hyperbolic, Spintax Generator

Someone has created a spintax system that is capable of creating a seemingly infinite combination of reasonably phrased, dire, and bleak stream of consciousness-esque reviews, ranging from simple phrases to 1000+ character stories. At the top of likely suspects is LiveJournal's advanced emo AI department*.
*Not a real department

Scenario D: Some Combination of A, B, & C.



Verbose User Base


The least speculative information tidbit to come out of this is perhaps the following graph. Seeing the lengths of some of these story-like review made me wonder how other apps compared in terms of average user verbosity.

Below is an interactive graph of the character length distribution of the iTunes App Store in comparison to Flappy Bird's review distribution.

Check out these character count ranges: (You can also select a custom range)



Conclusion?


I still have no idea whether or not Flappy Bird gamed the system, or was just serendipitously lifted up through the category rankings by throngs of masochists. Whatever happened, it is worth the investigation. If it was legitimate and legal, then it is worth trying to emulate or replicate. If done illegally or in a morally dark-grey manner, then measures should be put in place to prevent 'gaming the system' (eg. Scenario B).

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