Business Insider

Startup reaches No. 2 in the US App Store despite human trafficking smear campaign

Accusations of people being lured by strangers using the app first appeared in App Store reviews before being circulated on Twitter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 8:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 11:43am

When Nikil Viswanathan first saw the allegations rolling in on social media, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Hundreds of people were accusing his app of being used for human trafficking, and urging others to never download it.

Viswanathan is the co-creator of Down to Lunch, a simple meet-up app that has become wildly popular on college campuses. The app, which helps people spontaneously "lunch," "chill," or even "blaze" with friends, peaked at No. 2 on the iPhone download charts in the US earlier this month (it has since settled into the 40-50 range).

The app’s rapid rise to fame represents the Silicon Valley dream story. But a string of product woes, and a bizarre social media attack that branded the app a tool for people to kidnap teens, shows the double-edged sword of the internet “virality” driving today’s tech boom.

The start

Stanford graduates Viswanathan and Joseph Lau built Down to Lunch last year to try and recreate the experience of living in their freshman year dorms, where it seemed so easy to run into someone and get lunch, play basketball, or do whatever.

Viswanathan had tried five previous times to recreate this time of life (three times with Lau), but Down to Lunch was the one that finally started to stick.

Here’s how it works.

The app lets you declare you are “down” for a specific activity — lunch for example — and then with a tap send a notification out to all your friends nearby. They can join the "event" if they are free and then you can chat about the details. It’s a way of spontaneously hanging out when everyone has busy schedules, Viswanathan says.

When Viswanathan began to work in tech after college, he noticed that he would constantly run into old friends and they would swap the refrain, “Hey, we should get lunch sometime.” The problem was that “sometime” was in the nebulous future and it would never actually get done. And when Viswanathan did have a free moment during work hours, he would start texting friends to see who was else free, and after a few “sorry, busy” rejections, he’d give up.

The theory behind Down to Lunch was that it might help Viswanathan actually have lunch with his non-work friends for a change.

The rise

After being released to the public about a year ago, the app started to pick up steam at colleges — starting at University of Georgia.

At first, Viswanathan admits he was surprised. He and Lau had built the app in a day and hadn’t spent much time perfecting it.

“The product was barely functional,” Viswanathan says bluntly. He admits that even today the app can be a buggy mess. But college kids loved the concept, and even with its hobbled utility, it spread to university after university. As it gained popularity, the pair thought about stopping new users from joining. The two-man team was unprepared to scale the app and knew the product needed serious work. One of their advisors told them to just ride the wave, so they hired a small team to try to keep up and begin to improve it.

The human trafficking attack

Then, out of the blue, the human trafficking accusations erupted. Viswanathan says they started from a few App Store “reviews,” which were screenshotted and passed around by high-follower Twitter accounts. The reviews were mainly comprised of outlandish tales of people lured by strangers using Down to Lunch.

Here’s one:

I tapped the [Down to Lunch] button and I was innocently going to Panera Bread when I see a strange man with a trench coat and sunglasses right in front of me in line. It was really strange. I sat down and expected a few friends to show up. I examine this weirdo in the trench coat out of the corner of my eye. He was sitting at a table with a middle aged female, and two middle aged men…

This particular review ends with the girl running away from these people after they try to get her into a van using the promise of a “premium edition” camera.

Viswanathan doesn’t know who started the “smear campaign,” he says, but he suspects a competitor paid thousands of dollars for it. The accusations got a particular boost after being tweeted by parody accounts like “Dory,” which can allegedly sometimes charge hundreds of dollars for a single post.

When Viswanathan saw these reviews, he thought Down to Lunch users would immediately know they were fake. There are many places you can meet anonymous strangers on the internet, but Down to Lunch isn’t really one of them. Down to Lunch only lets you interact with people whose phone number you have in your address book, and who have your phone number in theirs, Viswanathan explains. In fact, the inability to find friends from places like your Facebook is actually a common complaint of users.

But Viswanathan soon realized his initial assumption was wrong: people didn’t immediately conclude the reviews were fake. The reviews spread like wildfire on social media, and the app lost 90 per cent of its user growth in less than 48 hours.

When Viswanathan spoke to a crisis PR representative, she asked her daughter, a student at Dartmouth, about the app. “Oh yeah, it’s used for human trafficking,” the daughter replied.

Viswanathan says he has been contacted by law enforcement in multiple states about the posts. Kirsta Melton, the leader of the human trafficking division of the Texas attorney general’s office, who said “she looked into the app and found no evidence supporting the allegations.”

As various organizations (including myth debunker Snopes) looked into it, Viswanathan and his team started to make some headway against the accusations. Apple and Google took down many of the reviews and some of the Twitter accounts that had tweeted them began to disappear.

The app surged in popularity again, reaching No. 2 in the App Store in mid-April.

The spam question

But that didn’t mean the end of Viswanathan’s problems. As people began to invite their friends to join that app, many on Twitter complained about spam. In early April, Down to Lunch introduced a feature that let people send invites to their entire address book. Viswanathan disabled it as soon as he heard complaints.

But people on social media still grumbled that they were getting unwanted invites from their friends (though it was the friend's choice to send the invite). A man named Matthew Warciak has even filed a class action lawsuit against Down to Lunch in Chicago, Illinois.

“Nikil obtained the recipient’s phone numbers by scraping its users’ contact lists and sending unauthorized text messages to the phones of thousands of consumers across the country,” the lawsuit alleges.

Viswanathan gave this statement about the lawsuit:

The claim is wrong on many fronts, and we're really saddened to see someone so upset about being invited to the app by friends. Users can only invite friends one by one, and the invite action is completely user initiated — there is absolutely no automated messaging. After getting DTL, users loved the app, and wanted a super simple way to get all their friends on the app so they could use it to hang out. The invite system was built to only to do that.

Can't stop the buzz

But these setbacks haven’t stopped top Silicon Valley venture capitalists from sniffing around. When Business Insider staff joined the app, they noticed most of theirr contacts who were already using it were venture capitalists.

Indeed, during a phone conversation, Viswanathan had to step away for a few minutes. A venture capitalist had shown up unannounced at his office, Viswanathan explained.

Viswanathan’s story shows the agony and ecstasy of going viral on the internet. Viswanathan rushes to show all the positive feedback he’s received from college students across the country (he has his own cell phone number on the app, a decision he says has him receiving hundreds or even thousands of texts a day).

But the app’s popularity (and notoriety) has made it slip out of his control. Viswanathan is open about the technical shortcomings of the app. His team is struggling to deal with the scale, and with how to fix a product that is crude (sometimes to the point of annoying users). And even though the human trafficking fiasco is partially resolved, the reviews keep popping up again and again, he says.

What Viswanathan hopes will save Down to Lunch is a winning concept. People want an easy way to arrange a hangout on the fly, he says. That’s why the app has grown so much despite the failings in the product and the PR nightmare.

Viswanathan, as is typical in the tech industry, has grand ambitions for the app. He wants it to become a platform to let you know what your friends are up to in real-time. But for now, the problems of the moment are more pressing. He says he’s barely slept in three days. The team is just trying to make sure Down to Lunch is in a place where it can capitalise on the momentum, and not squander it.