Sulake, the developers behind the children’s virtual world Habbo Hotel, is preparing to reopen its chatrooms once again after a week in which it was exposed for hosting inappropriate sexual content on the site, prompting the company to close down all conversations — “mute” them in Habbo terminology — while it sorted out the mess.
The news of what Habbo is calling “The Great Unmute” will also be used as a chance to get user feedback on the state of the site and how it should develop, according to a blog post published today by Sulake’s CEO, Paul LaFontaine. He also took the opportunity to claim that some journalists have been using the opportunity to start reaching out to Habbo users, offering them money for stories of their Habbo misadventures.
“They may well be vulnerable and certainly will not benefit from self-interested approaches and offers of cash for case studies,” he writes. “We want to create a comprehensive and constructive response to our current challenges and send out a call to action for improved safety standards across the online gaming community. Petty attempts to generate more bad news are distracting us from the job at hand.”
LaFontaine says that the decision to “mute” all conversations on the site, which it took after the UK’s Channel Four broadcast its exposé on Tuesday, had a “massive business impact” on the site — financial amount not specified, but the company makes money off the sale of virtual goods. That would have been largely halted in the process of the part-closure, resulting in a revenue loss that would have been compounded by some users leaving the site altogether in the wake of the scandal.
Despite that, he writes, “the safety of our users is non-negotiable.”
He writes that since the scandal broke — which resulted in key investor Balderton dropping its 13 percent stake in the company — senior management and “world leading technologists” have been working in its Helsinki HQ to sort out the situation and put in place a new “comprehensive safety program.” Other sites aimed at children have taken a mixed approach to firming up their controls, however.
The details of that have not yet been made public but interestingly it looks like it will involve more parental involvement in the use of the site — something that was not required before. There may be (and should be) more algorithmic improvements made for non-human monitoring, too, however.
Habbo’s “Great Unmute”, in the words of LaFontaine, sounds slightly cultish, but if you go beyond cynicism it might be a worthwhile exercise: “It’s going to provide a chance for our users to create a conversational tidal wave, telling us what they want and showing the world that our global community contains millions of responsible and proud users who have a positive experience on our site,” he writes. He says that more details will come in the days ahead.