The Consumer is King: Habbo’s Users Make Themselves Heard

Last week the UK’s Channel 4 aired an exposé about Habbo Hotel, accusing the immersive teen games site of an appalling lack of child safety. This story has had a series of ripple effects, with the venture capital firm Balderton Capital dropping its 13% stake in the company that runs Habbo, and several UK retailers including GAME and Tesco removing Habbo gift cards from their shelves.

This all seems a straightforward enough story: a news program decides to crusade for the protection of children. But these young people have minds – and voices – of their own. And many of them don’t want Channel 4’s protection.

We could already see this debate shaping up even before the Channel 4 program. As Francesco’s blog from last week - Shocked vs Blasé - demonstrates, people were already dividing into groups: those who supported Habbo versus those who believed the news story.

The Scandal Angle Dominates  News Media

Plenty of people are still reacting to the news story. Roughly 30% of all English Habbo Twitter discussion is made up of links being shared and passed along, and the scandal shows up strongly in the key topics:

Discussion in this group doesn’t tend to mention other sites’ child safety problems, legislation, or even news stories defending Habbo. It’s pretty much negative all the way.

But the Teens Have Another Spin

Habbo is not without its defenders. Its online community has rallied to support their favorite online game.

The Twitter discussion is almost evenly split between mentions positive towards Habbo and negative ones. The site’s fans are doing their best to make themselves heard, despite the scandal’s domination of the news.

The Habbo users are even bringing the fight right to Channel 4, with tweets including @Channel4news or #C4News to ensure the television channel hears. They are putting forward arguments claiming the Channel 4 report was biased or not thorough enough:

How to engage in social media during a crisis? Habbo’s plan

While they have been talking and making themselves known on Twitter, Habbo users have been unable to talk on Habbo itself. The site “went mute” in reaction to this news story, blocking the chat function entirely while it sought to develop a more effective moderation policy.

But Habbo is about to let them have their say in a very public forum:  TheGreatUnmute.com:

“For six hours tomorrow (Wednesday), starting at 14:00 UK time, a new and separate website called ‘The Great Unmute’ will open and allow you all to post your thoughts and feelings in a way never seen before in social media. Once the uploading closes, the site will be re-secured as a testament to the many positive experiences the Habbo community has created.”

The Great Unmute: The 24 Hour Countdown Begins, Habbo.com, 19 June 2012

What is significant is the extent of the engagement: instead of consulting Habbo’s users only about site moderation policies, the company has recognized an opportunity to engage much more deeply.

On the one hand, this is a great example of community management. Many young people using Habbo seem to have interpreted the Channel 4 investigation as not just an attack on the site, but an attack on something they value – almost an attack on themselves. The discussion remains essentially one-sided even though the Habbo users are trying to speak up through the democratizing effects of Twitter – because only the naysayers have access to the mass broadcast platforms. So, by building a platform, Habbo is helping its users get their arguments heard by collating them in a central place – and giving them a space to collectively express their feelings in a supportive community.

It’s also very savvy PR in a difficult situation. Habbo can’t defend themselves in these circumstances – arguments about the operational difficulties of moderating millions of conversations don’t play well in an emotive argument about child predators and abuse. However, by facilitating young people to speak and be heard, they boost a set of voices that Channel 4 and the internet safety advocates can’t so easily dismiss.

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What we note as researchers, however, is the semiotics of the Great Unmute. It is framed in a language of remembrance and mourning – they talk of “creating a testament”, that is, a will: a document expressing the wishes of the deceased.

It suggests the possibility that, after losing funding from key investors, Habbo’s immersive world may soon be closing down entirely. How will the community react then? Where will they go, and can the relationships they’ve developed on Habbo sustain?

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