Flirting App Skout Backtracks in Rape Crisis

Commonly known as “the flirting app” amongst the digerati, the social networking platform Skout—which lets users message and chat with nearby strangers—is now flirting with disaster.

After a Tuesday, June 12 story in The New York Times Bits blog reporting that three men are accused of raping children under the age of 15—and used the Skout app to meet them—the company is reeling, as well it should.

Started in 2007 as a location check-in service like Foursquare, the Times reports that Skout floundered at first, then adjusted its business model to a flirting app and began attracting millions of users per month to the service. Then, in 2011 Skout started a separate service for 13- to 17-year-olds after noticing minors were gaining access through Facebook (you need a Facebook account to use Skout, which is, ironically, one of their safeguards).

This turned out to be the big business blunder. The same day as the Times blog post, Skout founder Christian Wiklund announced that people under 18 would not be able to access the site, for now. He said in a blog post: “Today Skout has decided to temporarily suspend access to our teen community. This is not a decision we made lightly, so let me explain in my own words why we chose this path. The safety of our community is our #1 concern.  About a year ago, we noticed that a number of underage users were entering the 18+ community.  So, we thought long and hard about how to set up a safe network for teens and decided to broaden our reach to be more than just a dating app…With more than a quarter of our staff dedicated to community management, we actively monitor and screen to ensure that the two separate communities for users 18+ and for teen users are kept distinct and that behavior is age-appropriate.”

On Wednesday, June 13, Mashable pointed out that one-quarter of Skout’s staff is 18 people, in charge of policing some 3 million users of the app. To be fair, the company also uses software to help monitor inappropriate behavior.

Now, says Mashable, Skout is hiring a risk management advisory firm and consulting with law enforcement in charge of the local sexual assault cases. “During this temporary closure we will be testing and updating safeguards to protect teen users,” wrote a Skout spokesperson in an e-mail to Mashable.

Realistically, will these safeguards be foolproof? Instead of working on safeguards to protect teen users, how about admitting that providing an online platform for sexual predators to reach teens wasn’t a great idea in the first place? And what is to prevent these predators from targeting users over the age of 18?

We’re all aware of the line, “There’s an app for that.” In the case of Skout, perhaps there shouldn’t be an app for that.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01