Kik’s Viral Growth Comes With an Apology

Kik screenshot

Instagram has gotten a lot of attention for growing to 300,000 users in a matter of weeks, but a new cross-platform chat application called Kik makes Instagram’s torrid growth pale by comparison. Within just two weeks of its release on October 21, the app had signed up over one million users, and co-founder and CEO Ted Livingston says that based on its current rate of growth, the company will likely cross the 2 million mark by tomorrow. But even as he is celebrating — and trying to cope with — all of that growth, Livingston is having to apologize for the way Kik got there, which involves a somewhat sneaky method some would call “email harvesting.”

When you sign up for the service on your iPhone or BlackBerry, it automatically ingests your contacts from the device and then cross-references that against the Kik user database. It doesn’t ask you first, which is a privacy faux pas. Kik users are then pinged by the service with messages saying “You may know…,” with the user name of someone who matches a name in their contact list. Livingston stressed in an interview with me that the service doesn’t auto-add anyone, and doesn’t store any of the information, but only uses it once and then discards it. But the feature has still made some people nervous — and is probably against Apple’s terms of service.

“We really just wanted to make it as easy as possible for users to get started, and to find people they might know,” the Kik co-founder says. While understandable, this is the same rationale that Google used when it launched Buzz, and auto-populated people’s Buzz contacts with everyone from their email address book — something that caused a huge outcry from privacy advocates as well as a lawsuit that Google recently settled. Livingston says that Kik doesn’t make public any user information other than a user name, and doesn’t send other users anything but your Kik contact info, but he admits that not asking for permission before ingesting people’s contacts was a mistake. If anything, it sounds like the young startup was so eager to launch that it simply forgot that some people might not like this approach.

“We feel really, really bad about that, and we have apologized across the Internet for doing that,” the Kik co-founder said. “And we have a fix ready for upload, just as soon as Apple approves it, that will allow people to opt out of that feature. It will be crystal clear.” Livingston also added that the company has gotten a lot of feedback from users who love the fact that Kik connected them with people they knew who were already using the service. “It’s a very small subset of people who don’t like it,” he said. And the auto-suggestion feature has likely played a huge role in helping Kik go viral so quickly, unlike some social services (Apple’s Ping, for example) that require you to add people manually.

In an interesting twist, Kik didn’t start out trying to create a chat application. Livingston says the startup was originally focused on a music-sharing service that allows any cellphone user to take control of any web browser and play music or videos through it. The Kik co-founder says that service should be ready to roll out soon, once negotiations with record companies are complete, but while the company was waiting, the founders decided to use the platform they had built to experiment with a dead-simple chat application, and Kik was the result.

“There are three parts of texting that most people hate,” he said. “It is unreliable, it is slow and it’s expensive.” There are other companies that have focused on making it free, says Livingston — including Pingchat, which shares office space with Kik at a startup accelerator in Waterloo, Ontario — but “we wanted to make it blazingly fast and reliable.” So Kik shows you when someone has received your message, when it has been read, and even when someone is typing a response. And the response has been incredible, Livingston says: the service has been adding more than 200,000 users a day for the past week or more, and had to fly new servers in to beef up the data center it uses because of the demand.

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