The live trivia app HQ Trivia was once the obsession of the internet, garnering millions of players and an international spotlight. But then it all went wrong. Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia tells the story of the once-viral trivia app and examines vagaries of the attention economy.
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In November 2017, HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky gave an interview to Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz. “It was going to be a total fluff piece,” Lorenz recalls. Adds Rogowsky: “I mean, it was truly, ‘Where did you go to school? How long have you been doing comedy? Where did you grow up? What do you eat for lunch?’” And then, when Lorenz asked HQ cofounder Rus Yusupov for comment, the situation escalated. Yusupov started yelling at Lorenz, and—on the record, with a journalist—threatened to fire Rogowsky for giving an unauthorized interview. The story ran. You can read it here.
Over the course of reporting this podcast, I interviewed a lot of former HQ employees. And pretty much all of them remember this unfortunate series of events as a turning point in the company. Some of them even had a name for it: “the Sweetgreen Incident.” Once the internet got ahold of that story, it launched Scott into a new echelon of fame—one that would give him more leverage within the company—all while messing up the shiny veneer of this new startup.
But all drama aside, this is when the growth of the company completely shifted: What was once a promising idea with a modest user base was suddenly spiking in every way possible. No one saw it coming, and no one could prepare for it.
“The problem was that article just made it get way too popular. That wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Rusty Wyner, HQ’s animation director. “That spike in popularity just made it grow too quickly. It was too viral.”
The Sweetgreen Incident had all the ingredients to blow up online. It was a story about a popular new app, it fed into the stereotype of the controlling tech founder, and compared to most other tales of corporate misconduct, it was just absurd.
Not only that, but the piece also had what social media experts might describe as a “call to action.” Those people who were self-professed Scott Rogowsky fans? Well, they were absolutely determined to save their dear Quiz Daddy. So they went online to defend him. Here’s a sample of some tweets from that day:
i'm worried about scott from HQ. i feel like he's imprisoned— Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz) November 22, 2017
I would go with Scott wherever he chooses to spread his wings #FreeScott https://t.co/nEX1V6KCY0— cayce (@autotectonic) November 22, 2017
It’s time to put aside all our differences and #FreeScott https://t.co/mtyVLIgjls— Sara Mauskopf (@sm) November 21, 2017
Yes, there was a “Free Scott” hashtag. To be clear, Scott wasn’t imprisoned or in danger. But he was having quite a day.
“I do remember watching this Twitter go viral and then hopping on my Citi Bike to go uptown and being stopped at the corner of University Place on 14th Street at a red light,” Rogowsky says. “I look over at a pedestrian, total stranger happened to look over. He’s on his phone reading the Daily Beast story. He looks up at me and he’s like, ‘This is you.’ I—like, yeah, my picture’s in there—and we’re looking at each other. I was like, ‘Yeah, man, crazy day.’”
This story was spreading everywhere. If you were just a normal person surfing the internet that day, chances are it crossed your feed. And if you’d never heard of HQ Trivia before, well, now you had.
Not only that, but you could tune in to a live game at 9 p.m. to see what was going on. HQ was no longer just a live trivia app, it was a live soap opera too.
“I think the most intriguing thing to everyone was to read about the drama about him and Rus, so people kinda tuned in to find out what’s the CEO and head of the show fighting about?” says Wyner. “And they got there and they got a new experience. That’s what made it blow up a little too fast.”
A stream of comments runs at the bottom of the app during every HQ game, and that night people were writing things like “I thought you got fired scott,” and “he lives!” Most notably, viewership got a boost.
For the record, a spokesperson for HQ told me that the Daily Beast article had neither a positive nor negative effect on the company’s growth. But at that point, 100,000 viewers was still a large crowd for a weekday game. Despite all the drama, or frankly because of it, the app was on its way to becoming, as Rusty said, “too viral.”
What does that mean exactly? Too viral?
There’s a really good reason people strive for virality: Catching a wave of internet attention at the right time can do magical things. It can turn a sex worker’s Twitter thread about a wild weekend into the Sundance hit Zola. It can help a 14-year-old named Jalaiah Harmon bring her TikTok dance moves to the NBA All-Star Game. It can transform a kid from Georgia who once used a closet as a recording studio into Lil Nas X, a record-breaking pop star.
But when you’re not prepared for it, getting too popular too quickly can go haywire. Maybe you wear a controversial Halloween costume, it goes viral, and you’re suddenly without a job and fielding hate mail. Or you end up in the front row of a presidential debate in a funny sweater, and a few days later the internet digs up the entirety of your posting history on Reddit.
“When we say you went viral, I think what we really mean is all of a sudden maybe millions of people are paying attention to you,” says Casey Newton, a Silicon Valley editor at The Verge. “And I think it’s fair to say that most human beings were not built to withstand the scrutiny of millions of people, right? When millions of people see something that you did, or read something you wrote, a big absolute number of those people are going to find fault with it, and they’re going to come after you. And so it can be a really disorienting experience, I think, for a lot of folks.”
It can be bad for a startup too. Sure, most social networks need a critical mass of users to even qualify as interesting or relevant. And most young startups that experience high growth are expected to be chaotic. But too much attention often results in an unpredictable online community—meaning they can be there one day and gone the next.