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.
On Friday, February 14, news broke that HQ was no more.
But then, there were a few … interesting developments.
And most of them were playing out—where else?—on Twitter.
In the February 14 all-hands meeting where Rus Yusupov had dissolved the company, he told the HQ staff that they wouldn’t be given severance, and that the players who had won money in the game wouldn’t be able to cash out. Understandably, both of those groups were not happy.
The fans grumbled about maybe filing a class action lawsuit against the company. But employees were revved up and organizing. A bunch of them had gathered in a rogue Slack to vent and find new jobs for the people who’d just been laid off.
But then, Rus went on his own PR offensive. The day the company shut down, he tweeted: “With HQ, we showed the world the future of TV. We didn’t get to where we hoped but we did stretch the world’s imagination for what’s possible on our smartphones. Thanks to everyone who helped build this and thanks for playing.” The next day, he responded to one of Scott Rogowsky’s angry tweets with a single word: “Hugs.”
That same weekend, HQ’s Twitter account posted a phone number people could call into and leave voicemails. Soon enough, some of that audio made its way onto HQ’s Instagram account.
In addition to drumming up HQ nostalgia, on the Monday after the shutdown, Rus wrote a message in the company’s Slack channel. A former HQ employee sent me a screenshot of it. Here’s what it said:
“I spent the entire weekend ensuring we will all get full payroll due this week, plus severance, plus unused PTO from the new policy. Plus all individual contractors paid in full, plus players getting their cash prizes. Nothing signed yet, but I am close so please bear with me as I get more answers soon.”
He also pinged the whole channel to ask a curious question: If given the opportunity, would any engineers want to keep working on HQ?
Then, on February 18th, four days after this dramatic shut down, Rus started a tweet thread that began with this message: “On Friday I announced that @hqtrivia was shutting down after a failed acquisition. Well it was a busy weekend, and—HQ WILL LIVE ON.”
Capitalizing on media coverage, especially media coverage about failures and feuds, is now a go-to strategy to get ahead in the world. My earliest memories of this symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the media are from the gossip tabloids of my youth. Each week, in the pages of Us Weekly and InTouch I’d see Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian exploiting their messy lives for the paparazzi, which ultimately helped them land reality shows and perfume deals.
Easy access to social media has made it so socialites aren’t the only ones who can profit from having their personal dramas play out on a world stage. Now, anyone with enough media savvy—whether a politician, a journalist, or an executive—can lean into the public intrigue of their personal lives as a professional advantage. We are all part of this machine that rewards engagement at any cost, and those who overshare online will probably be able to build a following faster.
This kind of attention-seeking has also proven to be a useful tool in Silicon Valley. CEOs and investors can be influencers in their own way, too. You don’t need to look much further than Elon Musk’s Twitter feed to know that the cult of personality around a CEO can sometimes help drive sales at a company. Even if, meanwhile, that same CEO’s tweets spur securities fraud charges. When the focus is on an individual, rather than their professional responsibilities, every victory and blunder is received the same way among a loyal fandom. It’s entertainment. And all someone has to do is keep tweeting through it.
As I watched this whole HQ resurrection play out, I was in awe over the way that Rus was riding this wave of media coverage. In the comments he’d made that week, he wasn’t necessarily taking responsibility for HQ’s failure or its abrupt closure. Rather, he had recast himself as the savior of a beleaguered internet company who had worked all weekend to fulfill what were basic financial obligations to his users and employees.
On top of that, he had spun this burst of media attention—around the shut down, around the messy HQ After Dark Show, and around Scott’s comments—into a suspiciously quick comeback, thanks to an undisclosed mystery investor. In a way, it was a reiteration of all the online forces that helped turn HQ Trivia into this bright burning star in the first place.
It seemed like, to Rus, the story of HQ was now just as valuable, if not more valuable, than the app itself. And it was the perfect moment to hit the restart button. Just this time around he wouldn’t have to pay so many people’s salaries.