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It may take a larger app community to prevent the next 'Make Me Asian'

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Shane Schick

About this, at least, there can be little dispute: Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) did the right thing in recently removing the Make Me Asian app from its Play store. What's more worthy of developer attention is the process by which it happened and how similarly controversial apps might be stopped before they reach distribution.

Make Me Asian allowed users to upload a self-portrait, which would then be decorated with stereotypical East Asian features such as a "Fu Manchu" mustache or a rice paddy hat. Due to the app's popularity, the app's creator, known only as KimberyWeiss, soon created a mini-franchise of these apps including Make Me Russian and Make Me Indian. All of these apps have been pulled from Google Play, as has KimberyWeiss' profile.

I first heard about the incident via a media alert from Change.org, which offers an online petition service for anyone interested in lobbying for various causes. A Washington, D.C.-area pastor used Change.org to collect more than 10,000 signatures lambasting Make Me Asian, and while Change.org did not exactly take credit for prompting Google's decision, there was certainly a suggestion that the petition had a major influence.

And you know what? Maybe it did; 10,000 signatures, even digital ones, are nothing to sneeze at. Of course Google didn't explain itself, just as Apple or other platform providers haven't, probably because they are suddenly put into the uncomfortable position of moral arbiters. As the app economy matures, however, petitions will be just one force for preventing or protesting against inappropriate apps. Even in this case, Google may have also noticed the Twitter hashtag #makemeracist, which decried the KimberyWeiss apps. There might also be commentary in more traditional online forums, e-mails to the editors of online magazines or similar channels. Yet all these tend to be vehicles for feedback after the fact--after the app is already out there reinforcing ethnic clichés, defaming a segment of society or perhaps putting inappropriate information in front of minors.

Most people, if they picture an app developer at all, probably imagine a guy working alone in his basement in his spare time. This is reasonably accurate, based on industry research, but the route from idea to market is becoming much more complex than that. There are a growing cadre of services like Kickstarter, Ooomf, Sellanapp, Applits and others that are offering an ability to "crowdsource" application development by inviting consumers into the process at increasingly earlier stages. In some cases there are feedback mechanisms to see if a developer's idea is worth pursuing. In other cases there are opportunities to critique early prototypes on a feature-by-feature basis, long before they even reach beta, let alone an app store.

App development, at least to some extent, is becoming something that happens in community. Hopefully that will lead to more valuable apps, better performing apps and more utilized apps. A litmus test of how well those communities function may end up being whether they lead to fewer apps like Make Me Asian, too.--Shane