Why I left Facebook, and so should you.

I begrudgingly signed-up for Facebook some years ago, because it was simply easier to sign-in to mobile apps and other services which required authentication.  I had no intention of using as it’s intended to be used.  Of course, I eventually fell into the trap of using it for precisely that, and it quickly took the place of staying in touch with friends and colleagues the old fashioned way; i.e., phone calls, emails, and SMS text messaging.  Before long I was using it to share stories and opinions about current affairs, politics and other articles from mainstream news-sites, blogs and comment threads on reddit, Google Plus, and other social media.  I’d been suckered in.

Over here in the UK, at the moment, there is an unprecedented amount of rightwing propaganda permeating the proverbial airwaves.  Even organisations which built their reputation on giving voice to a balance of views, have begun repeating verbatim government press releases, talking down the importance of pressure groups, and openly ridiculing political parties simply because they have policies which challenge the status quo.  This is helped along by the overabundance of opinion formers masquerading as journalists, pushed in-front of the 24 hour rolling news cameras, to tell us what to think, when to think it, and when to pretend we never really thought it, as soon as the political winds blow from another direction.

Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in these turbulent times, the ruling elite should become more and more blatant about their disregard for democracy, the open exchange of ideas, and an informed debate.  Their track record for closing down anyone and anything which threatens to educate the electorate as to their true grip on the levers of power, runs throughout the history of the 20th century, culminating in the failings of the 9/11 commission, and the orchestrated collapse of the world financial system.

But what remained true throughout most if not all of these events, which have shaped our modern world, was the grip on reality which ordinary working people clung on to throughout the melee of misinformation being thrown at them by the press.  No right thinking person, for example, took one look at the failings which led to the melt-down in the American mortgage market, and concluded that this was accidental – a catastrophic series of otherwise unrelated events, which couldn’t have been predicted or prevented.  Indeed, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, analysts and economists were positively tripping over themselves to explain in lurid detail to anyone who would listen how and why this was a situation deliberately created by those who stood to gain the most from everyone else’s misery and loss.

We all knew, in other words – regardless of our particular political affiliations – that this was something beyond anything which could be fixed at the ballot box.  The decisions were out of our hands.  That is to say, that the vast majority of people knew then what they’re beginning to now forget — that there is such a thing as a ruling elite, and that their number one agenda is to make it impossible for ordinary people to seize any real power.

It is my contention that a major reason as to why people are beginning to forget this, is down to the way in which social media, Facebook in particular, erects a forth wall between real world friends, family and co-workers.  It enables people to say out-loud what they would hesitate to say in polite company.  It enables in-groups to attack out-groups with such efficiency, that far from its ostensible aims of bringing people closer together, it is in-fact creating more and more division among communities and as a consequence wrecking real-world friendships.

Your data in their hands.

As print newspapers transition from ink to 1’s and 0’s, and their readers move from paper to tablets and smartphones, it is natural that publishers who wish to stay in business should have a marketing strategy.  A big part of the strategies used by these content providers, is one which uses Facebook as the jumping off point where readers discover further content.  Clicking a link on your Facebook timeline, which opens on, say, the Guardian website, will launch the Guardian app on your smartphone.  Some sites even design the layout of their mobile website in such a way that viewing the story you’re interested in is rendered virtually impossible unless you download and install their app first – where the content is properly formatted for reading on a smaller device.  This means that when you click the ‘back’ button, after reading the article, rather than being directed back to Facebook, you’re instead landed on the front page of the website, where you’re more likely to read other stories, and in-turn share them on your Facebook timeline.

This isn’t done for your convenience.  It’s done because, in the small print of the licence agreement, which most people agree to without actually reading, after installing a news app the vendor is immediately given the right to view your Facebook data whenever you read, share or comment on a story on your own timeline, your friend’s timeline, or in a private group.  This enables the publisher to track stories you’re interested in, and match you to other readers in your socioeconomic bracket; your level of education, your work history, where you went on a first date, and so on.  This valuable data is then sold-on to advertisers.  This is where on-line newspapers generate the majority of their revenue.

It might be argued that as long as you’re smart about the information you share on your profile this could actually be a good way of keeping news services free to view.  The problem is, Facebook makes it virtually impossible to restrict the amount of information you unwittingly share about yourself, simply by reading other posts, and commenting on them.  We might think we’re being careful about the information we include in our personal biography page, for example, but it’s the information which can be gleaned from our ordinary day to day interactions which in-fact tell a much deeper story about who we are, how we think, how we vote, and how we view the world around us.

This is the data which can be used to manipulate the stories you see being shared by others on your timeline.  It is also the data which can be used to make your Facebook posts visible to other users.  Opting out of the systems which make this possible, lowers the chances of your voice being heard – even to the point that something you post might never be seen even by your friends, if Facebook’s algorithm decides on their behalf they’re more likely to be interested in something which contains metadata more valuable to them.  It is this sinister way in which Facebook ‘games’ your data and mine, which explains my decision to leave the site for good.

No smoke without fire.

Just before Christmas 2015, at about 8:30pm, I set out to buy movie night snacks from my local convenience store.  As soon as I stepped outside, there was an acrid smell of smoke in the air, and it was obvious something not too far from my front door was on fire.  Sure enough, as I walked along a darkened path behind a small industrial estate which links one part of my housing estate to another, flames were lapping up the walls of a warehouse inside the compound.  By the time I’d spoken to other residents, who assured me the fire brigade were on their way, and returned from the corner shop, the unit was fully ablaze, and the small path I’d walked along not 5 minutes earlier was engulfed in vile black smoke.

When I returned safely home via another route, I posted about this on Facebook.  I was worried there might have been someone trapped inside the building.  By this point there were blue flashing lights everywhere, and it was obvious this was a major incident.

The next day, as I was walking past the site again, I saw a small group of people working to clean the place up.  They were using car headlights to see what they were doing in the dark of a cold and miserable wet December evening, inside a totally destroyed business unit.  Still worried there might have been someone hurt, I walked over and asked if everyone was OK, and if there was anything I could do to help.  You can literally see my front door from the entrance to the trading estate, and I was shaken by how close to home such a violent fire had reached.

One of the volunteers seemed weary of sharing anything with me at first.  He assured me no-one had been inside when it caught fire, and went back to what he was doing.  I then explained to a girl standing next to me that I was a local resident.  I asked her what kind of business the unit housed.  The previous night, when I’d briefly stood to watch the blaze, a passing motorists wound down his window to ask me if I knew what was going on, and suggested that it might have been an electrical fire, because the place was used as a TV repair shop.

The girl turned to me and said, “No.  We were collecting for Syrian refugees.  Two men were seen running away.  The police said it was started deliberately.”  It turned out, that the unit was being used by a local charity to collect food and clothing for people fleeing one of the bitterest wars currently raging in the middle-east.  The police were treating the fire as an arsonist hate crime.

When I was in my teens, I volunteered every year to work on a street festival organised by the local borough council.  We would host artists from around the world to perform music, street magic, high-wire acts, mime.. there were world-famous jazz musicians performing alongside local jam-bands; dancers from India, comedians from Canada, jugglers from Turkey… for two weeks my little town boasted one of the largest street festivals in Europe.  People of all ethnicities would rub shoulders, and celebrate music and art and life.  In the 20 odd years since then, how had we now become a town which saw arsonists attack a humanitarian charity at Christmas time?

This was the simple question I asked on a Facebook group called ‘People of Stockton’.  The group is ostensibly a place to share information about the small part of North East England where I live.  Some would post pictures of how our high-street had changed since the 1950s.  Others would post personal stories about their life as a Stocktonian.  There were people on the group I went to school with.  Nostalgia reigned down on many of the group’s most popular threads.  So I presumed the good folk of the town where I grew up would be ready willing and able to help our fellow Stocktonians clean up their fire damaged business, and re-stock it with blankets, tents and food, which were destroyed in the fire, destined for some of the most desperate people, currently tracking their way across Europe on-foot.  How wrong I was.

Are you now or have you ever been a reader of the Daily Mail?

The first comment reply to the short appeal I posted to the group was from someone who insisted “They should help British people before they send our money overseas”, and who went on to list every stereotype in the book about who “these people” are, and why a fire which destroyed food and clothing intended for women and children was spuriously linked to something Prime Minister David Cameron had said about “encouraging them to come here”.  To my great shame, this comment quickly received many ‘likes’.

So I suggested to the person, that this really wasn’t a place to discuss the geopolitical ramifications of the decades long failings in US and UK foreign policy, and that my only reason for posting the appeal was to help people from our town, as opposed to wherever he seemed to think “they” should “go back to”.  He then proceeded to broadcast yet more hatred and was quickly joined by others – each receiving plenty of ‘likes’ for their highbrow and conscientious analysis of “bloody foreigners”, and how “our lads” are homeless as well; and “charity begins at home”.  Again, my attempts to point out that I agree, hence the charity in question being quite literally five minutes from my home, fell on deaf ears.

Eventually, some people who did see I was simply trying to help chimed in, and scolded the naysayers for being so blinkered.  Indeed one chap who had originally started out with the usual laundry list of tabloid opinions back-peddled slightly, when he was challenged on whether or not he supported the arsonist attack.

The next morning I woke to a private message in-box full of comments from people expressing their disgust at my appeal post being removed from the Facebook group.  And, indeed, upon closer inspection I also found that I had been banned from the group, and the post had been removed with no explanation from the moderators as to why.

I explained my disappointment at this in a short post on my timeline, while expressing my hope that the people who moderate the group had also removed the people who’d posted blatantly racist comments, and received many ‘likes’ for them in return.

Later that evening, when I pulled into my usual parking spot, outside my house, a fairly well-built man was standing on the pavement and staring directly at me as if he’d waited for me to arrive.  I wound the window down, and asked him if he needed me to move.  Parking in my area is tight, and at first I thought he might be making sure no-one took the spot.  He shook his head without saying anything, and as I jumped out of the car, another car pulled up behind me and the man inside began talking to the man on the pavement.  As I walked towards my house, the other car drove away, and the guy on the pavement began walking behind me.  As I turned to walk down my path, I looked back, and he continued to stare right at me, before going into a house directly opposite mine.

I took this as a warning.  In the original post, to the Facebook group, I had appealed for anyone who knew about the arsonists to go to the police.  I live in the sort of area where the police don’t usually bother to turn up if you call them to complain about some of the commonplace antisocial behaviour which the disaffected youth of Stockton reign down upon areas like mine precisely because they know the police are overstretched and unable to attend in a timely fashion.

Watching you, watching them.

I’m not suggesting I have hard and fast proof that this was indeed a warning, nor that it was issued by the people who’d posted to or took down the post I made to the Facebook group.  I am however saying that what we really mean by the phrase, ‘a climate of fear’, is fleshed out and made all-too-real by my experiences then, and by events which led to my subsequent decision to leave Facebook altogether earlier this week.

In the two months following the fire, and my appeal for help in catching the arsonists which was removed from the Facebook group, every other post on my timeline began to take on a sinister tone.  If it wasn’t people regurgitating the full gamut of anti-immigration noise generated by UKIP, and other rightwing groups, it was people I’d never heard of requesting to add me as a ‘friend’ only to immediately reveal themselves as brainless morons.  On some days, I would find myself with 2 or 3 “friends” requests, from people I’d simply never heard of, all of which claimed to have at least 5 people in common with those already on my friends list.

When the leader of the Labour Party, of which I am a member, recently visited the refugees living in squalid camps outside Calais, in France, for a solid two days I had to remove, block and report people desperate to goad those of us who support Jeremy Corbyn into a fight about his links to the Stop The War Coalition.  Many of these posts seemed completely devoid of any understanding of what this group stands for, much less what it stands against.  None of these people showed the slightest bit of interest in having their opinions challenged, nor indeed even a basic interest in defending their views without recourse to racist imbecilic misspelled claptrap.

I’ve also seen posts on my timeline from otherwise perfectly nice people, who I am happy to call my personal friends, expressing the view that “refugees should be put in camps”, and that the camp which might be particularly well suited to “these people” – many of whom are fleeing the tyrannical Saudi Arabian regime – would be a giant refugee centre currently standing unused and empty in, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia.

The lack of thought put into most of this rhetoric is mind-blowing.  Many of the people who reposted a story about the refugees from the Daily Mail website, which suggested the Saudi camps should be used to house those fleeing conflict before they leave the area, did so at the same time as recognising World Holocaust Memorial Day — and all with seemingly no sense of the supreme irony at play in their stance on a refugee crisis happening here and now in 21st century Europe.  Even pointing this out to them was lost in a cloud of “Jeremy Corbyn hates this country”, change the subject, fingers-in-your-ears, stomp your feet idiocy, on a scale which embarrasses me to say I ever counted some of these people as friends.

And that’s really the point I’m ultimately trying to make here.  Friends always have differing opinions.  But they talk about them face to face.  We are far more likely to take on-board what someone is saying to us if they do it calmly, giving enough space for us to respond in-turn.  That doesn’t happen on Facebook.  The usual conventions for communicating ideas have been abandoned to the number of ‘likes’ next to an icon of a blue thumb – as if this and this alone dictates whether or not someone is worthy of attention.

The shades of grey, which exist in-between all opinions, have been pressed to the margins, and coagulated into a giant battering ram ready to be deployed whenever the slightest chink in someone’s armour is exposed.  We are being pitted against each other in service of a click-bait algorithm used to generate vast sums of money for a corporation which pays no tax.  I simply refuse to play this game any longer.

http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/news/teesside-news/syria-charity-project-leader-devastated-10631175

http://www.itv.com/news/tyne-tees/update/2015-12-23/stockton-charity-overwhelmed-by-donations-after-fire/

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Is MiniClip’s 8 Ball Pool deliberately broken?

8 Ball Pool, by Miniclip, is a hugely popular game for iPhone and Android, which can also be played in a web browser via Facebook.  When it’s working properly, it’s an entertaining and hugely addictive game, based on American rules Pool.

The casual gamer can pop it open during their lunch break, and play against thousands of people from around the world.  It also has a world league and friends league, which players are incentivised to compete in through in-game purchases of everything from more accurate and decorative cues, to humorous speech bubbles.

In theory, by progressively becoming a better player, the more coins and cash you win, the more you can play on the higher tier tables with higher cash prizes, and more importantly see your name on the leader board.

In practise, however, the only way to unlock higher tier games is to buy large amounts of in-game coins and virtual cash.  And although Miniclip do offer discounts on coin purchases, at £1.49 ($2.26 US) their lowest price coin deal isn’t going to get you very far.  This is not only because you might get randomly picked to play against someone who is simply better at playing the game than you are, but because a series of bugs and software glitches which have remained un-patched for months, make it virtually impossible to win enough coins to stay in the game through competing in honest and fair tournaments against other honest and fair players alone.

Before I explain why I believe this is a deliberate ploy on the part of Miniclip to con players into buying more coins, I should first say that clearly this isn’t a problem for casual gamers, who just want to play a few quick games against their friends during their train ride to work in the morning.  Every 24 hours, the game issues enough free coins to play at least one 1-on-1 game against a random opponent, on one of the lower tier tables.  In that sense, it is a free game, with no ads, which is very pretty to look at and ostensibly works well.

But 8 Ball Pool also appeals to more serious gamers with a competitive streak.  There’s something about the allure of seeing your name at the top of a video game league table, which has driven players around the world to perfect their skills, ever since the late 1970’s, when Space Invaders and Donkey Kong reigned supreme.

The difference between those games, and Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, however, is that the classic arcade machines, which are still competitively played to this day, are not rigged to penalise their players through deliberately engineered software glitches.  If you put a coin into a PacMan machine, and the game doesn’t start, you push a button, your coin pops back out, and you start again.

In Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, things are very different.  Instead of getting your coins back when things go wrong, the only recourse you have is to email Miniclip’s technical support, who might occasionally feel like replying to you, only to insist that the whole thing is your fault in the first place.

The game is rigged

Screenshot_20151215-160450

All of these players have lost their money

The screen-grab opposite is of the waiting screen for players who have won the first of three rounds in the Downtown London Pub tournament.

Once a player from round one wins their game, they wait for the winner of the other game taking place in their group in this holding area.

Every now and then, as the game between both of your potential future opponents progresses, a speech bubble will appear above their avatars telling you how many balls they still have left to pot, and who is currently at the table.

My avatar is the red and white rose icon. My player name is ‘Jim’.  I am signed into the app via my Facebook account.  As you can see, I have played and won against a player with a rating of 7 to my 52.  In the other game from my group, Khiali, rated 12, has just beaten a player with the default anonymous silhouette question-mark avatar, rated at 2.

Therefore, myself and Khiali should now play each other, for a chance to play in the final against Said, rated 50, who has already beaten Basma, rated 33, and another player in his first round game rated at 36.

But myself and Khiali will never get to play against each other, or Said.  This waiting screen will in-fact just hang until, without any of the scheduled games taking place, all three of the remaining players are left with no choice but to exit the tournament, and lose their initial stake of 200 coins.

And here’s why I believe Miniclip are deliberately ignoring this common fault, which is guaranteed to occur at least twice every half hour, and which myself and many other players have been complaining to them about for at least the last 6 months.

All 8 of the first round players had to deposit 200 coins to start the game.  That’s 1600 coins up for grabs to the eventual winner.  But the total prize for winning in the final is just 1000 coins.  This means that Miniclip are up by 600 coins per London Pub tournament that they host.  Unless, that is, they simply take all 1600 coins and never pay anything out to anyone.

The next table in the tournament, Sydney Marina Bar, costs 3000 coins to enter, but the total prize fund is only 18,000 coins.  Which means of the initial 24,000 coins paid into the pot, Miniclip simply keep the remaining 6000 coins to themselves.

If each player in just one round of the Sydney Marina Bar tournament paid £1.49 to add, let’s say, 30,000 coins to their account (the amount of coins you receive per-£1.49 purchase varies, depending on the deal which is currently on offer via the in-game store), that player’s account after one game is now down to 27,000 virtual coins, while Miniclip have made £11 and 92 pence in real world currency from those eight tournament players.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.32.51.pngThe screenshot opposite shows the version of 8 Ball Pool playable in a web browser, via Facebook.  It was taken randomly on a regular Wednesday morning, at 11am GMT.  It boasts of having 44320 players currently on-line.  If only half of those players paid £1.49 each, that’s over £22,160 straight into the Miniclip coffers.

Let’s half that number again, and say that of those 11,080 players remaining, every third Sydney Marina Bar tournament they enter quits to the waiting area without anyone proceeding to the final, thanks to the “glitch” described earlier.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.46.45.pngThis screenshot was taken just 45 minutes after the one above.  As you can see there are currently 45534 players currently on-line – and as the time gets closer to 12 o’clock, when lunchtime casual gamers are more likely to log-on, that number is set to increase even further.

On-line gaming is BIG business.  And with traffic numbers like that, it’s easy to imagine how expensive it is for Miniclip to maintain their servers.  It must be a very tough job, and no-one is suggesting Miniclip shouldn’t make money in order to stay competitive.  But doing this by ignoring the complaints of paying customers is just not fair.  It’s understood that game developers need to be profitable, otherwise their apps simply wouldn’t get made.  But passing off their own players with lame excuses, when bugs are reported, is just not on.

I wrote to Miniclip three times, twice via their Facebook page, and once via their support forum, before eventually receiving the following reply.  Bear in mind that in my original messages, I explained that I had already ruled out the possibility of the issue being to do with my internet connection, or my mobile devices, since it occurred on two different broadband connections, three different mobile networks, and four different devices – three Android and one iOS:

We are sorry for the inconvenience.

Please know that we keep a close eye on our server to make sure this kind of issues are kept to a minimum.
Nonetheless it is very difficult to identify the root of the problem in cases like the one you described, as the connection fault may also be on the player side, please bear in mind that the connection problem doesn’t mean necessarily internet problem, can be a conflict in the browser (in case you play in our page) or any problem related to your device.
Please be also aware that as our Terms and Conditions state we are not liable for connectivity issues you may experience.

We credit your account as an exception since we were not able to find any issue in your account of match played.

Thank you for playing and understanding.

For more questions feel free to contact us.

Best regards!
Tiago

Clearly, there is little incentive for Miniclip to fix these glitches and bugs, that have existed for months, when the net affect of these issues is to actually increase the likelihood of competitive players making more in-game purchases.

Of course there could be another explanation for all of this.  Of the 40,000 players which Miniclip boast are on-line at any one time, for example, it’s entirely possible I am the only one who repeatedly suffers “connection problems” or “problems related to my device” which conveniently fall outside of Miniclip’s responsibility.

To that end, I shall be returning my brand new Nexus 6, running the latest release of Android 6.0, with no root access or other non-standard modifications, connected via the fastest fiberoptic broadband internet connection package Virgin Media UK currently provide, to the manufacturer, with a complaint that the only app from hundreds I have installed on it which doesn’t work properly is Miniclip 8 Ball Pool.

What are the odds?  Especially when taking into account I can recreate this bug on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD, on my old HTC One M7, on my iPad, and on my Hudl tablet – all of which have been tested on three different mobile networks, BT, Three Mobile, and O2, and every Wi-Fi hotspot within a 50 mile radius of my home – all of which suffer the exact same issues that apparently have nothing whatsoever to do with Miniclip.

Worse still, the apparently non-existent waiting area bug, which despite being in my imagination warranted a begrudging and measly 12,000 credit from Miniclip, isn’t the only problem with the game which appears to have been deliberately crafted in order to penalise regular paying players.

Denied

Another bug which regularly crops up happens after potting a ball in a game against a player who repeatedly reports a slow connection error.  At the bottom lefthand side of the screen, the message “Waiting for player response” appears after every pot made.  This is presumably done to ensure the data between the two player’s devices are synchronised, so that the player with the slower connection doesn’t lag too far behind.

But a bug with this sync-delay often means that, once you’re given back the cue to play your next shot, your opponent has already been led to believe that you are in-fact the player with a slow connection.  This results in all the pool balls suddenly jumping back to where they were before you successfully potted your last ball, with the cue being handed back to your opponent – missing your turn entirely, even though you’ve already played a successful pot.

A similar synchronisation bug also occurs, however less frequently, in the middle of London Pub and Sydney Bar tournament final rounds — which suddenly throws you out of the game, back to the waiting screen for a moment, before declaring a player you hadn’t played against in earlier rounds as the winner.  A bug which further adds insult to injury by failing to pay back the 200 or 3000 coins paid to play, as would occur under normal gameplay for reaching the final, even if you lose.

These problems, combined with Miniclip’s apparent inability to answer emails, much less read them properly, together with other small frustrating bugs which affect the way the app performs in general – such as interface inconsistencies from device to device, and a dog slow animation frame-rate, which makes the pool balls seem to randomly vanish and reappear somewhere else on the table after a full-power shot — all adds up to make 8 Ball Pool a perfect example of how mobile gamers are taken for mugs by developers like Miniclip.

They know it’s a hassle to contact support, explain your problem, and wait for a reply.  They know the bugs exist, and they know we know why they won’t fix them.  But for as long as there are 40 odd thousand people out there who aren’t aware of these problems, who pay to play their designed to fail games, they’ll continue to behave as if these issues are actually the fault of their own users.  For as long as there’s a buck to be made from releasing buggy software, they’ll keep on deleting messages on their Facebook wall, from paying players who’ve lost real-world money because of those same bugs.

And, when they go to the wall, like so many other games developers before them, whose model was based on profits rather than gamer satisfaction and playability, they’ll have the brass neck to write yet another ‘woe is me’ resignation blog, questioning the future of the mobile gaming industry – blaming everyone other than themselves for the very issues which, had they been addressed quickly, would have differentiated them from the competition in ways that gamers in particular not only notice, but appreciate perhaps more than any other demographic in the broader software market.

These issues, however, have plagued 8 Ball Pool for at least a year – and were actually made worse by an “update” in late Spring / Early Summer 2015 – which not only introduced a nag-banner for coin top-ups, that takes 30 seconds to load, and requires two presses of the X button to close, but also seemed to increase the frequency of the tournament waiting area bug beyond the simply annoying level it was already at – suggesting that in fact this “bug” was deliberately tweaked in the wrong direction.

Should a future update to 8 Ball Pool by Miniclip satisfactorily address these known bugs, I would be happy to update this post accordingly.  But I won’t be holding my breath.