Thoughts On The Facebook Privacy Notice Fiasco

All of you Facebook users might have noticed a few bursts of shady-looking legalese posts in the past few months since Facebook’s IPO in May. They probably spoke of privacy, copyright infringement, and contained official-looking numbers that might be bills of law. Well, not surprisingly it turned out to be a hoax; nothing more than a modern-day incarnation of the old “you must send this to at least 10 people or your best friend’s dog will be mauled by a grizzly bear” chain email nonsense. The whole story is carefully explained on Snopes, but really it just boils down to this: you can’t just post an ASCII talisman on your wall to suddenly revoke the Facebook terms of service that you agreed to when signing up, you gotta submit or get rid of your account entirely.

But that really isn’t the point of this post. Yes, those “privacy notice” posts were useless, but what really bothered me was the sudden flood of snarky counter-posts. All of a sudden, news feeds were flooded with people poking fun at whoever had been “stupid enough” to fall for it. Of course, it’s incredibly convenient that all these posts came after a sudden wave of articles was published all over the web during the past few days. It’s much more convenient for armchair pundits to link back to someone else’s work than to craft a convincing argument themselves.

Humans vying for a feeling of superiority over one another certainly isn’t news. But this kind of attitude has got to stop, especially when it comes to growing controversies like internet privacy. Modern issues like these are only going to get worse if we don’t work towards solving them, and if nothing else, it’s better to raise awareness with a silly post than to shoot people down for making a mistake that was well-meaning.

Internet privacy is a big deal. It’s not the fault of the users that there’s an inordinate amount of confusion and misinformation surrounding their rights to control their data. Given that my news feed is made up mostly of engineers, computer scientists, and other technologically-inclined people, it’s just plain not cool to be posting something that effectively tells them they’re idiots for not knowing better. Be happy that they care enough to be posting.

Sooner or later, an internet giant (and not necessarily Facebook) is going to get a little too liberal with their users’ data. When that time comes, let’s be ready to gather our virtual pitchforks and raise hell, just like we did with SOPA. Without going full-cheese here, it’ll only work if we’ve got the numbers by being all in it together, so please, be nice.

CS:GO Matchmaking, a Case Study in Poor Design

As an avid gamer, I must admit that I’ve, erm, “wasted” far too much time playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the past two months since its release. It’s an excellent game that delivers both a graphical overhaul to the aging Counter-Strike: Source, circa 2004, and a much friendlier online user experience thanks to new and improved game modes, leaderboards, quickplay, and matchmaking. All for the low low price of $14.99, so even those who say it’s “just an update” can’t complain, because it’s priced like one. So, to wit, I love this game and I highly recommend it to all you FPS fans out there.

But unfortunately (you knew it was coming), the classic competitive game mode currently suffers from many frustrating issues. It’s a shame that what is arguably the ultimate CS experience feels very neglected by Valve, because it prevents me from properly enjoying a game I fervently want to play. CS:GO’s biggest pre-release promise of a proper ranking system coupled with skill-based matchmaking is still conspicuously absent, and updates have been slowly trickling out to tack on minor features one at a time. The result is that the game feels like it’s still in beta, and Valve merely released it early to take advantage of a large pool of paying testers.

Picking A Game Type And Map

The trouble immediately starts with the game type selection screen, where you choose one of four standard game types (arms race, demolition, classic casual or classic competitive) and a map. When playing classic competitive, you can choose to pick a specific map, or have one selected randomly from a small map pool, grouped by mission type.

However, some maps are missing (office, in particular), and it’s not possible to simply select all the maps to increase your chances of getting into a game quickly. It’s a shame, because queue times can be long (often over five minutes), and sometimes I just wanna play now, regardless of the map. Both of these issues, although minor, have seemingly no reason to still be around after so long, and they just feel sloppy.

Joining A Queue

Once you’ve made a decision, you hop into a queue, where you get to waste the next few minutes of your life staring at this window:

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think a queue system is the way forward for competitive gaming. Just look at StarCraft 2 or League of Legends. Yes, you need to wait a few minutes, but ultimately you benefit because while you’re waiting, you get matched with players of a similar skill to ensure a better and more balanced gaming experience for everyone.

CS:GO, on the other hand, still doesn’t have any ranking system whatsoever. A standard ELO-based ranking system has been promised for a long time, but here we are still waiting. Which begs the question, why the hell am I forced to wait in a queue if I’m just going to get matched with completely random players anyways? I cannot think of any good answer to this question, because I might as well just play classic casual instead. The only sensible explanation is that Valve is throwing each individual component out the door as it gets finished, and cohesive matchmaking system be damned.

Then, there are the random drops. Every so often, after having waited several minutes in the queue, you’ll get randomly dropped back to the main menu, with a friendly message telling you that you were given a game, but “failed to accept it” when in fact no such accept window was ever shown. You then have to restart your queue from scratch, and have a nice day. I won’t even try to understand what fishy things the matchmaking algorithm is doing with my precious internet connection to cause this bug, but luckily a simple fix was recently found. Still, issues like this really get me feeling like I’m just a guinea pig, stress testing the queue system before the next minor component gets tacked on, as I endlessly wait for the eventual complete package to be done.

Oh, and one more thing about this wait window… I’m fairly certain that the “expected wait time” is a dirty lie. It always shows the same small set of numbers, and it only ever goes up by varying but consistent increments. The moment you start to approach the listed time, it’ll jump to the next one such that your current time is never higher than your expected wait time, making it feel unreliable and useless.

Actually Playing The Game

So, you’ve finally gotten into a game and you’re happily going around blowing people’s brains out. I wish I could say that your troubles are at an end, but alas. The moment anyone leaves the game (which happens often), every remaining player must unanimously vote in agreement to continue the game with a bot in his stead. One single person votes no? Game Over. One single person doesn’t vote? Game. Over. Insert more coins, restart your painfully long queue, better luck next time. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about the Internet, it’s that you can’t trust random strangers to do anything right. The result is that it’s now exceedingly rare to ever finish a game of classic competitive.

There Must Be A Better Way

There is plenty of good news, however, as it’s not all that hard to fix these problems. First, Valve, you already have a game with a ranking and matchmaking system, Dota 2! Surely you canborrow their code or even their programmers, I mean your desks have wheels for Pete’s sake. Secondly, stop treating us players as free testers. Get rid of the queue system for now and come back when it includes a functional ranking system. Just make sure to polish it nicely and work away the rough edges in-house, since we’re not playing a beta anymore; we paid for this game and it’s only fair that the experience reflects that.

Now, I know it’s all too easy to be a critic, but you have to understand that I’m writing this because I care. It’s nothing personal, I still thoroughly enjoy playing all of CS:GO’s other game modes. I just want the classic competitive experience to be up to par so I can spend even more time playing it.

Please Use Video Tutorials Responsibly

Let’s take a break from the computer architecture analogy and talk about a pet peeve of mine: the proliferation of video tutorials on the Internet. Blame my engineering background, but I’m pretty obsessed with efficiency, and videos are often the least optimal way of delivering information.

  1. They’re slow. Slow to load, slow to watch, slow to learn from. Buffering takes long enough as it is, but then we need to sit through a long video to find that one (usually tiny) piece of information we wanted in the first place. Everyone is capable of reading faster than anyone is capable of speaking, anyways.
  2. They’re huge. Granted, video compression and Internet speeds have come a long way, but videos are still unnecessarily large for the little information they convey. They can easily be 100x larger than a similarly informative plaintext document.
  3. They’re not searchable. My personal favourite, not being able to CTRL+F a video really drives me up the wall. It means I have to painstakingly scrub the whole video for what I want, keeping my balance along the knife-edge of “if I go faster I might miss it” and “if I go slower I might shoot myself” all the while.
  4. They might not even have what I want. After all this scrubbing, it might not even answer my question, and there’s no way of knowing without taking the plunge.
  5. They’re not easily editable. So you’ve release version 2.0 of your popular software, with a slightly improved UI? Time to remake all your videos from scratch instead of just updating a screenshot and a couple keywords!
  6. They make too much noise. I’d rather not disturb everyone around me as I hunt for an answer; critical information should not be confined exclusively to audio.
  7. They’re not repeatable. I finally hit the jackpot and found the information I wanted, but I didn’t quite catch what you said there! Time to scrub back and forth a few times, instead of just slowing down and absorbing at my own pace.
  8. They’re not copyable. I can’t just CTRL+C whatever you said to save for later, I can’t easily take a still shot of your video for reference, I need to just remember.

All of the above reasons have trained my subconscious to completely ignore most video content when seeking answers. Anyways, it feels good to vent, but luckily I’m not just here to tell you to get off my lawn. Instead, I want you to be considerate and question trends before following them. So, here’s some advice on how to use video tutorials responsibly:

  1. Ask yourself why you’ve chosen to make a video. Is it because it’s genuinely the best way to deliver highly visual content (which is often perfectly legitimate), or because you’re lazy and it’s easy to just fire up FRAPS and yell into a mic?
  2. If you must make a video, don’t be a douchenozzle. Don’t create a cheesy intro animation, don’t ramble for several minutes, don’t play any music in the background, crop your video so I don’t need to see your nine different messenger conversations blinking furiously, and slow down during the parts that actually matter. If you can’t resist all of these temptations, please go back to using text.
  3. If you must make a video, provide a plaintext version with screenshots as necessary. So that all the geeks like me out there don’t ignore you on principle (we’re sorry, we blame the YouTube twelve year-olds that do the things listed above). As an example, the amazing patio11 provides transcripts of all his podcasts, and people like me love him for it. And you do want to be loved, don’t you?

Now, I am aware that it’s just as possible to make a terrible plaintext tutorial, riddled with spelling mistakes and full of useless fluff. But looking at the big picture, I think that the very worst plaintext tutorial is still better than the average bad video tutorial, since it doesn’t suffer from any of the problems I listed above. It’ll let me CTRL+F, find what I want, and nope my way out of there ASAP. It’s also much more forgiving than video as there are far fewer ways to be obnoxious through plaintext (like not having sound).

So please, create more plaintext tutorials, and take it as an opportunity to improve your writing skills… the Internet can certainly use some of that.