Monday, May 18, 2020

Goblin Brain: Swagbucks is the Dark Souls of Data Theft.

Wow. It's weird watching half of the planet suddenly adjust almost perfectly to your lifestyle and schedule. Everyone is staying indoors to the point that socialization, days of the week, and even sunlight are foreign concepts. How's it feel in my world? Regardless, I hope that all of you are safe and sanitized out there, dear Burrowers.

I hear stocks are skyrocketing for xylospongia and votive statues of Cloacina lately, if any investors are listening.

I've been making changes in my existence as well, lately. I honestly can't remember if I have or haven't mentioned it on the blog previously, but for a few years now I've been combating my perpetual unemployment with internet surveys and consumer marketing offer nonsense. Or at least, I was. As of a few weeks ago, I can say with a mixed but mostly positive bag of emotions that I have finally quit SwagBucks.

To those of you who know what that is, you can probably stop reading/listening to this post right now.

To you lucky masses who've never crossed paths with it, I have a story to tell you. is an American rewards portal and customer loyalty program operated by a bunch of soulless husks who go by the name of Prodege, LLC. Prodege has had several projects past and present, but Swagbucks is by far the biggest. Think of it as a relic of the early 2000s internet ad revenue boom which has been struggling to adapt and survive ever since that busted. Swagbucks is a website where you earn SwagBucks, shockingly enough.

They're a virtual currency that can be spent through the site store for various rewards, the biggest attraction being store gift cards of varying sizes. You can also spend them to play the minigames hosted on the site, which include periodic spin-the-wheel and bingo games that give you more SwagBucks or other rewards to spend elsewhere.

One SwagBuck is equal to approximately one cent in US dollars, which means that the site really should have been called SwagCents instead. Or maybe they could have worked in some kind of obnoxious pun like the currency being SwagCents and the site being SwagSense. Ehh?

Gods, I hate myself...

Okay, so, SwagBucks are basically the in-game currency used to fuel micro-transactions in an online game, if for a moment you'll bear with me in stretching the definition of "game" to include mind-numbing drudgery through endlessly repetitive tasks amid thousands of other bored, apathetic non-entities. It's like a generic MMORPG with no action bars and fewer errant messages about dancing naked in Goldshire- well, ideally fewer.

You earn SwagBucks by doing the offers on the site, which include anything from printing coupons, to signing up for websites, to watching "curated" video playlists, to taking aforementioned surveys. And, excluding certain once-every-few-months offers where you can make double or more back on a ten or twenty dollar purchase, they are all of them hellishly frustrating and underpaying. Every last one of them is an exercise in Sisyphean futility, because it seems like the entire site is designed from the ground up to frustrate you into quitting.

Coupon and signup sites frequently fail to communicate a completed task back to Swagbucks for the promised reward. Playlists stretch themselves out longer and longer until you have to have your  browser focused for an hour or more just to earn two cents. Deals with third-party sites will hold your earned SwagBucks for ransom until a certain time passes, usually to prevent people from cancelling subscriptions, but then find some other way to invalidate your claim on them. The so-called "team" competitions turn the normally placid subreddit into a truly frightening pit of vitriol and middle-aged, suburban entitlement. The mini-games are more rigged than the prices offered by Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. The offers to download and play mobile games up to X level or building upgrade often have time limits on them that make actually accomplishing the offer impossible without spending more money on in-game boosts than one would make through Swagbucks doing the offer F2P. The weekly trivia game is hosted by a rotating group of company members who act as the closest thing to a human face for all of Swagbucks, so naturally they all have that kind of detached, desperate-to-appear-excited look that people get when there's a gun pointed at them just out of frame. The site's own apps consume so much processing power that they can overheat your phone, and in fact I had to retire one phone because the non-removable battery started to swell and expand to the point that the screen and volume buttons got pinched by the warping chassis until they malfunctioned and forced whatever inane pop culture news drivel they were currently displaying up to max volume- which in the depths of my cynical paranoia I also believe to have been the site's intent.

I've used the word very sparingly ever since I read the TVTropes article about it, but by far the most egregious problem is with the surveys.

Swagbucks only produces and controls a very tiny number of surveys. The vast majority of them are trawled in from their partner sites all across the internet, which means that information is decentralized and disjointed in the worst possible way. When you click on a survey in the list you're sent to the site where it's hosted, where you usually have to give your pertinent information- age, gender, state, household income, employment, family members, etc. Ideally, the site then takes that information, decides if you're a good match or not, and then either sends you to take the survey proper, or back to the landing page for more surveys.

Of course nothing is ideal in this world, and it's far more likely that you'll be pushed forward into a survey that you have nothing meaningful to contribute to. This usually ends in your disqualification (unless you get real good at making things up on the fly). That would be fine, if not for the fact that surveys will often disqualify you at the very end, once you've already answered everything and are expecting your pittance of twenty SB or so.

Even if you aren't a car owner, your survey on cars and vehicle shopping habits is dragged out to 99% completion before they yang the rug out from under you. They then, presumably, take all the information that you have them and sell it somewhere else, because my email account was perpetually flooded by things I had never signed up for- don't worry, I was "smart" enough to use a dummy account. Then you get thrown back to the landing page with nothing but a one or two-point disqualification bonus to sooth your virtual walk of shame.

Disqualification points for failed surveys sounds like a saving grace, and for a while it was- it really was. I still look back fondly on the balmy days when I first started using Swagbucks and I could make as much as five dollars a day off of disqualification points. I would just plug away at the list, control+clicking hundreds of them into separate tabs and then going through the one or two pages of preliminary questions they asked before booting me. It slowed my browser (and the rest of my decade-old computer) to a crawl, but it felt good and pretty handily reached my daily earning goals- did I mention that this place has Frigging daily quests?

Unfortunately, my success with disqualification farming was kind of a bug. I don't know when the site implemented it, but around the time they realized that they were bleeding money (by which I mean actually having to award some of it semi-regularly), Swagbucks implemented a five-disqualification maximum per day. Yet, somehow, this limit did not automatically apply to every account. Their janky site was set up in such a way that some accounts were limited, while others were not, and it only gradually became the case for all new accounts to come under the limit. This limit also reduced the points earned from disqualifications, so when my account was eventually, inexplicably given the limit all of a sudden, I was staring at a max of five cents per day.

Fortunately, I had already exploited the ever-loving crap out of the bug by creating three separate accounts to get DQs and do playlists with. I had three different machines running all day every day, sometimes overnight to collect as much of that sweet, sweet SB as I could. In this Dark Souls world of painful victories and data theft, I was the one lobbing firebombs at the Capra Demon from outside its fog wall. I was the one using the stump next to the Giant Seed tree to jump up onto the Pickle-Pee roof to grab a Covetous Silver Serpent Ring before I even hit the High Wall of Lothric. My monthly participation bonuses were in the teens, and at the height of my success I was earning over a thousand dollars a year.

Yes, I know, that's a hell of a lot of work to put into not working.

Eventually the limit was applied to all three of my accounts, and then from there my options for surveys and offers dwindled to stark nothingness as the site went through another months-long contraction, at which point I finally had the sense to rein it in a little. I continued to use the site after that point, but not with the same wasteful hyper-focus as before. I tried my hand at freelance around that time, and while I definitely made less money overall, I opted for the fresh hell instead of the old, stale one.

Last month (at the time of this recording), I finally quit Swagbucks entirely. I used the last of my SBs to purchase a few more Visa digital cards, and then I deleted all of my remaining accounts. I was in such a hurry to be free of it that I didn't even check my profile page to see how many bucks I'd accrued over the years- though whatever number it was would have been a dubious honor to know, in hindsight.

I wish I could say that I did this just as I made some sort of personal breakthrough and got a minimum wage job in fast food customer service or some other prestigious American institution, but no such luck yet. My writing is still... serviceable, kind of? So I'll see where that takes me for the time being.


  1. It sounds soulcrushing (no pun intended). I have adblocks (in multitudes) on every browser because I extremely dislike online ads, and doing something like that for living is a hell beyond my imagination.

    But to speak of souls, I think the tree stump jump is now a hidden feature instead of the exploit, as some other exploits were fixed after the patching and this one left alone. The jump isn't easy to do, at least not as easy as shooting Manus from beyond the gates which is an actual exploit.

    1. Adblockers are a true luxury that I will never take for granted ever again, I can say that much. I've also started to use the Brave browser, which goes a few steps further to hide ads, or to compensate you for the ones you do agree to look at.

      As for DS3, yeah, I did hear that the jump had remained in place despite other quirks getting patched out. And I suppose it is a pretty tame thing, even if it was ever an exploit. I'm about to give the Cinders remix mod a shot, and I wonder if they've kept that and the treasure chest the same.