¿Por qué no?
The cheats of Duolingo, the kingpin of the dark web, LinkedInfluencers, Twitter exiles and alt tech
Up close and personal with the futile cheaters of Duolingo
There’s no prize money. No credential. No real glory to speak of. And yet, untold thousands of hobbyists devote hours each day to cheating the language-learning app Duolingo.
Forums teem with complaints about suspected bots and scores that suggest their players don’t sleep. Super-users proffer tips on “hacking” the app’s point system to better compete. In a March preprint, researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology scraped 30,000 posts about cheating from the Duolingo forums — and that wasn’t necessarily a comprehensive search. In other words, if you thought online chess had a cheating problem … it may actually get worse.
To understand how people cheat Duolingo, you first have to understand how the app works. (And to be clear, we’re talking about regular, consumer-facing Duolingo here — not the company’s education service.) Duolingo works off a basic points system, where you earn credits, called “XP,” for completing language lessons and exercises. A regular lesson yields 10 XP. A quiz or test might earn as many as 100.
Conventional grading is boring, however, and bored people don’t spend much time in-app. So Duolingo has gradually added additional social and gamification features, such as boosters that double your earned XP, the ability to friend and follow other users and — most importantly, for our purposes — week-long competitions called leagues or leaderboards. League placement is determined by your total XP, with top scorers advancing to higher levels.
Presumably, the feature *should* prompt competitors to want to practice more. But in reality, it has incentivized a whole lot of people to wrack up XP by any means possible.
Some users run bots or browser extensions to answer questions for them. Others claim to compete in teams or use aids like their phones’ speech recognition mode to ace exercises. Most people, however, are engaged less in all-out fraud than they are in a practice sometimes termed “gamification misuse”: Playing the game solely to farm XP, not to actually learn.
There’s a Dubai-based Bitcoin-enthusiast named alfa-ace1 who writes about his success with “XP farming” quite a lot. That success is considerable: He’s won Diamond League, the very topmost league, 90 weeks in a row — and claims most participants in that league are also XP farmers.
To keep his streak, Alfa “studies” multiple languages: German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Korean and Arabic, to be exact. Different languages offer different activities with varying XP values — and switching back and forth can maximize earnings, especially if you’re already fluent in one or several of those languages.
On top of that, Alfa uses a long-term strategy in which he almost completes dozens of lessons and then blitzes through the few remaining questions at strategic moments. He favors exercises that can be done over and over again very quickly with little risk of error.
Importantly, Alfa is also willing to spend money on Duolingo — in fact, none of this would work if he didn’t. You only get unlimited access to some of the app’s most XP-heavy features with an $84 premium subscription. He recommends buying “gems,” too: an in-app currency that can be exchanged for additional XP boosts. (In actual currency, batches of gems run between $5 and $20.)
“Apologies to all users here that are unhappy with Duolingo XP system,” he wrote in early October, “but Duolingo is a public company and needs its users to spend more.”
Duolingo does seem to be cracking down on these tactics: In recent weeks, XP farmers have observed what appear to be new, mandatory wait-times between consecutive rounds of high-value activities, and some have complained those exercises aren’t available as often.
It’s also hard to miss the fact, however, that these features are working exactly as intended. In Duolingo’s most recent shareholder letter, CEO Luis von Ahn described several of the app’s gamification features as plays to boost revenue and engagement. Incidentally, the number of paid Duolingo subscribers was up 71 percent [!] from a year earlier.
“If your goal is to learn a language in the most effecient way possible, you’d be better off using something other than duolingo,” one short-lived Duolinguist wrote. “And if your goal is to have fun gaming, then you’d be better off finding a game more fun than duolingo.”
P.S. You might’ve seen that Substack just introduced an asynchronous chat feature. Cool, whatever, I’ll try anything once. The question is … WILL YOU, reader??
If you read anything this weekend
“The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin,” by Andy Greenberg in Wired. I live for a cinematic magazine narrative, and this one has it all — across six parts, released serially, like some goddamn HBO drama. You may remember its subject, AlphaBay — once the leading darknet market for fentanyl, heroin, stolen credit card numbers and sundry other contraband. A global law enforcement operation shut it down five years ago. This is their story. 🎵
“The Rise of the Millionaire LinkedIn Influencer,” by Maxwell Strachan in Vice. LinkedInfluencers are having a moment … albeit a cringe one. The internet’s most banal platform has rolled out new tools for creators, spawned a new ghostwriting market and, apparently, made some people very rich. It hurts my heart that techbro truisms pay so very well, but it’s a hustler’s world, I guess.
“Sorry You Went Viral,” by Drew Harwell and Taylor Lorenz in The Washington Post. Internet fame has always had a dark side, but maybe more so on TikTok — where everything is bigger, anyone can go viral and features like duets make abuse more personal. (If you’re jonesing for more TikTok content, The Guardian also just ran this big package called “the TikTok Takeover.”)
“Andrew Tate’s Hustlers University 2.0 Has Made At Least $11 Million In Just One Month,” by Ikran Dahir in Buzzfeed. No surprise, I guess, that this widely deplatformed misogynist/homophobe landed on his feet; but dear God, there are so many driftless young men mainlining his brand of toxicity.
“Six Months After Buffalo Mass Shooting, Videos Used by Accused Gunman Remain on YouTube,” by *yours truly* in The Buffalo News. Is it self-serving to link to my own shit? Yes. Do I care? Not in this case! This story is interesting and important and kinda bombed, traffic-wise, so I’m shamelessly imploring you to read/share it. 🙃
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This week in Elon Musk, a phrase I hope to never type again: emboldened Nazis, disillusioned fan boys and a user / advertiser exodus. (Fyi, Nilay Patel’s expletive-packed analysis was the single best thing I read on all this.) The police department with a Substack newsletter. The under-examined platform winning the alt-tech war. How Google funds disinformation and how one guy plans to reinvent the browser.
CrowTok. CoyoteTok. Phone calls HAVE gotten awkward, no? The number of blue checks on Twitter and the bar that invented the negroni sbagliato. Meet: the chess detective, the hat man and the sleepytime girlfriend. “Crying makeup.” No new ghosts. Wiping your kids from the internet. Last but not least: “They are in fact constructing a prison for their idols, one fashioned out of eyeballs, anxiety and BetterHelp ads.”
That’s it for this week! Until the next one. Warmest virtual regards.
Is this play on words grammatical…? I don’t know. Possibly *I* need Duolingo.