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How one bot won 1,000 Twitter contests


If you've entered a "retweet to win" contest on Twitter, odds are you didn't come up victorious. Next time, try building a bot.

Hunter Scott, an electrical engineer at Motorola Solutions, wanted to know if contests hosted on Twitter that require users to retweet a tweet ever actually produce a winner. Since most people just hit retweet and move on and the odds of winning are slim, there's little closure on the events.

To get his answer, Scott built a Twitter bot using Python programming language that would automatically retweet tweets that contain the phrase "retweet to win!" 

"If you're a programmer, it's not that difficult to built a Twitter bot. Twitter has an official API that's designed for programmatically tweeting, following, retweeting, etc.," Scott told the Daily Dot. "There are even some services that will let you set up Twitter automation without having to write code." 

Scott's code, which he isn't releasing as a means of maintaining "keep at least some barrier to entry for people wanting to try this," took some fine-tuning to make sure it played within Twitter's rules. While Twitter does have a "best practices" guide when it comes to automation, it doesn't provide much by way of specifics—it simply restricts "aggressive" behavior without drawing a clear line.

"It took me a couple tries to make sure that it was following those rules, but eventually I got it to work," Scott said.

Scott explained on his site that the rate of new contests cropping up on Twitter was less than the rate of retweet, so he was able to enter every contest the bot came across in its crawl.

In nine months of operation, the Scott's Twitter bot entered itself in 165,000 contests. The massive amount of entries yielded about 1,000 victories—a win ratio of under 0.6 percent.

Still, that fractional victory rate brought Scott a wealth of prizes. The spoils ranged from virtual currencies for video games to passes for movie premiers all over the world (airfare not included, of course).  Scott published a full list of prizes on his site, which reads like a list for the world's strangest scavenger hunt.

The most valuable win the bot scored—which Scott turned down—was a trip to New York Fashion Week, complete with a limo ride and $500 in spending money. Scott's favorite piece acquired during the experiment was cowboy hat autographed by the stars of a Mexican soap opera, because "it really embodies the totally random outcome of these contests."

Regardless if the winnings have true or perceived value, using a bot to win a contest does generate questions of fairness. The win rate for the Twitter bot may have been abysmal percentage wise, but it's able to enter contests at a rate that a human can't keep up with, all but ensuring it will win more on sheer volume than a person will on luck. 

"People have been doing what my bot was doing by hand for a long time. I saw lots of people who spent hours retweeting every contest they could find by hand," Scott said. "That's basically why I did, except I didn't have to sit there and manually do it."

He argues that the bot isn't devious or deceitful, primarily because it doesn't break any rules. "It followed the rules that Twitter has by obeying the rate limits they set for the API. If it didn't, it would have gotten banned," he said.

Now that the bot is done raking in winnings, Scott is finding more altruistic ways to use the program. He suggested that it could be used to retweet messages that promise a donation to charity for each retweet.

He's also started repurposing the bot for a new project of his, a high-tech reimagining of the standard car battery called Ohm. He now has his code looking for people who take to Twitter to complain about having a dead car battery. When the bot spots one, it informs them of Ohm. Now it's not winning contests, but customers.

"Obviously since it's interacting with real people now, I'm being much more conservative and doing my best to make sure it's not annoying people or acting spammy," he explained. 

"For example, people don't want to be tweeted at while they're currently stuck somewhere with a dead battery. So it has to look at the time stamp of the tweet and wait 24 hours or so, and then tells them, 'Hey, remember that terrible experience you had? We can keep that from ever happening again.' I just started trying it and it seems to be working ok so far, but I'm keeping a close eye on it."

Photo via Dennis Skley/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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