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Twitter Contest Winning as a Service (hscott.net)
578 points by zeckalpha on Aug 4, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 97 comments

The news to me here is that those contests actually pay out. I assumed the vast majority were just marketing ploys, where they never picked the winner, or chose one of their own sock puppets. After all, who would ever know?

In the US you are perfectly within your right to request notification of who the winner(s) is/are. And as part of accepting these types of prizes you typically have to agree that when requested by any participants or when audited by the state/federal government, you agree to have some of your personal information provided. Usually just first name, last initial, city when given to other entrants but it varies by state.

Source: I work for a company that handles online rebates and promotions, including these types of Twitter/Instagram/FB contests. We deal with the FTC all the time.

A friend of mine works in radio and he says that some of the contests are won by "loyal listeners" or friends of the hosts. The "winner" gets a text that basically says, "Call in now and I'll put you on hold, then play surprised when you are caller 12".

I remember seeing a TV story about a guy who played radio competitions full time (he didn't have another job). This was in the 80s/90s in a US market with a lot of competition between a few stations that were all offering prizes.

He had a several radios and 2-3 phones and just madly speed-dialed into the station when each round was announced. He even had to disguise his voice because he won so often that the stations tried to avoid him winning.

I can't find the story but here is somebody similar:


I'm pretty surprised by how often I win those things. If I'm driving and a contest of any sort comes up, I'll call the number immediately and repeatedly for a few minutes, just hanging up and pressing redial. Anecdotally, I seem to win whatever prize in about 1% of those that I dial in for.

I've found that I sometimes don't even receive the prize, and occasionally don't even know what the prize or radio station are when I'm calling in as it's reflexive at this point.

Please don't do this unless you have a hands-free system!

The FTC only involves itself with prize contests where you pay to enter. These twitter contests apparently require only retweeting something or following someone

Sweepstakes, by definition, have "no purchase necessary to win." The first link is to the FTC cracking down on a (alleged) sweepstakes.

They cracked down because they were soliciting payment to enter.

"The defendants’ letters led many consumers to believe that they had to pay a processing fee to receive the cash prize"

I thought the same before reading this, however I have seen alot of legitimate radio stations that run contests use Twitter for the "share to win" concept - far more than I have seen them try to do it through Facebook or Instagram. Based solely on my own observations and experience, I suspect that the vast majority of contests you see on IG/FB are not legitimate, but at least some of those on Twitter are.

It's funny that this came up. Just the other day I heard them running a "text us to win" contest on the radio while driving and I thought I should create an app that enables find-and-share capabilities for text-to-win contests.

This is amazing, is the source available anywhere? The full list of winnings is staggering.


A few funny gems in there:

  whatever I want written on some girl's body in chocolate (tried to get her to write Maxwell's equations, but she said no)

  something from a gay porn star. I was afraid to dig through his twitter page to find the original contest...

Even the gimmick ones are dutifully reported!

-A "warm sense of fulfillment"

I certainly wasn't expecting this:

-1/8 oz of South OG marijuana

I've created a word cloud of the list. http://i.imgur.com/vXWzqSQ.png

I'm curious, what'd you use to generate this?

Wordle is one such website.


A list of the most frequently occurring words:

    322 ticket
    56  show
    51  concert
    48  another
    48  free
    45  london
    44  code
    44  game
    38  beta
    38  book
    37  copy
    37  logo
    33  club
    33  destiny
    27  festival
    25  pokeman
    24  fifa
    23  Dublin
    23  shirt
    21  UK
    21  city
    20  pass
    20  vip
    19  coin
    19  england
    19  some
    18  card
    17  LA
    17  thing
    16  2x
    16  list
    15  see
    15  signed
    14  manchester

It's surprising how British Isles centric this is (if you include Ireland).

LA is the only exception, though the 'city' may be a appendage for places like Mexico City.

Do us Brits(/Irish) run more competitions?

Could be the tabloid culture we have.


It's missing the accent mark, but it's the name of a video/card game.

You are referring to Pokémon (notice the o where there was an a previously). And you are correct, the é has an accent on it (though I've always wondered why--Pokemon is an abbreviation for "Pocket Monsters", and neither of the e's either word contains have an accented e!).

No, you're thinking of pokemon :)

Didn't see it, but I created my own :)


The length is staggering, the quality of the winnings extremely low. Scrolling through it for about a minute I honestly haven't seen anything I would actually use.

His favorite thing is the hat, "because it really embodies the totally random outcome of these contest".

I think it shows what's wrong with his idea: he has a prize that doesn't really have any significance to him. However I'm guessing other entrants to the contest (if there were any) actually are fans of the show, and would value the hat much higher.

The hat came with a Visa gift card. If you look at his full text list, it's actually pretty impressive and full of things that would probably have significance to him.

I ended up not claiming the majority of the things I won because I wasn’t able to use them or attend them.

It sounds like the bot could be made (slightly?) more intelligent, to avoid entering contests that you're certainly not eligible to.

so I had to spend a decent amount of time going though my DMs to find legit winner notifications.

Making the bot read DMs to find them seems an easier task than determining eligibility.

Reading through the winnings list gives an interesting idea of the scale of how many ticketable events happen globally... he only won a tiny fraction of the contests but there's already more tickets than any single person could ever make use of.

It'd have to be a lot more intelligent, and then some. It's quite a leap to go from matching "RT" and "win" to checking what kind of thing the prize is, whether it needs to be mailed or claimed, and what the location is where that needs to happen.

It would need to be a lot more intelligent to be perfect, but there are probably a few keywords you can use to filter out the bulk of prizes you don't want.

I'm not sure how the filter would work to catch something like:

-tickets to Carrot Top at Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City

So I'm pretty sure there's going to always be a modicum of human involvement in the claiming part. It could auto reply with some PO box address maybe. He did note sometimes he didn't receive the item (ex: 'tupaware').

Judging by the word cloud [1], you could simply ignore all posts with "ticket" in the tweet and that would help for the majority of cases.

1: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10003570

I've often found that nation-specific metadata is often difficult to scrape - the entire internet assumes that everybody is American, and then just handles non-Americans with error-messages at the last step.

The author of this blog would find a very different functionality for his bot if he were located in, say, Australia.

As a German, I gave up on online contests and giveaways if they are written in English. Luckily I have the ability to see from the language almost instantly if it is available here, but I’d imagine for an Australian or British person it would end up a lot harder.

Yeah, I'm Canadian and despite the short trip from the border we're usually ineligible for these things. It happens occasionally, but not terribly often. I just mentioned Australians because they'd be the more extreme case.

More frustrating is just google-searching for products and whatnot.

It would ruin the point of the bot a bit if it was only entering local, claimable competitions wouldn't it? Hugely localising the data it's gathering.

It sounds like the bot could be made (slightly?) more intelligent, to avoid entering contests that you're certainly not eligible to.

Why? It's better to win everything possible to prevent other people from winning them.

Preventing other people from winning contests doesn't make the bot "better"

Well I guess we have philosophical differences, but if I could hypothetically prevent every person in the world from winning every contest, it would be very funny and exciting to me.

Trying to prevent other people from winning stuff for no reason?

That's not called a "philosophical difference". That is called "I'm an asshole".

Sounds like your philosophy is being a bit of a dick

There was a bot/person winning competitions run by local companies in Kenya, that selected a random winner from tweets that had their hashtags: https://eugeneqaana.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/the-safcom-scam... (Ignore the wrong conclusion though) So to answer the writer, yes, someone had thought of it before. It was probably not as sophisticated.

I feel like whoever ran that contest should have checked to see that all of the winning accounts were connected.

Here's something random for you. The "tupperware lids that have been warped in the dishwasher" contest is almost certainly a reference to Jeff Foxworthy's 1998 concert album "Totally Committed," where he was joking about the crap that people sell at garage sales.

Seriously the best thing I've ever read on Hacker News.


Do you really have to declare and pay tax on competition winnings in the US? Would you have to do this in the UK?

I never would have thought..


    HM Revenue & Customs doesn't regard lottery winnings as income, so all prizes are tax-free – hurray! However, there could be tax implications once you've banked your winnings.
I'm struggling to find other answers, the Daily Mail's 'This is Money' website says the opposite is true and that it's counted as freelancer income.


    HMRC has produced guidance in the context of freelancers who win prizes and the short version is that they view most prizes as taxable income of the freelancer.
Grey area? An interesting area.

Re freelancing - the context is that the prize is an industry award; they won it as part of their work and so if they're a sole trader it counts as income in the normal way and would be taxed accordingly.

Gambling income is tax free in the UK as I understand it, you pay tax to take part (the tax at that end is greater unless the company pays out more than it receives!).

Ah excellent, thanks for the clarity regarding the freelancing. Admittedly I skimmed those articles to try and claw the information as fast as I could.

(Having a website which looks like the DailyMail open at work (even during break) isn't the best look!)

http://blog.national-lottery.co.uk/meet-man-pays-money/#.VcC... - A blog by the guy who pays out the money. It's tax free.

For the lottery, yes. I believe because the tickets themselves are taxed you aren't taxed when you win.

I believe the same is true of gambling winnings (The reasoning being that you aren't given tax refunds when you lose, so it's unfair to tax when you win)

Prizes that you haven't payed for entry might be different.

> I believe the same is true of gambling winnings (The reasoning being that you aren't given tax refunds when you lose, so it's unfair to tax when you win)

Which becomes really interesting when you consider professional poker players.

The rule in the US is "It is income unless it isn't."

Everything you receive from everyone is taxable income unless you can find a specific tax code saying that it isn't. Lottery winnings are taxable unless a section exempts them. Non-monitary prizes or awards from competitions are taxable.

As with most tax law, this is necessary to prevent widespread avoidance. Nobody would pay any taxes if only money income was taxed. We'd revert to a barter economy wherever possible, defeating the purpose of taxation. (ir employer pays employees with physical good via a company store.) If all competition winnings were exempt, employers might pay people in gambling tokens simply to avoid them having to pay taxes.

> Do you really have to declare and pay tax on competition winnings in the US?

Yes, and it's why I would always cringe whenever I saw The Price Is Right with someone winning $50,000+ of stuff they didn't need (or often even want).

But...you just sell the stuff you don't need/want at a nice profit.

No, you don't. Often the sticker value that's declared is much higher than the actual value of the goods. There's a good explanation from a winner of The Price is Right here, where she paid taxes on a prize valued at $14,000 but was only able to sell it for $4,500: http://www.avclub.com/article/what-happens-when-you-win-ithe...

You can dispute the sponsor's approximate retail value (ARV) and only pay taxes on the fair market value (FMV). See here:


You could create your own contests with the prizes and see how many followers you gain. It'd be nice to see how effective are these strategies.

While most likely not illegal, this feels rather unethical to me. Presumably most of these contests are promoters trying to use the contests as a marketing tool and the prizes as a reward to fans. This bot just aims to take as much as possible.

I'd rather presume that most of these contests are actually other bots designed to generate buzz to promote events or, more likely, harvest market research data. I have no sympathy for such devices and have no problem watching robots fight over cowboy hats.

Wait a minute, your response to other competitors maybe losing out is to critique the operators of the contest? I don't think anyone claimed that the Twitter competitions were operated by true fans who'd be disappointed to have their offerings games, but that true fans might be interested in winning some of the prices, notwithstanding that they are offered as part of a marketing campaign.

Yes. I'd stake that the majority of retweets today are in fact bots. See below...

"OK. 1 more chance. If no one RTs, replies, or even talks about this tweet, I will donate £15,000 to a charity of your choice. Any questions?" --> 369 retweets, most by suspected bots.


I'm confused. Did you mean contests (as written) or contestants? I agree that bot vs. bot is nothing to lose sleep over, but I thought we were talking about bots vs. actual human fans who want to win an autographed knick-knack or a pair of tickets to an event or whatever.

I'm not big on competitions or surveys, but I occasionally participate in one spontaneously for amusement, and on those occasions where I've won something it's been highly enjoyable. I'm much less inclined to do if I think about mechanized competitor-bots or suchlike, and think that automating such activities is astonishingly selfish.

On the other hand, his personal information is probably in a ton of marketing databases now, being sold to other companies, and I guess he'll be receiving plenty more "free stuff" in the future due to that.

I wonder what is Twitter stance on this, as a company. Do they allow it because it's technically speaking not illegal, or do they ban it if they find it because it's questionable at best?

They like bots as long as they aren't too obnoxious as they increase their number of users.

This is so impressive it left most voters speechless. 269 points and only 35 comments at the time of this comment.

Everyone is busy hacking their own competitor.

It's neat but not exactly the type of thing that sparks lively debate.

I disagree!

My friend and I once wrote a python script to participate in Q&A contest (first answer will win the contest) on twitter. That running script actually prints an recent question of particular twitter handler and asks for prompt to type an answer. Once you type an answer (after googling or whatever you want), it just posts that answer in reply of that question's tweet. We also decided to hit the google search for answer and crawl answer but I think it would need some work.

You ever win?

By looking at the list of winnings, It's quite funny how cheap you can get some people to retweet (and probably get some more audience) by offering such things as:

-free infographic

-some logo

-lipstick from Avon


-wall planner

(and so on and so forth)

Great read! I wonder if similar bot can be created for instagram. Lots of marketing contests over there as well :)

And Facebook.

This was awesome, but I was disappointed to read that he didn't cash in the New York Fashion Week prize. Sure, it would have cost him some $$$, but what a story! I bet it'd have been worth paying a small premium for the adventure.

Amazing! I thought about doing that but gave up because I was too lazy to configure a bot. I would have never expected it to work so well.

Wow, very interesting.

Can this be used for other purposes - like finding ideas for an app/website/biz, finding deep discounts on products etc?

Reminds me of Lazlo Hollyfeld in Real Genius

Let's extend this with a network of geographically diverse users of the script on different accounts. That way our chances of winning AND our chance of having someone near the contest are both increased.

One crazy idea I have is to run contests on Twitter where I post obscure movie lines or music lyrics and the person who replies first with the answer wins.

I wonder if someone could create a winning bot.

Per that xkcd graphic, I did try the ebay 1 cent auctions. But then stopped it as it was all junk from china in epackets.

He should run a few bots in parallel to augment his odds.

Indeed. It was probably hard to do because he's using Python which has problems due to its GIL. I myself would have went for Go, whoms CSP model matches this problem perfectly.

He could just run the code in multiple process. Enough with the GIL bullshit.

That would be inefficient because you'd need to allocate extra stack, process datastructures, context switching, etc.

From experience, when you can, it's just better spawning multiple processes over doing multithreading.

Awesome work and a great read!

Awesome morning read! Nice hack!

What did they do with the things they didn't claim? Just seems a shame to have let the unclaimed prizes go to waste.

>In those cases, I just messaged them back and told them to give the prize to someone else.

oops, missed that.

Well I'm sure said things didn't just get thrown away lol

This is brilliant.

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