Bots have a bad rap. Shady manipulators have used these automated computer programs on social networks to spread conspiracy theories, spit vitriol, and defraud people. But when bots are programmed to do good, they can help us achieve the seemingly impossible.
Take buying a PlayStation 5. Since the Sony console was released in November, it’s been hard to find in physical and online stores, in part because a global chip shortage has slowed the manufacture of all kinds of tech products, from graphics cards to Cars.
As a result, when the new PlayStation appears online on sites like Amazon, Target, and Best Buy, it will sell out in minutes – sometimes seconds. Sony has said the demand for the PlayStation 5 is unprecedented and that the supply restrictions could last until next year. That makes the chance of buying the console as random as winning the lottery.
Someone is buying them, however, and the lucky few I’ve spoken to have relied on some form of automation.
“It’s really difficult to get one without bots,” said SV Yesvanth, an information security engineer who wrote a web script to automatically search online stores for available consoles after looking for a console in Hyderabad, India . After he managed to buy a PlayStation, he connected his bot to a Twitter account and helped hundreds of other avid buyers.
I joined the club this month. I volunteered to help a friend who had been trying to buy a PlayStation for six months. After setting up multiple Twitter bots to send alerts to my phone when new consoles were in stock, I managed to get one within a week. It wasn’t easy – I failed the Best Buy website three times and eventually succeeded with GameStop. But the bots gave me the edge I needed to beat thousands of others who furiously updated their web browsers.
You can’t pick just any bot and expect the device to land. I’ve interviewed several automated tool developers who have helped people rate PlayStations. They said there were traps to avoid, like scam bots pretending to be selling consoles. There are also some hidden tricks to speed up orders. Here’s what you need to know.
Bots can be your friend …
Dozens of bots online post a post on Twitter when a retailer refreshes their inventory with more PlayStations. In general, they all work in the same way: You search the web code of an online shop for a signal – like an “Add to cart” button – that indicates that the PlayStation is back in stock. As soon as they find the console available, they’ll post an alert on Twitter.
The first step is to follow trusted bots. Here are some reliable Twitter accounts that I checked:
@ PS5StockAlerts, which tweets when consoles are available at Best Buy, Sam’s Club and Walmart, among others.
@mattswider, which initially relied on information from bots for Restock updates, but is now fully curated by Matt Swider, editor-in-chief of TechRadar blog. Mr Swider will get an advance warning from sources at major retailers and some independent stores before updating PlayStation inventory, he said.
@ ps5_india, the account operated by SV Yesvanth, has a small following focused on acquiring a PlayStation in India, where the console has been particularly difficult to purchase.
@ iloveps_5, a bot hosted by Kevin Hirczy, a software developer in Austria. Mr Hirczy’s bot focuses on the availability of PlayStation in Europe.
You can search your Twitter feed for inventory alerts from these accounts. However, a more efficient way is to set up notifications that will appear on your phone when the accounts are tweeting. To do this, download the Twitter mobile app and allow it to send notifications to your phone. Then, follow Twitter’s instructions to set up certain accounts to send notifications to your phone when they tweet.
If you see that the consoles are back in stock, don’t hesitate: click through and add the item to the shopping cart as soon as possible.
… but most bots should be avoided
The risky part of relying on bots is that in most cases you will encounter scammers. The general rule of thumb: Avoid Twitter accounts that offer to sell you a PlayStation 5 direct. Once they have received your payment, you will likely not hear from them again.
So be very careful which Twitter accounts you follow. Some scammers use account names and avatars that are very similar to legitimate account names. It is best to only follow accounts that post links to trusted merchants.
“The scary thing is that there are so many fraudulent accounts trying to cover up legitimate accounts,” said Mr Swider. “It’s hard to tell them apart.”
Other bots to avoid are the automatic checkout tools, like browser add-ons, that update websites and try to order the PlayStation for you. Many retailer sites have systems that detect orders from nonhumans, so using these tools can cause your order to fail, SV Yesvanth said.
There are hidden tricks
Aside from following some bots and setting up alerts for your phone, there are a few more steps you can take to tilt the odds in your favor:
Create a member account on retail sites like GameStop and Best Buy and provide your mailing address and credit card information in advance. This will speed up the checkout by valuable seconds, said Mr Swider.
On rare occasions, PlayStation orders have failed in the middle of a credit card transaction. Some shop sites like Amazon allow you to purchase gift credit for yourself, which allows you to skip the credit card verification process, SV Yesvanth said. (The downside is that with this strategy you are trying to buy the console from a specific dealer.)
Some online stores have quirks. For example, with Best Buy you shouldn’t update the website after clicking the “Add to Cart” button – you could lose your PlayStation. Mr. Swider regularly streams live YouTube videos walking people through the various checkout processes, and SV Yesvanth and Mr. Hirczy host group chats on Discord where people discuss what works for them.
At the end of the day, the sheer hassle of buying a product might sound absurd. But at a time when frantic shoppers are even competing for hand sanitizer and toilet paper, bots can lead the way to victory.