Bots have a bad rep. Shady manipulators have used these automated computer programs on social networks to spread conspiracy theories, spew vitriol, and scam people. But when bots are programmed to do good, they can help us accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Take buying a PlayStation 5. Since the Sony console was released in November, it has been hard to find in physical and online stores, partly because a global chip shortage has slowed down manufacturing of all kinds of tech products, from graphics cards to automobiles.
As a result, when the new PlayStation appears online on sites like Amazon, Target, and Best Buy, it sells out in minutes, sometimes seconds. Sony has said that demand for the PlayStation 5 is unprecedented and that supply constraints could continue next year. That makes the odds of buying the console feel as random as winning the lottery.
Someone is buying them, though, and the lucky few I’ve talked to rely on some form of automation.
“It’s tough to get one without any bots,” said SV Yesvanth, an information security engineer who wrote a web script to automatically scan online stores for available consoles after his own struggles to buy one in Hyderabad, India. After he succeeded in buying a PlayStation, he said, he connected his bot to a Twitter account and helped hundreds of other eager shoppers.
This month, I joined the club. I volunteered to help a friend who had been trying to buy a PlayStation for six months. After setting up several Twitter bots to blast alerts to my phone as new consoles were stocked, I managed to snag one within a week. It wasn’t easy — I failed three times on Best Buy’s website and ultimately succeeded with GameStop. But the bots gave me a necessary edge to beat thousands of others furiously refreshing their web browsers.
You can’t pick just any bot and expect to land the device. I interviewed several creators of automated tools that have helped people score PlayStations. They said there were traps to avoid, like scammy bots purporting to sell 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 publish a post on Twitter whenever a retailer refreshes its inventory with more PlayStations. They all generally work the same way: They search an online store’s web code for a signal — like an “add to cart” button — indicating that the PlayStation is back in stock. As soon as they detect that the console is available, they publish an alert on Twitter.