Seattle software developer Evan Jacobs wasn’t really looking to spend his Sunday afternoon building a new app on the back of eBay’s platform. But when he stumbled upon the eBay Hangover Party and Speed Hack competition at SXSW, the 38-year-old former Amazon.com developer thought he’d give it a shot. He had just two hours to build something cool, and Jacobs didn’t disappoint.
By the end of the competition, Jacobs earned the top prize, an all expenses paid trip to the GlueCon conference in Denver. Jacobs, who left Amazon.com last December after 10 years and is currently working on a startup called Motivation Mix, also won $2,000 in cash. That’s some good beer money for the rest of the conference. (Jacobs also happens to be the creator of the Web site I Drank This).
So, what did the developer create in the two hour time frame?
Essentially, it is a service that scours Twitter for phrases like “Where can I buy a car?” and then matches those Tweets up with automated responses from eBay showing links to specific products. Jacobs explains:
“On Twitter, someone might say, ‘Hey, where can I buy Legos or a reliable used car or school supplies, or something like that,'” said Jacobs. “My bot would specifically monitor for Tweets of that form and then would parse it and try to determine what the object of the query was — and kick off a search to eBay to find the best match for that query and reply to that Twitter user with a link to that item on eBay.”
Jacobs built a similar tool on the back of Seattle startup TeachStreet. But in that case, Jacobs was trying to match people looking to learn a skill — say guitar or Spanish — with a teacher in the TeachStreet directory.
That service was eventually shut down after about four months for violating Twitter’s agreement, which forbids automated replies.
Jacobs think bots have a bad name. But, in some instances, he thinks they actually serve a useful purpose. Just today wrote a blog post titled “How Twitter Can Win Developers Back” in which he makes the case that Twitter should allow developers to implement automated replies.
“There’s this very untapped ecosystem and a lot of fertile ground in bots — being able to reply and do automated replies to Twitter posts,” Jacobs tells GeekWire. “If you do it in a sensible way …and you give people the ability to opt out and give people the ability to mark bot replies as helpful or unhelpful or spam, then I think you could build a mechanism to allow these automated replies, and the most helpful ones could trickle up.”
If that occurred, Jacobs said that he thinks Twitter could turn itself into an extremely powerful question and answer service.
Clarifcation: Jacobs was one of multiple winners at the eBay Speed Hack competition.
John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire, a technology news site based in Seattle. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews.