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How savvy teens are making a fortune on Twitter

Bot buster

Leave it to clever teens to find a way to monetize their high follower counts on Twitter (TWTR) at a time the platform itself has struggled to squeeze out gains in advertising revenue.

Groups of young users are teaming up to package their followers and sell retweets using secret Tweetdeck groups. Only users with tens of thousands of followers need apply because volume is the selling point: Companies, brands and even other users can spend a few bucks to all but guarantee their message will go viral.

BuzzFeed, which first reported the practice last week, said the groups engaging in so-called "tweetdecking" generate "several thousands of dollars each month" by charging $5 or $10 per retweet alongside weekly and monthly subscriptions that cost hundreds of dollars. Those running their own decks can make up to $5,000 per month, while deck members earn hundreds of dollars a month just by allowing messages to be sent to their followers.

The practice technically violates Twitter's spam policy, and some fellow users are trying to help stop the practice by reporting the worst offenders, but finding and suspending scofflaw accounts amounts to a game of Whac-A-Mole.

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It's a story that will sound familiar for a broad range of digital services that trade in viral content -- from Digg to Reddit, YouTube to Instagram, Facebook to Tumblr, said John Boitnott, a digital-media consultant based in San Francisco and contributor to the magazines Inc. and Entrepreneur.

"As long as you have social media channels like this, you will have younger folks looking to find ways to hack it such that they can produce a viral effect," Boitnott said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch. "You can go back decades -- even hundreds of years -- and you'll find young people trying to circumvent the system, trying to get whatever it is they need to get."

In response, the sites are trying to curb sneaky traffic-generating tricks both to protect their own bottom lines -- not surprisingly, they want a slice of dollars generated on their platforms -- and to keep their sites from getting too spammy. But fearless and technically savvy teens tend to find ways to create their own economies, and even those who have their accounts suspended quickly get back to work by creating new ones.

An early digital example involved the gaming of the front pages of sites like Digg and Reddit, Boitnott said. Another is Instagram, where active users started networking and employing tricks to share traffic and make under-the-table money before the site cracked down.

Tumblr in 2014 revoked the sites of some of its most popular users in a massive purge that ensnared several teens with a total of more than 30 million followers. Some of the offending account owners were earning tens of thousands of dollars a month from spammy ads for diet pills that violated the platform's terms of service.

At least some of the teens may not have realized they were doing anything wrong.

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"Even the most savvy online teens can sometimes fall victim to the modern spammer," Danielle Strle, a Tumblr executive, told the New Republic. "It's easier to be tempted by stuff that promises you the most money or the most return for your reach."

In the case of the "tweetdecking" that BuzzFeed reported, many of the viral tweets are plagiarized or appear often across multiple accounts, adding to the reputation of Twitter as a spammy platform, and inspiring some pushback from users who saw their viral tweets stolen.

But the tricks are unlikely to disappear, at least as long as people and brands crave attention online.

"There's a reason people have been trying to game these types of services for decades: It actually really does bring some blunt-force traffic," said Boitnott, the digital-media consultant. "Even though the virality is fake, you get a whole lot of upside, and that's what people pay for."