The gamble of crypto airdrop hunting and what it means for blockchain devs


In the crypto space, the term “airdrop” refers to the unsolicited distribution of tokens, usually for marketing purposes or as a reward for network participation or contributions.

The first recorded crypto airdrop took place back in 2014 when Auroracoin handed out its native cryptocurrency, AUR.

Another well-known airdrop was that of decentralized exchange Uniswap, which gave its UNI (UNI) governance token to its users in 2020. In total, over 250,000 accounts received 400 UNI each.

While airdrops may have encouraged some to be more active on blockchain networks, Chris Bradbury, CEO of decentralized finance (DeFi) platform, told Cointelegraph that users have realized how airdrops can be exploited, which has led to the phenomenon of “airdrop hunting.”

Airdrop hunters aim to make money by farming tokens from airdrops, hoping they will become valuable.

One recent example occurred during Arbitrum’s ARB airdrop, with on-chain activity revealing that airdrop hunters consolidated $3.3 million worth of ARB from 1,496 wallets into just two.

According to blockchain analysis platform Lookonchain, one wallet received 1.4 million ARB from 866 addresses, worth around $2 million at the time, while another wallet received 933,375 ARB from 630 addresses, worth around $1.38 million.

On March 20, Lookonchain revealed that six specific airdrop hunters had gotten nearly every massive airdrop in crypto.

Bradbury told Cointelegraph that “pro airdrop hunters will use scripts” to consolidate many different addresses into only a handful. “We’re not talking here about someone with thousands of wallets; these will be sophisticated developers to perform multiple actions across many wallets all programmatically,” he said.

A dangerous game

Bradbury further noted that while the tactic has the potential to be profitable once the costs and time involved are subtracted, it comes with some serious financial risks.

“Airdrop hunting is effectively a game,” he said, stating that it requires finding protocols that have not released a token, then interacting with them in all the various ways that could qualify the hunter to earn a portion of the airdrop.

Bradbury added that the risks are even higher when the protocols are new or unproven:

“The nature of retroactive airdrops means you’re often using new protocols, ones that haven’t stood the test of time. And in most cases, you have to deposit your assets into these protocols, adding risk that you could lose your assets to bugs or hacks.”

“The cost of airdrop hunting can quickly outweigh the value of any airdrop if it doesn’t become a top-tier protocol,” he added.

Failing to consider gas fees and other financial costs can also prove to be an issue for hunters.

Bradbury said it can wind up being tricky to find and complete the tasks required to earn a potential airdrop, as protocols are coming up with more innovative criteria.

“It can lead to losses if you end up doing a lot of things that don’t qualify, and most protocols now try to come up with innovative ways of deciding who gets an allocation — so the chance of spending time and money on something that doesn’t count is getting higher,” Bradbury said.

“You ultimately have to use the protocols, hoping to ‘win’ by performing the right actions on the right protocols but not really knowing exactly what you have to do — like a game,” he added.

Consequences of airdrop hunting

Airdrop hunting has become a relatively common practice in crypto as individuals and groups seek opportunities to receive free tokens and make a profit.

Crypto Twitter has many users offering tips on the best ways to airdrop hunt, sharing protocols that might provide a chance to make a profit and swapping other airdrop-related advice.

Some platforms, such as DeFi analytics platform DefiLlama, even have a page showing projects that don’t yet have a token but might in the future.

Zoe Wei, head of developer relations and marketing at BNB Chain, told Cointelegraph the extent of airdrop hunting can vary depending on the specific airdrop and the measures taken by the project team to mitigate the activity.

She also noted that the practice could create long-term problems for protocols when trying to provide incentives for ecosystem builders and contributors, which are crucial for long-term growth.

“Airdrops are important for the growth of a community from an early stage, but the difficulty lies when identifying the contributors — distinguishing between the real contributors and those who only contribute to get a reward,” Wei said.

According to Bradbury, a protocol’s long-term health is attached to rewarding real users and contributors who are there to help. Failing to recognize this can lead to an exodus as users look for other projects.

“This idea that there might be a generous airdrop and monetary value for using the protocol is actually how protocols get early users and the initial liquidity that they need,” he said.

However, Bradbury added, “The biggest issue is that in most cases, once the airdrop has happened, if you don’t continue to reward the users for using the protocol, many will leave and move to the next project.”

Solutions for stopping airdrop hunters

Determining the identity of the individuals or groups behind airdrop hunting can be challenging due to the opaque nature of blockchain transactions, which can throw a wrench in the works for projects trying to clamp down on the practice.

Wei said that’s one of the main reasons airdrop hunting will likely continue, especially if the projects behind the airdrops do not implement stricter eligibility criteria or adopt measures to discourage airdrop hunting.

However, she noted that there are other options available for protocols, such as exploring alternative token distribution methods or implementing more stringent criteria to ensure a fairer distribution of tokens among participants.

According to Wei, one specific solution could be soulbound tokens (SBT), which are non-transferable and will ensure only genuine supporters receive rewards if projects only airdrop to SBT-holding addresses.

SBTs are digital identity tokens representing a person or entity’s traits, features and achievements and are issued by “souls,” which represent blockchain accounts or wallets.

Recent: Arbitrum’s ARB token signifies the start of airdrop season — Here are 5 to look out for

Wei believes a shift toward using SBTs would also make token distribution more targeted and fairer.

“Adopting the SBT concept can make it more challenging for airdrop hunters, promoting a fairer token distribution and contributing to the ecological prosperity of the ecosystem,” she said.

“It helps ensure that airdrops are primarily directed at genuine supporters and engaged users rather than opportunistic airdrop hunters.”

Wei further argued that decentralized autonomous organizations could enforce governance fairness using SBT tokens for voting to avoid bot spamming.

Another approach could be using randomized distribution methods or limiting the number of tokens distributed per address to prevent disproportionate gains by airdrop hunters.

“Additionally, projects could focus on distributing tokens to their most active and engaged users, by considering factors like participation in the project’s community or usage of its platform, to encourage genuine participation and discourage airdrop hunting,” Wei said.

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