Perhaps it was the Mystery Hunt-like resourcefulness required or researchers applying their social media savvy or how they worked the money, but when the federal agency that founded the Internet launched the red balloon challenge last weekend, MIT won the prize—and fast.

Balloon locations courtesy DARPA.

Balloon locations courtesy DARPA.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, set up a contest challenging some 4,300 teams to locate 10 red weather balloons scattered across the U.S. on Dec. 5. DARPA, which wanted a better understanding of how information is disseminated through social networks, asked the teams to establish viral networks of spotters.

Late Saturday, DARPA announced an MIT team was the first to locate all the balloons and won the $40,000 first prize—in just eight hours and 56 minutes.

The MIT group, a small team at the MIT Media Laboratory Human Dynamics Group led by physicist Riley Crane, a post doc, won by enlisting the help of more than 4,000  spotters reporting via Facebook and Twitter. Their invitation to participate offered to share the money with accurate spotters and the charities of their choice—as well as people in their social networks.

“We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on…,” MIT noted on its Red Balloon Challenge Recruitment web page.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform an experiment at a massive scale,” he told the New York Times.