Let's talk referrals

PlayfulPhoenix

Founder of SFF.N
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SFFLAB
Chimera Industries
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Feb 22, 2015
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Hey everyone,

A while ago I wrote an announcement post that covered a slew of things, but among them was the topic of referrals. More specifically, we announced that we were instituting a policy whereby referral links would not be permitted on the forum, pending some community discussion.

To be honest, we've had most of our attention taken over by some behind-the-scenes work (which we will hopefully share soon ;)), so this topic hasn't been on the forefront of our mind since I last brought it up. But I saw a few posts made over the past few days that mentioned the subject, and was reminded by them that now is as good a time as any to create this thread. So here we are!

I'll go ahead and quote myself from the aforementioned post back in February for context:

4. We are introducing a new policy regarding referral links on the forum. It's been called to our attention on multiple occasions that some users have been using referral links when discussing products or services on the forum. In general, these take the form of links to online marketplaces that have an associate or referral ID appended to the URL, such that the person who is associated with that ID is compensated whenever a user purchases items though that link. Although we don't feel that there have been any brazen examples of unethical conduct as a result of the use of these referral links, we have ultimately decided that the best course of action is to ban use of these links moving forward. Simply put, this is meant to be a straightforward policy enhancement that we think is the right choice to make for the community, with respect to ensuring that financial incentives don't induce biased discourse.

We'll have a bit more to share and to discuss with respect to referral links more generally, but for now we ask that everyone recognize this new rule and refrain from posting referral links moving forward.

Although that announcement was one of many, I want to make it clear that it wasn't a decision that was taken lightly. There was considerable conversation on our part with respect to what was the right course of action for this, and we arrived at the aforementioned decision based on the following reasoning:

  1. Allowing community members to use affiliate links incentivizes people to promote and/or advocate for products they could profit from (through the use of affiliate codes), rather than to promote products that are germane or in the best interests of others.
  2. While not all uses of referral links are abusive, we don't currently know of a reasonable method available to us to moderate all affiliate links, such that we can distinguish (and delete) the abusive ones. (There would also be a considerable cost associated with simply attempting to do so, even if the solution was ultimately imperfect.)
  3. The gains by individuals who are using affiliate links in a non-abusive way are outweighed by the costs Minutiae takes on by moderating all links, as well as the costs the community incurs by having to co-habitate with abusers of referral links.

At this point in time, our thoughts are unchanged since we banned referral links... but that doesn't mean that we're forever against referral links being used on SFF Forum. To the contrary, we're actually quite open to many different approaches and considerations surrounding the use of referral links - we just made the decision in the short-term to forbid such links as a matter of caution, in order to buy time until we were convinced that a particular approach was the best for us, and for the community. As I've said before, we really want to get this right.

In the meantime, i's been interesting (and helpful!) for us to get community feedback in this regard, and watch discussion on the subject when it's come up. Since we enacted the ban, perspectives and proposals have been fairly diverse. The ones I can recall that I've seen discussed would include:
  • Support for a permanent ban.
  • Support for a limited ban (only allowing certain users or types of links to be used).
  • Support for moderating links based on whether or not a particular link is abusive or non-abusive.
  • Support for moderating links on a case-by-case basis (taking into account the history of the user).
  • Support for using automation to convert all affiliate links to ones that support SFF Forum/Minutiae.
  • Support for little-to-no restriction on the use of links (and affiliate links within those), so long as they follow existing rules.
I'm sure that there are others, but these are the most vocalized.

---

With that, then, we want to turn the microphone to you all. What do you think? What would you prefer personally, and why? And - most important to us - what's the best approach that we can take for the community, SFF Forum, and Minutiae (in that order)?
 

robbee

Master of Cramming
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Sep 24, 2016
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Support for using automation to convert all affiliate links to ones that support SFF Forum/Minutiae.

Where as most types of monetizing your content (advertising, subscriptions, ...) do somehow 'negatively' impact the community, this one seems a no-brainer to me. It can be a source of income that doesn't force the visitor into anything.

I've no idea what amounts we're talking about though, so in the end the discussion may turn out to be pretty trivial.
 
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Curiosity

SFF>Speed
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Apr 30, 2016
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Y'all make solid points about the potential for abuse with affiliate links, maybe if you were supposed to announce it was an affiliate link it could work?
That might be a lot of work on your side though.
 

|||

King of Cable Management
Sep 26, 2015
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I have absolutely no problem with affil links.

Sure the links themselves are not a big problem...it's more of what is motivating/influencing the posting of certain links. It would be desirable to remove all bias in what advice is dealt out by contributors.

Y'all make solid points about the potential for abuse with affiliate links, maybe if you were supposed to announce it was an affiliate link it could work?
That might be a lot of work on your side though.

I'm not sure announcing the presence of a link would remove bias, without removing any incentive for them to post one thing over another.

I personally support it where the links are converted to those that benefit this forum. I would also support the use of a pop-up so if someone were to paste in an affiliate link, they would be notified that their link will be changed, so if there is any bias and misconstrued notion that they would be benefiting themselves by posting something, it would be removed before they submitted their comment.
 

Biowarejak

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Personally I don't mind people posting them. If they aren't clear about it though, or if they're abusing it, then I'd suggest that there be a report option for that.
 

Kmpkt

Innovation through Miniaturization
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Feb 1, 2016
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Just to be clear on this policy, you guys are talking about amazon.com referral links and the like correct? And the problem here is if people come in here with their own affiliate links and try to get money from driving business from SFF.net through their affiliate link to profit?
 

Ceros_X

King of Cable Management
Mar 8, 2016
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I don't have a problem with referral links at all - often times referral links incentivize people to actually link products they purchased vs just typing the name and that saves me time. I would very much be supportive of allowing affiliate links (maybe for supporters only to help weed out drive by referral link spamming?). I have done a little research and I didn't see any addons for XenForo other than those that convert all affiliate links to your affiliate links.
 
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EdZ

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May 11, 2015
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Not sure how powerful XenForo's automation is, but how about this: normal URLs are just inserted as normal. URLs with an affiliate link are modified: the link text/image is stripped of the affiliate portion of the link and replaced with a non-affiliate link, and next to it are added two 'tags': one with the original affiliate code (i.e. the poster's) and one with that code replaced with Minutia's.
In this way, normal links are unimpacted, and affiliate links give the clicker a choice: no affiliate, poster's affiliate, or site's affiliate.
 

iFreilicht

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Feb 28, 2015
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In general, affiliate links have a high potential to induce bias to recommendations. For example, someone who wants referral bonuses could recommend a sub-optimal product just because the optimal one isn't available on amazon. Ultimately, I want to trust members of this forum to not do such a thing, but the argument remains.
The important part is that the user can be aware of this bias, not that it is removed entirely.

Support for a permanent ban.

Sounds good, especially for obvious spam, whether manual or by bot.

Support for a limited ban (only allowing certain users or types of links to be used).

This seems like a solution for the abusive link problem. You'd just have a whitelist for referral links. If someone wants to use a referral link to a webshop that isn't yet whitelisted, they have to message the mods. Seems managable.

I would very much be supportive of allowing affiliate links (maybe for supporters only to help weed out drive by referral link spamming?)

An alternative solution, and not a bad one at that. This means that minutiae will proift from affiliate links indirectly, so there's no incduced bias there. Very good idea!

Support for moderating links based on whether or not a particular link is abusive or non-abusive.

Whitelisting as noted above would solve that, and as you said, manual moderation is time-consuming.

Support for moderating links on a case-by-case basis (taking into account the history of the user).

Same as above. Taking the history of the user into account is something I want to address below.

Support for using automation to convert all affiliate links to ones that support SFF Forum/Minutiae.

That's something I'd recommend against. While it sounds like a good solution, it would give you a vested interest in affiliate links being posted, so the same bias as above would apply. You'd rather have products recommended that are available on shops with affiliate functionality.

Support for little-to-no restriction on the use of links (and affiliate links within those), so long as they follow existing rules.

This is something to be expanded on. In any case I think a good part of those rules should be enforced automatically.

An idea that I'd like to include is that of only allowing affiliate links to be posted by users with a certain account age and post count, exceptions could be made by the mods if there is good reason for it. Alternatively, you have to apply for the privilege of posting affiliate links.

Both of these solutions would solve the abusive link problem, and the latter allows for very fair but low-maintenance moderation. It also solves the bias concern somewhat, at least you will only see affiliate links from people who are deemed trustworthy.

In any case, no matter what sort of solution you're going for in the end, one thing should be mandatory: Clearly marking affiliate links in posts automatically. This site is visited by many people every day that come here for the first time and will not know about affiliate links or what that implies for the trustworthiness of someone posting them. Additionally, affiliate links aren't easily discernible from normal ones, so if you don't check every link to a product recommendation manually, you have less information about the recommendation than you could have, which might lead to an uninformed purchase decision. Being transparent with that is, at least in my eyes, the number one priority you should be aiming for. How this should be implemented exactly is a separate discussion, but in any case, there should be no confusion over what is an affiliate link and what isn't.

Not sure how powerful XenForo's automation is, but how about this: normal URLs are just inserted as normal. URLs with an affiliate link are modified: the link text/image is stripped of the affiliate portion of the link and replaced with a non-affiliate link, and next to it are added two 'tags': one with the original affiliate code (i.e. the poster's) and one with that code replaced with Minutia's.
In this way, normal links are unimpacted, and affiliate links give the clicker a choice: no affiliate, poster's affiliate, or site's affiliate.

That would be one way to implement this.
 

PlayfulPhoenix

Founder of SFF.N
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SFFLAB
Chimera Industries
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Feb 22, 2015
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Good discussion, all. I'll address a few questions but otherwise I want to let the conversation continue without my interruption.

I've no idea what amounts we're talking about though, so in the end the discussion may turn out to be pretty trivial.

We don't know the amounts, either. But this is not about money, it's about how the money can affect how community members participate.

Y'all make solid points about the potential for abuse with affiliate links, maybe if you were supposed to announce it was an affiliate link it could work? That might be a lot of work on your side though.

In general, any plan that allows referral links in some limited capacity (supporters, users, account age, post count, whitelists, blacklists, etc.) will put a significant moderation burden on us, since we have no way to automate the auditing of those links. We would have to manually check all links, and then - based on how we'd 'limit' affiliate links - make judgement calls with respect to whether or not a particular use of a referral link is compliant or not.

(To be clear, this reality on it's own is not a deal-breaker, but I just want to make sure that the 'cost' is adequately conveyed.)

Just to be clear on this policy, you guys are talking about amazon.com referral links and the like correct?

Yes.

And the problem here is if people come in here with their own affiliate links and try to get money from driving business from SFF.net through their affiliate link to profit?

As stated above, the concern is that providing a profit motive to post certain links can affect how community members participate.

That's something I'd recommend against. While it sounds like a good solution, it would give you a vested interest in affiliate links being posted, so the same bias as above would apply. You'd rather have products recommended that are available on shops with affiliate functionality.

Where as most types of monetizing your content (advertising, subscriptions, ...) do somehow 'negatively' impact the community, this one seems a no-brainer to me. It can be a source of income that doesn't force the visitor into anything.

This solution does introduce a very unusual dynamic. Intellectually one can make the point that @robbee makes, but it still feels unusual, and the profit motive on SFF Forum's part to have lots of links posted is undeniable.

Any concerns regarding bias extend to the forum/Minutiae as much as they do to participants. The one distinction we've wondered about (following the suggestion of doing something like this) is whether or not this dilemma of bias is obviated by not allowing Minutiae staff to post affiliate links. But we're not sure if that completely or satisfactorily resolves the issue.

In any case, no matter what sort of solution you're going for in the end, one thing should be mandatory: Clearly marking affiliate links in posts automatically. This site is visited by many people every day that come here for the first time and will not know about affiliate links or what that implies for the trustworthiness of someone posting them. Additionally, affiliate links aren't easily discernible from normal ones, so if you don't check every link to a product recommendation manually, you have less information about the recommendation than you could have, which might lead to an uninformed purchase decision. Being transparent with that is, at least in my eyes, the number one priority you should be aiming for. How this should be implemented exactly is a separate discussion, but in any case, there should be no confusion over what is an affiliate link and what isn't.

Irrespective of the final solution, we would want there to be disclosure if affiliate links were used in any capacity, anywhere.
 
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Josh | NFC

Not From Concentrate
NFC Systems
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I understand the philosophy behind banning referral links, and I do respect those reasons. I just think in the real world they don't really make sense:

  1. Allowing community members to use affiliate links incentivizes people to promote and/or advocate for products they could profit from (through the use of affiliate codes), rather than to promote products that are germane or in the best interests of others.
So this is clearly the main objection. It really doesn't need to be for many reasons, here are just a few...

A. Affiliate links do not convince a person to buy a product. The research the buyer does convinces them to buy. The linker might aid in that, but the link has nothing to do with the actual decision to buy.

B. The argument that a linker might funnel people into less optimal products is good on paper, but in reality, it takes the same amount of work to just link someone the right product for them.

C. The members/staff here opposed to linking put a ton of weight on reputation of the linker--assuming that people will just use whatever link the linker types out because of their reputation. This is a pretty big stretch (see A), but even if it held true the thing about reputation is that it is earned and maintained.

D. It doesn't matter if someone's posts are profit motivated. It doesn't. People care about the quality of the content, not the motive behind posting it. The truth is some of the best content on the web (useful, accurate, clearly presented) is motivated by profit.

Who cares why someone posted something. I think we all care about WHAT was posted. Modern art does a pretty good job illustrating my point here...I don't care that the artist pooped in a bucket to demonstrate wealth disparity between the first and third worlds...I care that my local museum has a bucket with poop on display because it couldn't pay an artist with talent to demonstrate the same idea. XD

2. While not all uses of referral links are abusive, we don't currently know of a reasonable method available to us to moderate all affiliate links, such that we can distinguish (and delete) the abusive ones. (There would also be a considerable cost associated with simply attempting to do so, even if the solution was ultimately imperfect.)
Why would you even bother? They are affiliate links. If someone is posting links to indecent content how would this normally be moderated? A user would report it and you would ban them. If they are posting a link to a low profile GPU...well then, I'd say that pretty much fulfills the purpose of this website.

3.The gains by individuals who are using affiliate links in a non-abusive way are outweighed by the costs Minutiae takes on by moderating all links, as well as the costs the community incurs by having to co-habitate with abusers of referral links.
Again, why would you bother to moderate these links? Deal with spammers the way you would normally deal with spammers, and let community members be free to tarnish their own reputation with bad suggestions. It happens now a hundred times a day anyways without referral links.


CONCLUSION

I'm not a social justice affiliate link banner waver. Honestly whether your allow them or not doesn't really impact me financially anyway, I just think the reasons that were given are weak; especially when they were given in the same post that was trying to raise money through purchase of forum swag. I personally fully support SFF.net for asking for donations, making money through light ad revenue, and selling T shirts because you provide an awesome service and you need to pay the bills. Why not let your members who make up your community have the same opportunity?

And yes, for the front page reviews, I can see that affiliate links might hurt "journalistic integrity." But if you are selling exposure for Computex coverage, this is literally the same thing. And I guess this is what bothers me about banning affiliate linking in the end.

With absolute sincerity, I wish us peace--and no matter what the decision is...peace. :)
 
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EdZ

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May 11, 2015
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Again, why would you bother to moderate these links? Deal with spammers the way you would normally deal with spammers, and let community members be free to tarnish their own reputation with bad suggestions. It happens now a hundred times a day anyways without referral links.
The problem is that things invariably play out in the same way: people who have an affiliate account will often try to push things as far as they can to the limit on what would be considered spamming, particularly if the revenue-per-link is low. And the problem of that (as well as visual clutter of posting-a-link-whenever-it-can-be-construed-as-peripherally-relevant) is the moderation overhead required to determine "is this spamming?". It's an annoying case of the trouble caused from abuse by a few outweighing the small benefit those not abusing it would receive.
 

Josh | NFC

Not From Concentrate
NFC Systems
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Jun 12, 2015
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The problem is that things invariably play out in the same way: people who have an affiliate account will often try to push things as far as they can to the limit on what would be considered spamming, particularly if the revenue-per-link is low. And the problem of that (as well as visual clutter of posting-a-link-whenever-it-can-be-construed-as-peripherally-relevant) is the moderation overhead required to determine "is this spamming?". It's an annoying case of the trouble caused from abuse by a few outweighing the small benefit those not abusing it would receive.

99% of the time I've seen people post affiliate links here is when they are directly, personally asked for the particular product they recommend. Anecdotes are anecdotes of course, but it goes both ways.

I sell a product called the S4 MINI. When you click on that link and buy my MINI, I make money. Yes, I am happy to help people out on the forum, and I recommend cases that aren't mine all the time. I try to find the best fit for the job. Not being allowed to link customers to my store is the moderators choice, and I respect it, but it seems silly. Likewise it seems silly that is is frowned on when someone asks me what fan I recommend for my product, and I respond with an affiliate link.

Logically I totally get where you are coming from, but it assumes the ill-will of people on this forum. Which is why I am involved in this debate. If the mods came out one day and said: "Affiliate links. We don't like them. They are now banned." My response would be: "K!"

But instead reasons were given which assumes the members on this forum are greedy, uncouth, spammers that will take advantage of the community at every opportunity. This hurts my feelings. I like the people on this forum, and I think we are a good bunch of dudes and dudettes and I think we deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Peace.
 
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Biowarejak

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I would also like to point out that the community generates most of the content on the forum, and that if an individual has enough trust within it that people ask them specifically for a recommendation, it's fine in my book for their referral code to be used. You could even look at it like a finder's fee that the store pays, in some cases.

There are a few bad apples, and always will be, but the bunch of us who aren't will always be free to disagree with the use of a product that was linked.
 

EdZ

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May 11, 2015
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I sell a product called the S4 MINI. When you click on that link and buy my MINI, I make money. Yes, I am happy to help people out on the forum, and I recommend cases that aren't mine all the time. I try to find the best fit for the job. Not being allowed to link customers to my store is the moderators choice, and I respect it, but it seems silly.
Might need to be clarified by the mods, but that's not an affiliate link, that's just linking to your own store. Neither is basic linking to a specific product elsewhere. An affiliate link is specifically when you are paid-per-click (or sometimes paid-per-sale) by a third party store (e.g. Amazon) when you direct others to that store via a specific URL, for any product that store carries.
But instead reasons were given which assumes the members on this forum are greedy, uncouth, spammers that will take advantage of the community at every opportunity. This hurts my feelings. I like the people on this forum, and I think we are a good bunch of dudes and dudettes and I think we deserve the benefit of the doubt.
We have yet to hit Eternal September, but it will happen eventually. An assumption of good faith does indeed work well today, but it absolutely will not in the future at larger forum sizes. Deferring the decision does not solve it, it just makes the problem larger when you do have to tackle it. A case-by-case I-know-it-when-I-see-it rule makes moderation at scale unfeasible, and tends to pit users against moderators when enforcement is defined subjectively rather than objectively.

And even at its small (relatively) current size, the forum is already a target for spam, both by the normal spambots and more elaborate techniques (e.g. a recent one where a semi-relevant post was made either by an actual human or by a decent chatbot, but the spam link was inserted as part of the signature instead).
 

Biowarejak

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I'd actually like to see some user growth statistics before we start talking too much about a rapid appropriation of new users which undermines this forum's mission.

That's not the point here.

The point is we need to trust that our users don't need to have their intentions moderated. If someone gives a crap suggestion then a better one will be offered, referral link or no.
 

|||

King of Cable Management
Sep 26, 2015
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I sell a product called the S4 MINI. When you click on that link and buy my MINI, I make money. Yes, I am happy to help people out on the forum, and I recommend cases that aren't mine all the time. I try to find the best fit for the job. Not being allowed to link customers to my store is the moderators choice, and I respect it, but it seems silly. Likewise it seems silly when someone asks me what fan I recommend for my product, and I respond with an affiliate link.

Might need to be clarified by the mods, but that's not an affiliate link, that's just linking to your own store. Neither is basic linking to a specific product elsewhere. An affiliate link is specifically when you are paid-per-click (or sometimes paid-per-sale) by a third party store (e.g. Amazon) when you direct others to that store via a specific URL, for any product that store carries.

@EdZ is correct. @Josh | NFC, you can most certainly link to your own store...that is in no way violating this rule. If you were to set up affiliate accounts and others linked to your store, where you'd give them a kick-back, that is where issues would be had in the current state of the rule.

I'll give an example of where fan recommendations can go bad: if it was determined that the Scythe SY1212SL12H-P PWM fan was the best fan for the job, in unbiased advice that would be recommended along with info to contact scytheus.com directly to acquire it. However, since the PWM fan isn't sold online, someone with an affiliate account may just stick in a link to one of the non-PWM fans listed by the associated retailer in an attempt to profit off of that person and others search for the same advice.
 
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Biowarejak

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@EdZ is correct. @Josh | NFC
I'll give an example of where fan recommendations can go bad: if it was determined that the Scythe SY1212SL12H-P PWM fan was the best fan for the job, in unbiased advice that would be recommended along with info to contact scytheus.com directly to acquire it. However, since the PWM fan isn't sold online, someone with an affiliate account may just stick in a link to one of the non-PWM fans listed by the associated retailer in an attempt to profit off of that person and others search for the same advice.

It's up to the individual to do proper research before purchasing any product, and I'm sure that someone further down that particular thread would point out that the linked product was not the correct one - or that it was indeed a potentially viable substitute if the member in particular didn't care to contact the OEM.

Would it not be fair to say that if you want to post an affiliate link you should be a supporter? It's the same concept as a $1 sign up fee to prevent spam, which has worked for others in the past.
 
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Josh | NFC

Not From Concentrate
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I've expressed my disagreements, but on a positive note, I serious love this forum, and it's mods. I am super appreciative to be here, and the fact that there is even a promoted discussion thread on this topic is a testament to the fantastic respect and engagement they have with the community.

I do appreciate it!