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When things are this broken, it's an opportunity. Maybe it's time for someone to start an AdSense competitor whose focus is customer service. It seems to be deeply embedded in Google's DNA not so much to abuse AdSense users as to treat them like components in a machine. They treat AdSense users much as they do servers. Uncertain about a server? Toss it; the system is designed to be fault tolerant.

Maybe Google thinks they have to behave this way to scale. But my gut tells me they could get away with being a lot nicer and still scale. If so there is an opportunity for a competitor to move in here and surprise people with better customer service, as Zappos did in shoes.

It could help to have better fraud detection technology. The more accurately you can tell the innocent from the guilty, the less draconian you need to be with the innocent. And while it sounds unlike Google to have left room to do significantly better, the way they treat the innocent implies their technology may be insufficient.

But who are the "customers"? There are no less than FOUR parties at play here: Google, the ad buyer, the content provider, and the consumer. And none of their interests are very well aligned. Being "nice" to questionably fraudulent activity (because let's be clear: delaying a fraud ban means that on the margins, they will miss some valid bans and thus lose money for themselves and their advertisers) hurts Google and the consumer at the expense of the interests of smaller content vendors.

I think the audience here is skewed. People here (pg included) are too wiling to see through their web site admin glasses and not think things through from the other perspectives.

Then scrap free support. If Google was holding 40k revenue hostage, and blocking 20k a month, I'd be willing to pay 1k to negotiate with a real person for a day.

There's probably only a few false positives, most of the scammers they block are scammers. They can't afford to give everyone a fair hearing. But if you really believe you were unfairly blocked, they should give you some kind of channel to sort things out.

Usually you pay that $1k to someone called a "lawyer...."

Allowing folks to charge for general customer service seems like creating a perverse incentive to create expensive problems in order to make money fixing them....

It hurts Google, the consumer and the advertiser. Some individual site owners are the only ones who benefit from a more lenient stance on fraud.

Please don't miscategorize asking for honest business practices as "a more lenient stance on fraud". What's Google's alleged to have done here -- deprived payment for services rendered -- is morally equivalent to fraud.

Indeed. And what Hatchlings is alleged to have done is likewise fraud (or perhaps accessory to fraud). We have no evidence either way (though as I've mentioned, I'm on the whole not predisposed to believing spammy Facebook games companies), yet you've jumped in on one side. Why?

Look, this isn't "PayPal vs. regretsy" here. It's one company in a business area rife with (pseudo-)fraud trying to make a living and getting into a tussle with another company which is badly exposed to risks from the same fraud. Yawn.

I just want to jump in here and say that we (Hatchlings) are also not asking for more leniency on fraud. We've been on the opposite side of the advertiser/publisher fence too and fraud on the campaigns we run is not acceptable.

It's not even necessarily false-positives that we're against either. Mistakes happen.

The real issue is that we've been doing everything possible for the last year to get this issue resolved and have been willfully ignored. We, a small 5 person startup, take care to provide personal support for our 3.5 million users (yes, even to the non-paying ones) and we don't think it's too much to ask for Google to do the same especially with an issue as big as this.

PS - the "spammy Facebook games companies" is a whole different issue. We try not to be spammy either and the FB platform is a similar situation where there are bad actors who tend to ruin it for everyone else.

If it's really $40k, you haven't done everything possible. Call a lawyer, file a suit. This kind of money won't pay for a big firm, but you can absolutely get someone local. And in discovery you'll learn why you were banned. Or you get some of it back in a settlement.

"And what Hatchlings is alleged to have done is likewise fraud (or perhaps accessory to fraud)."

Wait where is anything alleged to have been done by Hatchlings? Did you just make that up?

"yet you've jumped in on one side. Why?"

Because the issue appears one sided? {ignoring for the moment the many other people saying this is exactly how google operates).

"Look, this isn't "PayPal vs. regretsy" here. "

Funny it bore a striking resemblance. Web companies grow up and their shitty to nonexistent customer service doesn't go over so well when they decide to shutter a business account with significant balances.

"It's one company in a business area rife with (pseudo-)fraud trying to make a living and getting into a tussle with another company which is badly exposed to risks from the same fraud. Yawn."

There's lots of fraud in financial transactions and credit card issuers (banks) are exposed to this but if your bank suddenly closed up your account and never communicated with you I'll bet you wouldn't be yawning, you'd be screaming bloody murder.

Because the issue appears one sided?

The issue appears one-sided only because you're hearing just one side.

There's lots of fraud in financial transactions and credit card issuers (banks) are exposed to this but if your bank suddenly closed up your account and never communicated with you I'll bet you wouldn't be yawning, you'd be screaming bloody murder.

I agree. You would be screaming bloody murder. And that's exactly what Hatchlings is doing. However, I don't think commercial banks are too much better in this regard either. I mean, if a bank shuts down your merchant account and cancels transactions that are "in-flight" due to some kind of automated fraud detection trigger, would you have any more pull with them than Hatchlings has with Google? I suspect not. I think the only difference would be that you'd be getting these notices via telephone or USPS rather than e-mail.

"The issue appears one-sided only because you're hearing just one side."

This is exactly true and I'm perfectly willing to revisit my opinions if I hear the other side.

However (and a big one), I don't expect to hear anything from Google that's going to overturn the mental verdict I've formed that this is a lousy, shitty way to do business and treat your customers.

Not to continue a pointless flame war, except to respond to your very last point: you realize that banks do terminate merchant accounts at the drop of a hat, right? The situation there is absolutely symmetrical with the one here. They also will freeze a customer's card at the barest hint of strangeness, forcing you to call in and verbally OK the transactions. This happens to me once a year at least.

When you call your bank they generally pick up the phone. In contrast it seems the only way to get help from Google is to know someone influential or have a high profile blog on which you can embarrass them publicly.

> forcing you to call in and verbally OK the transactions

This is the bit that people seem to get most frustrated about. Banks have telephone numbers. Even if that support is outsourced to Mumbai you still get a person to talk to.

"Not to continue a pointless flame war,"

I must be missing something, please quote one thing that I said that you felt was flaming you.

Consumers are not much hurt by false negatives in fraud detection. Consumers are significantly harmed by false positives because they lose access to ad-supported content. I would still be regularly updating my old blog and entertaining my readers if it were profitable like it was before Google accused me of being a scam artist and shut down my account.

That's true, I should have explained that better. The hypothesis I was working from is that, on the whole, Google probably enables more ad-supported content than it hurts with false positives. For every one unfortunate blogger like you, there are a thousand more who would be harmed if the whole ad network were delegitimized by fraud. Eventually, I think the ad networks would become even seedier than they already are and this (combined with the lack of legit ad revenue) would hurt consumers.

That is a reasonable point, but I do not think that Google's approach is the best means to forming a credible ad network that enables both marketing and the monetization of free content. A system with better communication, a reasonable appeals process, and some effort to recognize and address problems like third-party sabotage and friends who think they're doing you a favor, would better serve consumers, advertisers, and creators. The problem is that the benefits to Google of such a system don't outweigh the costs.

That doesn't follow. If ads don't make money there won't be ad supported content. Consumers are the beneficiaries of a very complicated three-way relationship (advertiser/broker/content). Of course they get harmed when that relationship stops working, it doesn't matter which direction it happens in or whose fault it is.

I did not say that consumers were not harmed by false negatives. I said they were harmed more by false positives.

Right, and I said that's wrong. Or it's only speciously right: content providers are smaller and have less buffering capacity, so in the event that the cash flow to them is interrupted they will drop faster than the broker or advertiser. But all three parties have to be making money for the consumer to derive benefit from the system.

Actually you said that it doesn't matter in which direction the system breaks, which is preposterously false.

You have a very narrow understanding of what internet is. It hurts Google, in an indirect, but very deep way: Google should be most interested in the proliferation and diversity of independent sites, since this is what they search. They should be especially interested in the long-tail. When they cut revenue sources for them, the eyeballs go to places that they cannot touch/financially hurt or more importantly they cannot search, i.e. to Facebook.

You'd do tremendously better than Google in these circumstances just by letting people you ban actually talk to a real customer service representative with the power to investigate the problem properly and give decent human feedback after you've banned them.

The biggest problem is not the initial ban, but the total stonewalling from Google afterwards.

I'm sorry, but it's insulting that you think those of us who find these stories disgraceful aren't aware of the issues. You think the audience here is skewed? I think you are apologizing for Google where no apology is due.

It is not a given that Google's anti-customer service policy is the right one. There are other tremendously large multinational corporations who have friendly customer service relationships (e.g., Amazon and Apple) and aside from being the "right thing to do" it's working pretty darn well for them from a profit-and-loss perspective.

I don't care how you define "customer". If Google had confiscated 40K from any partner in circumstances resembling these, and refused contact with their partner despite having previously assigned them an account rep, I'd find this shady.

Like pg mentions, this is certainly an opening. Despite your protests, Google's partners don't like this. When partners don't like something, that's an opening for competitors. There are several other ad networks, some at least reputed not to employ such a destructive and passive aggressive customer service strategy.

The only problem is, Google has a near monopoly for search ads. Can you agree that near-monopoly power gives a company the power to adopt abusive policies? It's hard to tell whether Google really is forced to ignore partner emails or whether they are partly able to get away with it due to their market power.

It's not like companies purposely adopt terrible policies. Of course Google currently thinks this is the best trade-off. And this is now our bullhorn to say, no, we don't agree that this is the best trade-off. If we can't hold Google accountable to showing the faintest bit of decency to this partner in this circumstance--assuming the facts are correct as related--when can we complain about a company's policies?


People aren't out to get Google. Please, stop with the "I know it's (suddenly, and frankly inexplicably, IMHO) fashionable to Hate teh Google around here", which is a fallacy closely related to ad hominem.

Apple and Amazon are the subject of repeated flames like this one? Please cite a few HN posts where this has come up. Nobody is against Google freezing problematic accounts. People are against arbitrary-seeming policies and poor customer service. Flames alone don't matter. The facts of each case do matter. And in the cases that have come across the transom here, the facts have more often been against Google.

Do you agree that it's in theory possible for a company handling fraud detection in online transactions to behave unethically? Because it almost sound like you're saying "fraud detection is hard, let's go shopping!" Just because a business engages in fraud detection of online transactions doesn't mean their policies are suddenly above reproach.

We are all well aware of the difficulty of detecting fraud in online transactions. This isn't new information. What's at dispute is whether Google is actually forced to treat people poorly during the course of handling online transactions. Most people say no. Ultimately, the government and/or competition will decide.

There are other tremendously large multinational corporations who have friendly customer service relationships (e.g., Amazon and Apple) and aside from being the "right thing to do" it's working pretty darn well for them from a profit-and-loss perspective.

Really? You're citing Apple as a company that's friendlier and more approachable than Google? Is this the same Apple that routinely pulls apps from the app store without rhyme or reason? Is this the same Apple that approves an app quickly, but then takes much longer to approve updates to the same app? Or is this the same Apple that changes the terms of service to severely restrict certain forms of functionality (e.g. in-app purchases) just because that makes its own business model more attractive?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of Google's customer service either. It's extremely difficult to find an actual person to plead your case. It's even more difficult to get that person to overturn the decision the algorithm made. In some cases, it's not even clear that people have the power to overturn the algorithmic decision. But compared to Google's corporate attitude, Apple often seems out and out hostile towards developers using its services.

As a Mac developer, I have to disagree. I've had great experiences with Apple's customer service, both as a normal customer and as a developer. I always got helpful answers from a human being within a reasonable time. They sometimes make it a bit difficult to contact support (you have to fill out two or three web forms before you can write your message).

With Google, on the other hand, I only once tried contacting customer service because all the email disappeared from my Gmail inbox. I found out that there is no customer service. The only thing I found was a community moderated forum where someone marked my problem as a duplicate and referred me to a thread where dozens of other users were complaining about the same problem with no solution in sight.

> You're citing Apple as a company that's friendlier and more approachable than Google?

When I had App Store review issues, they very politely tried to tell me what I could do to make the ramming less unpleasant. The experience was terrible, don't get me wrong, and they have completely lost what little confidence I, as a developer, had in them, but they were nice and responsive.

When my AdSense account was blocked, Google put me in an auto-reply loop, very curtly saying I had no recourse and that they would never give me any additional information. They didn't actually growl the word "criminal" at me, but it was implied.

Apple is absolutely friendlier, more approachable, and more reasonable than Google, and yes, that is really saying something about Google.

He's probably talking about the Apple that gives customers brand new iphones or upgraded macbook pros when they experience simple hardware issues with their original purchase.

That's because the folks that buy Macbooks are customers.

The folks that buys iOS Dev Licenses are the sharecroppers. Don't like massa's rules? Get off massa's field. Or go buy and plant your own.

Having someone to hear your claims is a very big difference I think. You can get harsh, arbitrary or erroneous rejections or limitations from Apple, but you get to know why, you most of the time have a second chance, and they tell you what you can do about it, if there is anything to do. You're not alone in the desert taking to a wall.

This sounds like a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome.

Yes, it would be absolutely like it. That is, IF the guys in Stockholm had build an business environment out of thin air, with a huge paying user base, a nice system to limit piracy, and a complete development framework with good documentation and all, where the captives could freely chose to build and sell their apps in.

Instead of, you know, just taking them hostage against their will.

You are right, I went a bit too far, but it's scary that developers are more and more at mercy of platform gatekeepers, completely dependent on their arbitrary decisions.

True that.

That's why I'm in favor of government intervention in such cases -- to enforce them to obey some ground rules and not arbitrarily change the game every time.

Something like the antitrust laws.

Because the problem is that the platform owner had far more power than the individual developer or even any software company. Hmm, maybe a "union of mobile developers"?

In response to your edit:

Here's John Gruber himself taking Apple to task for an impersonal rejection: http://daringfireball.net/2009/08/ninjawords

Here's Apple pulling an app that shows movie times, with no apparent explanation or contact with the developer: http://www.tuaw.com/2008/08/04/apple-pulls-box-office-from-a...

Here's the lead developer of Facebook's iPhone app (one of the most popular apps for the iPhone) taking Apple to task over their vague rejections and arbitrary guidelines: http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/11/joe-hewitt-developer-of-fac...

Finally, here's Apple rejecting an app because it mentioned the existence of Android: http://www.pcworld.com/article/188696/apple_bans_the_word_an...

So I do think it's fair to say that Apple is at least as bad (and probably worse) than Google when it comes to its attitude towards partners. At the very least, Google doesn't ban you from its service for mentioning Bing.

Most of those posts are almost 4 years old, get over it. I've been publishing to AppStore since 2007 and it was rough at the start. Apple wasn't anticipating the volume of submissions. It's a much different story now.

Um... Amazon and Apple are also the subject of regular flames like this one. Amazon affiliates and app store vendors are routinely frozen. And yes, they lose money. There's no free lunch here: I know it's (suddenly, and frankly inexplicably, IMHO) fashionable to Hate teh Google around here (c.f. even PG above getting into it), but fraud detection is a pervasive unsolved problem in our society. Credit card banks haven't solved it. Online sales proxies haven't solved it. PayPal hasn't solved it. Ad vendors like Google haven't solved it.

Criminals are smart, and it sucks. But this is the world we have to live in. Picking on one vendor in particular (and over a IMHO very questionable case) is just unfair and unhelpful.

As a traveling independent developer, I've run afoul of both Google and Apple's fraud detection algorithms because I'm moving around all the time. The difference is that straightening things out with Apple involved talking directly to an intelligent, helpful human being whereas Google just stonewalled me with forms and faqs.

I read people saying things like "Google is always doing this". I'd love to see (and know that I never will) some numbers from Google about how many people get blocked for fraud vs how many people are using adsense and adwords.

I'm not saying Google is perfect. A few stories sound troubling. This one, for example, has a guy making a mistake, but listening to Google and doing what they say and being told that he's avoided trouble, and then having an account frozen. People do make mistakes. People sometimes do stupid things. We probably haven't heard on HN from anyone who outsourced their SEO to someone who was blackhat. (Are the blackhat SEO companies obvious? Would some naive website owner be able to make that kind of mistake?)

But yeah, fraud detection and prevention is unsolved, and would be worth a lot of money. (See also banks: You tell them that you're going abroad and give them a destination and a date. You go abroad. You use your card, and it's frozen. You make an international phone call to the same bank to have the card unfrozen.)

PG I'm not defending google but there's a tremendous amount of fraud in this business. Any solution has to account for the fraud factor.

From my experience neither Yahoo or Google has the correct algorithms to prevent fraud. I know this because we have parked domains and I can tell when various parked domains get spidered and all the sudden we get a check in the mail for the revenue that bots must have created.

The reason google/yahoo don't do a better job is that the fraud clicks earn them money. But when they are alerted (by the advertiser) they come down hard and fast (as show by the OP)

PG is absolutely right re: treating publishers as servers: this is NOT just about fraud, please take a look at this: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3803981

Your link goes to ycombinator.org not .com

Requires a separate login to that to vote or reply.

At first I thought you were potentially man in the middle.

While the whois says the domain is owned by "Paul Graham" at the appropriate address I don't separately even know if this information is correct as anyone can put anything in whois owner info.

For what it's worth, the two names resolve to the same IP address for me.

My recommendation for developers who might have this issue on their own site is to set up a redirection script at all the non-canonical names. The redirection script should redirect to the canonical name and include the full path and query string if they exist.

I also take that opportunity to log the traffic so I can report on which names are generating traffic. That can help when you are deciding wether to allow names to lapse.

They (news.ycombinator.com/org) resolve to the same IP. It's safe to assume it's not a MITM.

Is there any industry guideline how to crawl ads to avoid the click fraud. There must be some header that crawler can pass telling it is not a human.

This is probably a great opp for regional newspapers - they have the ability to have feet on the ground, they are 'local' (ad spends keep money in the region/state/etc) - they should know something about the local/regional players/economy, etc. But... it would require an investment in technology and a commitment to customer service that most newspaper orgs probably don't have and don't want to make. Bit of a shame, as many will go away without adapting, and there are still opportunities for them to adapt/pivot and carve out new niches. Instead, they're happier to outsource all their ad stuff to big players like google.

To the people down-voting. I'd love to hear your criticism against this idea.

"they have the ability to have feet on the ground"

This is very expensive compared to an automated online system like google has.

But more importantly the local papers don't have the traffic necessary in order to make this a success. And people aren't doing searches on their local newspaper website for "plumber topeka kansas" they are doing it on google.

No one is saying a news organization couldn't also have automated systems. It's not an either/or situation.

The local newspaper site doesn't have to be the only place where ads are shown, just like google.com isn't the only place where google ads are shown. Google has a large network, and newspapers could have a similar network. They had a great position 10 years ago, but I think it's still tenable now for some news organizations in many markets to be an information hub for that region, and some of that would/should involve becoming an information network, which includes an ad network.

Sites all over SE Michigan should have the option of running ads from an ad network managed by the Detroit Free Press, for example.

Excellent points.

And while I did state that "feet on the street" are very expensive one thing that small business people definitely need is hand holding with respect to placing advertising. And I agree with what you are saying about assembling the network of sites.

The idea then would be to assembling a group of sites where the ads could run (similar to what google has done) and have the local sales force which knows the market offering the ad inventory.

Hard to believe this isn't being done already.

The 'assembling of sites' - those are the businesses that the salespeople are visiting every day - at least one level. The 'link exchange' idea for newspapers and their advertisers could be implemented quickly in many regions.

But... it's not that hard to believe it's not being done. This requires foresight and effort and some hard work that's outside the core competency of most media outlets. It requires a shift/pivot that most didn't see coming. Everyone wants the easy way out - just let google handle ours ads, and we get a check every month! Then one day you realize google controls a significant portion of your revenue, controls the relationships with the companies advertising on your site, and doesn't feel it needs you around anymore. Rude awakenings to be sure.

Additionally, most tech savvy people migrated to SV or NYC, leaving much of the rest of the country with less forward-thinking/visionary/tech-hungry people to drive this sort of thing. And if other papers aren't doing it, why should we? We might make a mistake!

There is a business model here to be developed, but it's also not one which is going to be a multibillion $ homerun overnight.

At the same time this sort of idea is being ignored by major papers/newsoutlets, larger companies like AOL were/are buzzing about "hyperlocal" and trying to get volunteers to write about local soccer games. Why? To have the content to drive hyper-local ads. At least, that was my understanding. But who's going to sell those ads? It should be newspapers, but they should be controlling local new media networks, instead of rolling over and playing dead (quite convincingly, imo).

Thinking about this a bit more... I doubt this is being done, but... MS should be private-labelling their own ad network technology to mid-tier news organizations, giving them training on how to sell/manage this, and taking a cut.

That said, I don't really want it to be MS. I thought their ad/mgt tech was awful, but... with a bit of polish, removing references to MS, and some sales, they could make a dent in this market.

No, but plumbers in Topeka, Kansas with ads in the paper might want in on websites too. The whole "print adapting to the Internet" is a whole other problem domain, but I think it's a great idea. Now just convince the local papers :)

Having spent more than a year "convincing the local papers" how they could expand into local digital, and mostly having very smart people nod sagely then do nothing, Google has little to fear from them IMO.

I'm guessing most of them were probably already in Google's pocket - having their ad inventory controlled by Google and collecting a monthly check. Classic short term vs long term strategy. Short term, the company can stay in business, long term, you're around solely at Google's pleasure.

Some had been working with GOOG already. Some with YHOO. (this was '07-08) There was healthy skepticism all around - the deadliest aspect was where they (claimed to have) felt more comfortable handling the design and development themselves rather than working with any partner. "Healthy" as they rightly felt they could self-implement and wondered at motivations behind partners' help offers. "Deadliest" as there was a track record of "needing to do it in-house" and yet not doing it at all.

Our motivation to help was straightforward: we'd been partnering with hundreds of newspapers for decades. Their vitality - circulation, reach, revenue - directly effected same for our products. We had the resources and incentive to build and "give away" products and services to our partners as it was clearly in our interest.

Lessons learned included 1) even gratis is not sufficient positioning for adoption. "Gratis with guaranteed revenue generation" wasn't either: high-touch execution support and hand-holding through the process is what made it work where it did. 2) just because people are smart and capable of executing doesn't mean they will; if they were capable and still hadn't yet executed, they almost certainly would not without some fundamental shift.

Illogical, IMO, but those realizations have made other opportunities recognizable.

The sheer mass Google has and their control of search represents a huge barrier to entry in this field. Like it or not, they are a monopoly.

The majority of advertisers are familiar with Google's advertising platform as search users. Given a choice between an unknown startup and Google to advertise their own business they'll choose Google, hands-down.

You and other investors would have to throw tens of millions of dollars (ore more) at a startup in order to mount a serious challenge to Google's supremacy.

If you can beat them at search you can probably mount an attack on their advertising business. Without that it'll probably be very difficult to convince publishers and advertisers to switch sides.

This is far from obvious to me. For brokering a deal between publisher and advertiser, Google has nothing that presents a technological, or even much business, advantage. Maybe some prior experience in fraud detection. The existence of this thread shows it can't be that good.

Yes, an advertiser might want or have a business relation with Google for search advertisements. But for others? What does Google have there that makes them special?

Their brand might be worth something, but thinking this is unovercomable seems strange to me.

Inventory size and larger returns generally than anyone else is able to offer due to more data for better targetting.

Excellent point - and different from the original poster - and I feel silly for forgetting about it. Google knows your interests and who you are...and what you'd buy.

Would be nice if Facebook would offer Adsense.

Yeah, Facebook is probably in the best position to break Google's dominance in the area. Seems like a pretty natural extension to from having things like likes and comments on 3rd party sites.

You need a plumber right now. What company name comes to mind? If you live in the US it is likely to be Roto-Rooter.

Brands occupy a space in people's minds for various categories. Think of it as key-value coding for real-live categories.

Google occupies, no, owns, search and probably owns advertising in the eyes of a huge percentage of Internet users and business people. Everyone sees Google's ads on sites they visit. Naturally, when it comes time to think about advertising their own businesses they are likely to associate Google with this rather than the startup of the day. That's nearly impossible to buy.

There are hundreds of alternatives...none of them seem to get any major traction.

Most of it is due to the fact that only a tiny portion of people are actually affected...and because these alternatives offer much lower quality of advertisers...and much lower earnings.

That sounds like a great idea, (the "opportunity" you mention) but how does one avoid becoming "just another ad network"? There are so many fringe players out there who provide low value and poor customer service that many website owners (myself included) prefer to avoid them.

I'd love to see ideas in this space. I'd even collaborate with other hackers to build something along these lines if there was a clear vision of what success looks like.

Agreeing with people who criticize google, I have to say it is really beautiful to see PG response where he is seeing opportunity in everything. Me too :).

Google has always been awful at customer relations; maybe it has a lot to do with why they don't "get" social media.

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