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Possible Duplicate:
Limits for self-promotion in answers

I've encountered this answer on SO.
At the end of the answer the user has placed a link to his article on a 3rd party site that requires paid subscription before reading articles. This makes the link totally useless. The answer by itself is useful, however.

After my downvote with comment why I did so, there was a bit of flame that ended up with a phrase, the paywalled link is useless only for penniless freeloaders, hence the title.

Worse than that. I'm a curious guy, so I went the user's profile and looked at the recent answers. Out of five most recent answers, three contain links to the same site: one, two, and the least one is useless without the content of the article.

I did not look in older answers (others did), and the pattern makes me thinking that the misleading link was not an innocent mistake, but the entire reason this user's presence on SO is promoting a paid site. Again, by itself there's no crime if the links are attributed well.

I've read carefully several articles here on Meta:

But I'm still confused. It is more surprising for me to see not a newbie like myself doing that, but someone with 3 years membership and 14k rep (I'm not kidding!).


So, considering the fact that removing bad links is against the major user's goal here, I'd like to know:

  1. Should I flag the answer (and comments within) as spam? If so, what formal reason to be there? "Soliciting"?
  2. Should such links clearly say don't go there unless you have a paid subscription?
  3. Am I too sensitive, and it's just an innocent bad habit, or "penniless freeloaders" is a real horrible offense?
  4. Am I required to submit my own answer before being eligible for downvoting this particular user? :-)

One more thing. I don't care about the personality of this user simply because you can't bring everyone to reason; legio mihi nomen est, quia multi sumus. What I want is just an ability to distinguish misleading links from valid ones.


UPD After reading the answers and comments, I would like to direct the discussion in the following manner:

If you tend to prevent any paywalled links:

What to do with really good answers and a decent reputation that people make while answering? SO can't just throw it away;

If you're up to a free speech paradigm:

@Chris: this sets a precedent that changes the way I regard SO, so it was important to fix in my mind the feeling toward this type of action. I had scrupulously avoided it, previously.

@Widor: So, is it ok for us all to put up a satisfactory answer and include paid links with even more info for the curious (as long as they pay)?

Also, how these links are to be attributed?

share|improve this question

marked as duplicate by Shogging through the snow Jul 21 '12 at 18:45

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

15  
Point 4 is definitely not the case –  Rory Jul 19 '12 at 12:50
6  
I just went through a few of that user's highest rated answers. In only maybe 20% does he fail to link to one of his websites. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 13:10
12  
I'd also add that if they weren't his websites, it would be less of an 'offence' - I see nothing wrong with finding genuinely interesting content that happens to be behind a paywall and sharing the link with others as a bonus to a complete answer, maybe as a follow-up comment. It's the fact that it's his website being shoehorned into his questions that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. –  Widor Jul 19 '12 at 13:36
6  
A related question: If the information in a paywalled post is available elsewhere (say, a gratis blog post by another author or some official documentation) at a similar level of clarity, is it acceptable to edit the link/answer to point to that alternate resource? That is, should cost-to-access be weighted negatively in comparing the relative usefulness of two similar references? Should the availability of identical free-to-access references be sufficient grounds to edit another user's paywalled link? –  apsillers Jul 19 '12 at 13:50
9  
The lesson learned here is not to get into a comment bun fight with the OP which wastes everyone's time and energy (the comments, this question, etc), just quietly flag for a mod to review and go about your day. –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 14:08
7  
Seems this chap has had a run in on usenet and wikipedia for the exact same thing: groups.google.com/d/msg/comp.lang.lisp/aOKqiR278bQ/bLu_q_NGPpsJ –  Flexo Jul 19 '12 at 14:28
5  
Most of the answers (there are some notably bad exceptions though) are good answers. The problem as I see it is that these answers seem to only be written to self-promote these links. The links seem to only add value to the post for the person who posted them, not readers. –  Flexo Jul 19 '12 at 14:34
8  
FYI: I'm going through all of Jon's 419 answers now. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 14:47
4  
@jadarnel27 Seeing what's spam, etc, and acting on it appropriately. Unfortunately, there's a lot of older, crap answers on older crap questions which are getting cleaned out in the process as well, so it's not just to check for potential spam on his answers, but general cleanup as well. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 14:50
8  
Harrop's gonna be pissed next time he logs in... –  mikeTheLiar Jul 19 '12 at 14:56
5  
8  
@Chris The premise that what he's doing is bad in the first place is false. A link is a link is a link. It doesn't matter what the link is to, the assumption that the internet is free is a myth. At SO, we only care if the user exhibits behavior indicating that all they want to do is use SO as a link repository. He is providing links, yes, but he's also providing extremely detailed and quality content that can live without the link. He's a 10K rep user that's earned his rep through providing quality content. If his link is relevant to that content, so be it. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 15:33
6  
Again, I don't mean this to be antagonistic, but it isn't apples and oranges. In one case, concerning SO rep, we encourage users to be selfless and honorable, to not pursue gain and to be satisfied with having provided help -- that itself is the reward. In this case, because the user provided help we overlook the fact that he seeks further reward. First case, even though the user helped, they may not actively seek gain; in the second case the fact of their help excuses actively seeking gain. It seems inconsistent, and I have a consultancy so I'd like to know -- I have >10k too. :) –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 15:39
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@Chris: this means you may link to your paid services in answers, provided the answers are complete and helpful, about ~20-25% of the time. This is part of a "finders fee". Enjoy! –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 17:06
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@bytebuster - given that the comments are now deleted your title kinda looks like sensational link-bait with not much backup. I'd try and pick something a bit more constructive that doesn't read like a Daily Mail rabble-rousing headline. –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 22:49

13 Answers 13

up vote 38 down vote accepted

k; my thoughts:

  • the answer itself has value; it isn't a "pure spam, delete on sight" scenario
  • as part of an answer that has value, linking to something that costs money, but may prove useful to the reader is not particularly objectionable; when linking to an article (rather than a book or product) it is perhaps expectation that is it available, so it perhaps would be courteous to set expectation accordingly - I have thus edited it to mark it as such
  • voting on Q&A is for marking an answer as helpful or not; I suspect, despite the objections in this case, that it actually does have usefulness
  • being obnoxious in comments ("penniless freeloaders") is not OK; I have edited that (update: looks like the comments got purged, too)
share|improve this answer
19  
He needs to be encouraged to mark all his of links like this. –  ChrisF Jul 19 '12 at 13:40
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Just remove the links. The answer still stands as a good answer without them. That, in itself, proves the links are spam. I don't think the guy needs to be punished, but his posts need to be edited, fo' sho' –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 14:00
8  
@Chris; I agree and disagree. I think Marc's solution was probably the best one as it left the decision up to the reader; if someone wanted to pay some money to read more about it then they could, otherwise, they had the answer they wanted and could get on with life. –  dash Jul 19 '12 at 14:31
    
+1 Let's not forget that StackOverflow itself is not a charity. If you object to profit being generated from a Q&A forum, you may be in the wrong part of the internet. –  MarkJ Jul 19 '12 at 15:37
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@Chris All links, according to SO rules, cannot be vital to the usefulness of an answer. The answer must stand alone without the link. Links in answers are supposed to be supplemental material "for further reading if interested" or "here is an official source saying the same thing I'm telling you now". By your logic, every single link should be removed from every single answer as spam. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 15:56

Having done a quick review of the first four pages of answers (sorted by newest first) there are 20 answers out of 120 that mention his resources which is about 16% of those posts.

Of these around seven or eight answers contain links to paywall articles. The remainder link to articles that are not behind a paywall and appear to be entirely relevant supporting material to the main post.

So what we have is around 6% of answers pointing to paywall articles. However in a great many cases these links are only being used to support what are quite detailed contributions (just like linking to a paid-for book).

We see a hell of a lot worse from componentware vendors.

I think you're witch hunting the wrong guy here folks.

NB: this analysis was done on the original versions of the answers BEFORE so-called offending/spamming links were edited out

share|improve this answer
    
Just to confirm: those were not recently updated (there seems to be quite some editing going on) to remove possibly offending content? –  Bart Jul 19 '12 at 14:50
    
Don't forget some stuff has already been edited. –  ChrisF Jul 19 '12 at 14:50
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@Bart - these were prior to any edits (except the one on the question mentioned by the OP). –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 14:51
    
@ChrisF - I took into account the old versions prior to editing –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 14:51
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Fair enough - just checking :) –  ChrisF Jul 19 '12 at 14:52
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I've also done the research here, but across all of his answers. For the 419 answers he has now, only 103 mention his sites. That's 24.58% of his answers (taken from data.SE). Of those answers, the ones that are shorter, link-only are on questions that are mainly old, NC shopping-list questions, so they are no better or worse than any others. Of the remaining, the character count rises dramatically, and looking at his answers, they are extremely detailed and in-depth, able to stand alone without the link. Final conclusion: nothing to see here, everything is fine. Keep calm and carry on. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 15:13
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@casperOne You failed to include flyingfrogblog.blogspot.co.uk or fsharpnews.blogspot.co.uk. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 15:39
    
@JimmyPena Updated with those stats. The result is not that much different. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 15:43
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@JimmyPena - as I mentioned in my answer, many of the links (such as the blogspot ones) are not paywall, but are relevant and useful supplementary links. –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 15:47
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So if our answers help, we can include links to our paid services ~25% of the time if they're relevant? –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 16:59
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@sixlettervariables - it's about common sense....which has not prevailed in this instance. And not all of the content is behind a paywall. Most of the mentions are casual and not overt and are generally limited to one link to a related article in what are quite detailed answers that don't need the link to stand by themselves. –  The Anti-Santa Jul 19 '12 at 17:07
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@Kev: and the prevailing "common sense" has been: no you do not provide links to pay-for-your-content without obvious disclaimers. Before this question, the usual guidance was to put that sort of "noise" in your profile! In fact, I don't think I've seen other instances like this that weren't blatant spam. (aside: I know who Jon is and what he does so it is obvious to me that these are his pay-for-play sites.) –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 17:13
    
@Kev: I hadn't picked up on the comment war, so of the flagging and making it a mod problem, I don't disagree and I'll bud out. –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 17:26

The important part when providing links to resources that are not freely available is that the content of the answer must be a complete answer on its own. Linking to additional information that is behind a paywall is acceptable in my opinion. But a link-only answer that leads to a paywalled article is not acceptable, it is useless to most users.

A pretty uncontroversial example are scientific journals, they are often behind a paywall, but prohibiting links to them would be a very bad idea. On Skeptics, where most users likely don't have access to the papers, we usually rely on the freely available abstract or short quotes from the article.

The point where adding such a link becomes spam is when it isn't really strongly related to the question. Here the whole history of the user becomes important, if he posts his answers mainly to be able to add a link to his paywalled content, he might be crossing a line.

This is a decision that needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, I wouldn't flag it as spam, but with a custom flag explaining a bit more detail. The spam flag leads to auto-deletion if enough users flag the post, and a -100 reputation penalty. For more complicated situations than plain and obvious spam I'd use a custom flag. In those situations a moderator needs to look at the history of the user and make a judgement call.

share|improve this answer
13  
if he posts his answers mainly to be able to add a link to his paywalled content, he might be crossing a line. I went through some of his answers, an inordinate amount of them contain link drops to his site. It feels unnatural. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 13:14
    
(At least) In the case of academic articles, linking to the paywalled main version (maybe even via DOI) makes sense because these links can be expected to not break. Interested users can always search the web for alternative versions, such as preprints hosted by the authors (such links can break frequently, for instance when the author moves). –  Raphael Jul 19 '12 at 14:22
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This answer is very reasonable, but... what if I just hid my links behind ad.fly redirects? Would that be okay? –  badp Jul 19 '12 at 15:12
    
@badp: only if we get a cut. –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 18:54
1  
@badp The usual policy against link shorteners would apply, so we don't even need to think about whether paid link shorteners are acceptable. –  Mad Scientist Jul 20 '12 at 14:00

After going through some of his answers, I'm thoroughly disgusted.

I went through his answers with 10+ upvotes. There were 24 answers as of this writing.

What I found is that 13 of these answers (54%) contain a link to a paid article or one of his websites. This to me looks like abuse, regardless of whether the rest of the answer stands on its own.

From http://meta.stackexchange.com/a/59302/147645:

Also, if a huge percentage of your posts include a mention of your product, you're clearly here for the wrong reasons.

Even worse, the links to ffconsultancy.com seem to have some kind of referrer in the URL so they know how many hits they are getting from Stack Overflow.

Example:

Should I choose F# to develop a distributed server platform?

Contains this link: www.ffconsultancy.com/products/fsharp_for_numerics/?so (emphasis added)

Furthermore, the answers seem to steer discussion towards his business and/or clients.

share|improve this answer
9  
Dear god....look at this answer: stackoverflow.com/a/4419172/1015495 8 links... –  mikeTheLiar Jul 19 '12 at 14:04
    
@mikeTheLiar Is it possible that someone's website is so relevant to so many answers that they need to drop so many links to it? Can't the answers stand on their own? –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:09
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That's what I'm saying. There is no reason for someone to include 8 links to their own website. –  mikeTheLiar Jul 19 '12 at 14:12
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With such a high percentage I'd have flagged the user as ad-spammer and requested moderator intervention (which we already have, as it seems). Though, the user has 14k, that can not be denied and should not be left out of any considerations. But clean up seems advisable, and any answer which after that can not stand on it's own should be purged...and after that, we'll see. ... Actually, I'm more afraid at the moment that this might trigger a witch-hunt before the moderators could take a clear look and figure something out. –  Time Traveling Bobby Jul 19 '12 at 14:13
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@UristMcBobby The witch hunt has begun. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:15
    
@UristMcBobby What would the mods do? Tell him to fix his own links? Someone has to do it. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:22
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@JimmyPena: They'll decide what to do and how to do it...and maybe will even have a talk with the user, not sure. –  Time Traveling Bobby Jul 19 '12 at 14:26
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@UristMcBobby Based on the comments left by the user on the original answer (before they were removed), it looks to me like he has no clue that what he's doing is wrong. Because he has a stake in the outcome, he can't be trusted to judge whether any given link is relevant. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:30
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If you can stand data that's a few weeks old, we don't need to limit ourselves to his top posts. This data.SE query shows that 21% of his posts link to ffconsultancy or fsharpnews. –  Jeremy Banks Jul 19 '12 at 14:39
    
@jeremybanks I chose the 10+ answers because they are likely the most visible since they have the most upvotes. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:46
2  
@jeremybanks nice work. Next step: has that percentage increased over time. Did he start out okay, but is growing bolder with the spam? Also, how often does he link elsewhere? –  Joel Coehoorn Jul 19 '12 at 14:56
    
@jeremybanks - Keep in mind that some of those links are to actual blog posts, not all are to gated content. –  kvb Jul 19 '12 at 15:10
1  
@kvb I think that is the point. I understand that the paywall issue is what brought up the argument. But external linking to a site in which the answerer has an interest (financial or otherwise) is what bugs me. All of the external links could be free articles for all I care. The fact is that (many of) the answers contain unnecessary external links to the answerer's own website. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 15:14
4  
Your science is wrong –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 15:17
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But if he's already written article-length content that addresses the question, why shouldn't he link to it? How is a user of SO better served by the removal of relevant links? I'm all for removing irrelevant links, of course. –  kvb Jul 19 '12 at 15:18

What worries me is that StackOverflow is a high page-rank site in Google, so the behavior looks like it's aimed at getting his site ranked on Google. He's found the edge of a fuzzy line, and I'm leaning toward calling it abuse, especially in this case:

http://stackoverflow.com/a/4419172/1015495

I don't think it's always abuse to post a pay link, but the frequency and single-mindedness of it puts it across the line for me in this case.

share|improve this answer
13  
This makes sense to me: he's not trying to spam SO much as to spam Google. That's actually kinda smart... if a bit evil. –  Joel Coehoorn Jul 19 '12 at 15:05
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I think that's incredibly brilliant and evil, and while it's a legal loophole in the current system, it ensures that his links will always have good text around the link to direct Google to what people want to see when searching for the topics. Brilliant deduction Almo. –  jcolebrand Jul 19 '12 at 15:37
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But it's okay -- there's worse offenders. But it's okay -- he posted it on a long answer. Experts-exchange, here we come! –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 16:08
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@Chris But it's okay -- the world isn't black and white. –  Jeremy Banks Jul 19 '12 at 16:24
    
update in 1015485 case, I attempted to replace multiple paywall links with plain article names under "umbrella" of a single link to blog. Feel free to review the edit: it's #6 in answer revisions history –  gnat Jul 19 '12 at 16:53
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Note that his posts still have nofollow in them, so the links are worthless at this point. Stack Overflow does remove the nofollow on some links, but the details are vague; so safe to say he's not getting anything from the links in terms of Google juice right now. –  casperOne Jul 19 '12 at 16:56
    
Good to know, casperOne. –  Almo Jul 19 '12 at 17:31

If a majority of one user's answers all include a link to the same site, I generally flag one such answer for moderator attention with the Other option to note that it's possibly 'serial spam'.

In this scenario where you say the answers are good, but the link adds nothing then the poster won't mind you removing it. If he objects, suggest he provides an explanation of the content that is behind the paywall so that it is a self-contained answer and us "penniless freeloaders" can also benefit.

If he still objects, I see no value in keeping him as he's then evidently a spammer.

share|improve this answer
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I think this is a bit of a naive answer; what he already has is a self-contained answer. He is only providing the link to provide additional details and further reading for the curious. –  Matt Jul 19 '12 at 13:18
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Furthermore; I see no value in keeping him as he's then evidently a spammer.; I see no evidence at all that he's a spammer; all the answers where he contains links are still self-standing answers. P.s: This is only my opinion... I think there's going to be lots of different opinions as to whether this is "OK" or not. –  Matt Jul 19 '12 at 13:20
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So, is it ok for us all to put up a satisfactory answer and include paid links with even more info for the curious (as long as they pay)? Or just 10k+ users? –  Widor Jul 19 '12 at 13:25
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The comment above (satisfactory answer + paid link) is the essence of my entire question. –  bytebuster Jul 19 '12 at 13:33
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Well damn! I write good answers all the time, I'm going to start a paywall and link to it at the bottom of every answer. KA-CHING! Okay, maybe it won't make me rich, but still. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 13:53
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@Chris But it doesn't look like he's tacking on "PS: VISIT MY WEBSITE!" to the end of his answers; he's linking to specific, relevant articles. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 13:56
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I can't find an answer where he DOESN'T say "PS HERE IS MY WEBSITE" at the end. Here's the test: if you can delete the sentence with the link and the answer still works, then the link was spam. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 13:57
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@jadarnel27 Well-executed, targeted spam is still spam. –  Widor Jul 19 '12 at 13:58
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@Chris If someone provides a complete answer, and then links to a helpful blog post that they do not own, you wouldn't remove that. Sure, removing it wouldn't invalidate the answer, but there's no need; it's helpful and relevant. Widor: I agree with your comment, but I don't think it applies here. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:05
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I've added an answer to summarize my position on this: for me, it all boils down to monetizing your help here when others are giving it out. I find that repugnant. If he is allowed to monetize his answers, I'm probably done here -- unless I can turn my activity here into cash as well. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 14:10
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@jadarnel27 it's helpful and relevant I don't think it's a coincidence that nearly all of the links are to paid articles or to his websites. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:15
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@jadarnel27 Some of them are relevant; many are not. Those links need to be judged case by case to determine which ones are just link drops. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:25
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@JimmyPena I think that's perfectly fair; I just didn't like the "nuke all the links, regardless of their usefulness" mentality that seems to have sprung up in this question. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:29
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@JimmyPena "I don't think it's a coincidence that nearly all of the links are to paid articles or to his websites". Indeed, the correlation between my work and my answers on Stack Overflow is not a coincidence. I write about the subjects I have experience of and I have experience of them because my work involves them. I expect (hope!) that is true of most SO contributors. –  Jon Harrop Jul 19 '12 at 22:38
3  
@JonHarrop Right, the difference is ~20% of my posts don't contain an external link to my work. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 22:47

Seems this is getting personal.

I don't think I've seen anyone I recognise from the F# tag participating in this discussion (though I haven't read absolutely every comment), which is a shame.

I know Jon (and others, myself included) have already been annoyed by people coming along deleting quality content because it was deemed to be off topic. It would be a shame to disgust Jon to the point that he stops contributing here on SO. Because, despite his sometimes abrasive manner (he is not alone...), he knows his stuff, and does consistently add value to SO (and help out people like me).

Personally, I believe that even if he is linking to his own content slightly more than I might do myself, he earns leniency by the effort he puts into answering the questions.

And his content is good. And I say that as apparently the only person here who is not a penniless freeloader :)

share|improve this answer
3  
All or most participants here want Jon to stay here and provide with quality content as he did many times. But why blackmailing the community that he would go away if forced to obey the rule of fair use? –  bytebuster Jul 20 '12 at 7:00
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Also, why do you think only F#'ers are qualified to discuss paywalled links? Does it look any different if one writes Python or C++? –  bytebuster Jul 20 '12 at 7:09
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@bytebuster. I don't think it's blackmail, I'm just pointing out that if it starts to get personal and feel like a vendetta, he might just decide to give up. Others have. And I don't think only F#ers are qualified to discuss, I'm just remarking that it's a shame if things are decided without the participation of the people who are most likely to be impacted by the decision. –  Benjol Jul 20 '12 at 8:52
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@bytebuster "But why blackmailing the community that he would go away if forced to obey the rule of fair use?". Now you are accusing me of blackmail because I don't want to give you all of my work for free and making up your own "rule of fair use" and asserting it as fact? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 12:34
1  
@JonHarrop So you're saying you would leave the SO community entirely and stop posting answers if it was decided that these self promotional links to paid content needed to be removed from your posts? Personally I would have hoped you'd deny that you would do it, not whether or not it is blackmail. If you are saying that you would leave if we don't let you profit from staying then yes, that is blackmail. You are threatening to do something that we don't want (to have you leave and stop providing valuable answers) if we don't do what you want (let you profit from many of those answers). –  Servy Jul 20 '12 at 14:47
2  
Specific to Jon's case, this has happened to him before. I strongly dislike the personal tone that has been injected into this discussion, but I can't help but notice this sort of argument follows the guy around. It bears mentioning, anyway. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 14:52
2  
@JonHarrop I don't want your valued work for free. The opposite: The community wants every help here was free, exactly as stated here. I quote, no salespeople. The community has mutually agreed to ask you to moderate (not even stop) your sales activity. If it happens that you have no other valid reason to stay on SO (like, maybe, free help?), well, you know better what to do. –  bytebuster Jul 20 '12 at 15:17
2  
@bytebuster "The community wants...". Why do you continue to pretend that your personal opinion constitutes consensus within the community? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 17:28
    
@Servy "So you're saying you would leave the SO community entirely and stop posting answers if it was decided that these self promotional links to paid content needed to be removed from your posts". Where did I write that? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 19:48
    
@bytebuster "If it happens that you have no other valid reason to stay on SO (like, maybe, free help?), well, you know better what to do". Why do you devote your time to trying to drive away the contributors of valued content when you could be contributing valuable content of your own creation? It is much easier to destroy than to create... –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 19:50
1  
@JonHarrop I didn't say you wrote it. I looked and couldn't find anything along those lines. Someone accused you of saying it and rather than saying, "I didn't do/say that" you said the equivalent of, "that wouldn't be wrong". I was concerned that you didn't just deny the act of the allegation entirely. Because of this concern I asked to you explicitly confirm or deny the allegation by asking you the question that you have quoted. If you would, please actually answer it rather than deflecting. Would you leave SO if it was decided to remove these links from your posts? –  Servy Jul 20 '12 at 19:55
    
@Servy "I was concerned that you didn't just deny the act of the allegation entirely". I didn't jump to prove my innocence because I believe it was flame bait, not because I am guilty. Why else would so many people here be claiming that I have said things that I have not said? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 21:09

Should I flag the answer (and comments within) as spam? If so, what formal reason to be there? "Soliciting"?

The kicker here is that the answer itself is actually quite useful, but the link at the end adds no value. It would be better to suggest an edit to the answer instead, removing the link. If that becomes contested (i.e. the OP reverts the edit), then you should flag for moderator attention.

Should such links clearly say don't go there unless you have obtained a paid subscription?

I'm not a fan of link-to-paywall answers anyway, but truth be told, caveat emptor. If you're going to click the link, you're not sure where it'll take you - it could take you to a useful blog post, a less useful blog post, or a paywall.

Whether or not you're warned doesn't change the quality of the answer.

Am I too sensitive, and it's just an innocent bad habit, or "penniless freeloaders" is a real horrible offense?

I'd take that as a bit of flame bait. Don't give into it.

Am I required to submit my own answer before being eligible for downvoting this particular user? :-)

No. You may vote as liberally as you wish. He may not like the downvote, but that doesn't mean he can lash out at others for doing so.

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This is it, spot on. Well said. –  jcolebrand Jul 19 '12 at 15:36
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The link at the end adds plenty of value, if you're willing to buy the article. That doesn't mean it's not objectionable. I think the situation would be hugely different if it were to, say, an academic journal entry which wasn't affiliated with the author of the answer. –  Kevin Vermeer Jul 19 '12 at 16:57

I say remove the links.

Look -- we could all do this. There's a fine line between consultancy and HELP. I am here offering what I do, yes for money, for free. The expectation is that I am doing so among peers that do likewise.

How many times could I have "went to chat" with someone asking a question, then advanced my for-profit consultancy services? How many questions indicate that the company the OP is working for would be hiring if they realized that their developer might not know what they're doing?

Monetizing your answers here is anathema to the stated purpose of the site, and is insulting to the rest of the people that participate here for free. My expertise is not worth less than his. We are all here doing pro-bono work, essentially, and to allow one guy to turn it in to profit is poison to the system. If he can, why not I?! We're on a slippery slope to ODesk or experts-exchange here.

As I've mentioned in comments, I think adding links to free, relevant documentation is an important part of a thorough answer. The links serve as citations, credible support that demonstrates your answer as factual. You could remove them and not ruin the answer, but adding them supports the answer via outside, neutral authority.

The links in question here are not credibility-adding citations, rather they're driving traffic to his paywall, enhancing his Google ranking, and pointing the question-asker AND future visitors to his consultancy. This is commercial activity.

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"I say remove the links. You can do so and the answers are still useful and complete. That itself reveals the links as spam." - You can apply that same logic to links to documentation, links to blog posts that expand on a subject beyond what is necessary for the answer, etc. I think your rule is a bit too simple. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:12
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Not when it lines the guy's pockets. My link to php.net, for example, profits no one. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 14:13
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But he does provide free help. Generally his answers are complete, and answer the question. Many of them are accepted by the OP in addition to be upvoted. It's up to the end user to decide whether they will even click on the link, much less "line the guy's pockets" –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:39
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@jadarnel27 which is why we're having this conversation to ensure that this is about fairness. –  jcolebrand Jul 19 '12 at 16:04
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@jadarnel27 - Also, it is my view (and practice) that a complete answer contains links to (free!) documentation from credible authorities. MDN, MSDN, w3, Oracle. Some of those companies have non-free products, but in each case the documentation is available online, for free. Specific to the OP, F# has free, official documentation online. Adding these links "completes" (rounds out, if you will) an answer, if you removed them it wouldn't be thorough. Links to this guy's blog; not official, paywall blog, can come or go from the answer without impact. That means they're superfluous. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 16:16
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@Chris Your "rule" doesn't say anything about paid links. "You can do so and the answers are still useful and complete. That itself reveals the links as spam." If removing a link from an answer leaves it useful and complete then that post is in line with the SO FAQ. Any post for which removing the link rendered it not useful or incomplete would be violating the rules. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 16:16
    
@Servy We just missed eachother... I addressed that in my previous comment. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 16:17
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@Chris If the links the OP was provided weren't behind a paywall would you feel the same way? If they also weren't on his websites would you feel the same way? If it was a free blog article written by someone else and you would find it acceptable, then it means linking to one's own paid content is what you have a problem with, not just a link that isn't central to the post itself. That sentiment isn't accurately reflected in the wording of your post. If you removed the lines I quoted before then I'd agree with much of this post, but those two sentences just seem flat wrong to me. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 16:23
    
@Servy I edited to clarify. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 16:31
    
I like the edits. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 16:36
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@Chris - You wrote a complete answer contains links to (free!) documentation from credible authorities. Your parenthetical mention of 'free' is interesting - would you be bothered if it was a link to a non-free article or standard from, say, the IEEE? It would definitely be relevant and would be, in fact, the most authoritative reference possible, but good documentation isn't always free. That doesn't mean the authors of non-free stuff get to self-promote on SO, though... –  Kevin Vermeer Jul 19 '12 at 17:03
    
That's a fair point, but I think that the important distinction is that there are no equivalent free sources available, and most importantly, that there's no gain to the person providing the link. If the guy linking to IEEE standards was also getting a referrer's fee or in the sales department at IEEE, I'd also have an issue with it. Also, we're talking about a very limited range of situations that don't also bump into being "too localized". –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 17:08
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@KevinVermeer: if you're going to self promote or stand to gain financially, it should be made obvious...and previously it was relegated to your profile. –  user7116 Jul 19 '12 at 17:16

This makes the link totally useless.

No, it does not. Unfortunately you have in some sciences only paid access to papers. I mostly try to find the same article via Google Scholar or use BugMeNot.com. Some active colleagues which are members can access the article. It nerves, yes, but it is not useless per se.

On the other side I would at least indicate that this is a paid subscription and say that I am sorry for that. He is a bit abrasive, but as Makoto said, do not go for it.

Am I required to submit my own answer before being eligible for downvoting this particular user?

Of course. You are also obliged to pay me some expenses for reading your answer. Or non-sarcastic: No.

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Depends on the content though; for scientific articles it's common. But linking to a paid source instead of a free one where basically all information is freely available? Very different. I find it very hard to believe his blog, any blog, has unique information on a common (kinda) programming language. –  Ben Brocka Jul 19 '12 at 13:42
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Another example of not-free-but-usefull links are links to books (on Amazon, for example). They don't give direct benefit if you don't pay (unless you can grab the book at your local library), but they can certainly be useful. –  Joachim Sauer Jul 19 '12 at 13:51

After taking a look at everything, I can only come to this conclusion:

I write code for a living, mostly on a contract basis. Yes, I get paid to do it. Yet still, I come on Stack Overflow and provide some of my knowledge for free. Why would I do this? It seems irrational seeing as I could get paid for the same thing. The key is that I would want people to do the same for me. If everyone started requiring me to pay money for their help, I would leave in a heartbeat.

I think this these links ought to be removed. The links promote activity that I don't want to see spreading on the Stack Exchange Network. Best put out the embers before they start a wildfire.

Oh, and for the record, I don't consider myself a penniless freeloader for using Stack Overflow, and I get the impression that few people do. You shouldn't either.

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"started requiring me to pay money for their help" Since the answers are useful and self contained without the link he isn't requiring you to pay for help. He's helping you for free and offering to provide information above and beyond the expectations of an SO answer for money. The SO FAQs even state that SO answers shouldn't be full articles on the subject. If you want a full article on a given subject you would need it to be in a link; the answer should just be a summary of it. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 16:12
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Hmm... yes, in this case, but I see where this could go. My position is "stop it before it gets any worse". –  gobernador Jul 19 '12 at 16:16
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I'm still unsure about what (if anything) should be done, and I'm still inclined to say something should change. My comment is merely stating that your argument is flawed, regardless of whether or not the final conclusion is correct. –  Servy Jul 19 '12 at 16:19
    
I agree. Something should be done. –  gobernador Jul 19 '12 at 16:21
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You and I see this the same. I think that allowing other users to profit from their activity here discourages me from doing it for free. Why approve edits or mess with flags when I could be generating traffic for my paywall and sniping clients for my consultancy? I could use the cash. –  Chris Jul 19 '12 at 16:21
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@Chris "I think that allowing other users to profit from their activity here discourages me from doing it for free". That makes no sense to me given that Stack Overflow is a product of a for-profit company that earns revenue by placing ads around content that we the community submit. –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 12:50
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I have no problem Stack Overflow profiting, they incur expenses and provide the platform. I have no problem with people profiting from their knowledge, either. The aspect of this I take issue with, and what you seem to miss, is one or a few users monetizing their activity when everyone else is not. It isn't about you, it is about the practice. I personally prefer a Stack Overflow where people do not monetize their activity (a fact that sets it apart from similar sites), and I have expressed that preference. You don't have to agree, clearly you don't; you're still barking up the wrong tree. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 13:50
    
@Chris "The aspect of this I take issue with...is one or a few users monetizing their activity when everyone else is not". Any contributor associating their real name with quality content in order to earn reputation and further their career is monetizing Stack Overflow. Do you want to ban that too? If not, how do you justify drawing the line at (self?) citations? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 18:13
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Remembering that this is not about Jon Harrop, I would say that directly linking to your for-profit blog when other, free documentation exists, you have selected your profit over an independently credible source. You cannot use yourself as a citation to justify your own positive claims, that's bad science. At SO, you answer a question, then (optionally) add links to credible, third-party authorities that prove out the content of your answer. Any ancillary benefits to you from any enhancement of your reputation as a result of your answer isn't the concern here, the concern is overt profit. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 18:39
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@Chris "You cannot use yourself as a citation to justify your own positive claims, that's bad science". So if, for example, someone asks if anyone has ever used F# to create a real commercial product then you are saying that I cannot reply "Yes, I did. Here it is" and refer to one of our products that was created using F# because that would be "bad science"? That's clearly nonsense and, FWIW, I have four degrees in science (BA, MA, MSci, PhD) from the University of Cambridge. flyingfrogblog.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/… –  Jon Harrop Jul 21 '12 at 8:42

What I'm seeing here is that there is a line, and he's crossed it (probably not, see below). Unfortunately, the line is hard to spot. One link every now and then? Fine. Links on more than 1/2 his posts to his own site? It's a problem.

Where we need to be careful, is that I think we need better guidance on where the line is. What makes a post/link okay or not okay? After we have a better guideline for why, exactly, this is wrong, we can ask the user to alter his behavior.

Now, on to what that better behavior might look like.

I wonder if we could ask the user to do something similar to how (gasp) experts-exchange handles it. Experts exchange allows anyone to view an answer (sort of)... you have to come from google and scroll way down. Since he's obviously using a Stack Overflow -specific link, we could ask him to do something similar and drop his paywall... if the user is coming from Stack Overflow. If he's worried about a public link making his paywall completely worthless he can add a referrer check.

Update: Or has he crossed the line at all? Some good detective work by JeremyBanks in the comments above shows that overall, it's only one post in 5 that links back to himself. That's a lot, but I'm not sure it qualifies as a "huge percentage". What I'd still like to know is if that percentage is increasing? Has most of his work from last month linked back to himself? Two months? How often does he link elsewhere vs to his own site?

Finally, has anyone been able to check the content of these links? If these "posts" are just single-paragraph snippets where he then links on to MSDN, another blog, or if there's plagarized work back there, this is still a problem. There's the rub: we just don't know.

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According to Kev (in another answer here) and this query from last months data dump the percentage is much lower than 1/2. –  jadarnel27 Jul 19 '12 at 14:53
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I see that JimmyPena's answer misled you as well: only 21% of his posts actually link to one of his sites. The number in JimmyPena's post was only considering his top posts. (Apparently his posts that contain such links do better on average than his posts that do not.) –  Jeremy Banks Jul 19 '12 at 14:53
    
50% of the answers out of the top 24 upvoted answers (10 or more upvotes). Not out of all the answers. I only did a small sample of his answers. –  JimmyPena Jul 19 '12 at 14:58
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Note also that not all links to his sites are to gated content; some are freely available blog posts. –  kvb Jul 19 '12 at 15:07
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I find it hilarious and revealing that literally hundreds of people have spent many hours on this problem, and no one has yet mentioned anything from the contents of any of the linked articles. That might say something about the effectiveness of his advertising scheme... You write we just don't know but for the low price of 'Only £39' you could know. Perhaps SE should get a site license to the journal - oh wait, that maxes out at 20 users.... –  Kevin Vermeer Jul 19 '12 at 17:12
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@KevinVermeer "no one has yet mentioned anything from the contents of any of the linked articles". I have. I said they were really good and everyone should definitely subscribe. =;-) –  Jon Harrop Jul 19 '12 at 22:16
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For what it's worth, I've been a subscriber to the journal before, and I can attest that the articles are meaty and informative. –  sblom Jul 20 '12 at 20:15

Is SO for penniless freeloaders? Linking to paywalled websites

Wow, even in your title you've expertly twisted my words to make it sound like I was insulting the entire Stack Overflow community by calling them all penniless freeloaders when, in fact, what I actually wrote was that people who cannot see the value in providing links to more detailed external content unless it is free are penniless freeloaders, i.e. people who expect everything to be given to them for free.

At the end of the answer the user has placed a link to his article on a 3rd party site that requires paid subscription before reading articles. This makes the link totally useless.

Do you not see the value of that link to anyone who wants more detailed information on the subject and who is willing to buy a book or subscription?

Out of five most recent answers...

I've written over 460 answers on Stack Overflow. Why did you base your entire analysis on a sample size of 5?

Am I required to submit my own answer before being eligible for downvoting this particular user?

From my point of view, there are some highly-regarded SO contributors commenting here and they all say the same thing: I'm not evil. There also seem to be dozens of people on here whining about non-free literature, talking about how they would contribute to Stack Overflow but don't because of content like mine and lots of other bullshit. None of them have over 3k rep. None of them have any expertise in these subjects. For example, JimmyPena says he is "disgusted" by my actions but he has only 2,269 rep on Stack Overflow and his most upvoted answer has just +5 votes.

Believe it or not, I used to be one of the penniless freeloaders. As a student, I believed that everyone else should give me everything for free and that the world would be a better place if that happened. After all, living off everyone else was working really well for me. When I grew up and realised that the dream doesn't work. Such systems inevitably decay into people taking more than they give and just sitting around whining about everyone else not doing enough for them. So I made a concious decision to get off my ass and make a real contribution by building a self-sustaining for-profit company to promote the ideas that I believed in. I've been doing it for 7 years and I love it. I help lots of people for free via sites like Stack Overflow. I do mention that we offer more detailed literature in products and consultancy services. Many people appreciate my contributions. We have over 1,000 paying customers. Thanks to the revenue this generates I am able to spend more time contributing.

For anyone who enjoys helping others in this way, I would not hesitate to recommend this approach to turn your hobby into a business so that you can afford to spend even more time doing what you love and helping other people. In point of fact, Stack Overflow only exists because its creators recognized the value of turning their idea to help others into a self-sustaining business.

EDIT

Interestingly, Chris' comments below just descended into exactly the kind of behaviour that led to my choosing to stop contributing to Wikipedia. Specifically, the attack is turning towards anyone with expertise.

I think this is a really interesting and important point. Wikipedia has a massive problem with non-experts eroding quality because they scribble over high quality content previously submitted by experts. Stack Overflow neatly sidesteps this problem by allowing anyone to contribute but encouraging contributions to be independent. Ideally, higher quality answers get more upvotes and rise to the top and everyone wins. In my experience, this usually works. For me, this is what makes Stack Overflow so much more alluring and I really hope this is preserved. In fact, I would go so far as to question the value of any kind of moderator intervention at all. In particular, I think the recent push to close and delete many questions and answers was hugely counter productive and, frankly, I don't understand why the owners of Stack Overflow let valuable content be destroyed in that way.

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Hey, folks, how about we don't instinctively downvote this guy into oblivion and give him even more reason to be pissed off? The rhetoric in this post isn't any more inflammatory than the highly-voted posts accusing him of "disgusting abuse". –  Jeremy Banks Jul 19 '12 at 23:46
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Whilst I imagine it is frustrating that some folks didn't take the time to properly review all of your posts, I do feel you're throwing petrol on the fire with this answer. My advice would be to retract this and duck out gracefully, otherwise you'll have undone a fair amount of goodwill acquired from community who have defended you here. Just saying. –  The Anti-Santa Jul 20 '12 at 0:04
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"None of them have over 1k rep. None of them have any expertise in these subjects." - There are plenty of experts that don't spend their time gathering worthless Internet points. Also, calling people "unwashed masses" and "penniless freeloaders" is really, really unnecessary. I agree with Kev, you would be doing yourself a service to remove this "answer" and move on. Before this response, you were a victim; now, you appear to be quite rude. –  jadarnel27 Jul 20 '12 at 3:42
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Removing the answer isn't needed. A simple cleanup would perfectly do. It's good to have the answer of the incriminated user. –  dystroy Jul 20 '12 at 8:06
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@dystroy How do you like my cleanup? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 13:39
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@JonHarrop In my modest opinion of a low rep SO user, this is much better. I'm not convinced as I still think like many other users that you should both keep posting good answers and limit the link insertions (I didn't say remove nor stop). But this answer is clear enough and much less insulting (apart the point about a specific SO user who gave his opinion). It will help this topic be what it should be, that is not a discussion about whether you're evil but about where are the limits regarding self promotion in good quality answers. –  dystroy Jul 20 '12 at 13:56
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Calling out people for having low rep is not very constructive; your SO rep is a great indicator of how much you've participated in SO, not how much you know or what your level of expertise is. It remains ad hominem rather than focusing on the crux of the argument. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 14:07
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@JonHarrop Keep in mind that everyone isn't saying that all programming should be done for free and nobody should ever be paid for programming work or anything like that. The main feeling seems to be that is just doesn't belong here on SO. SO should be a place for the free exchange of information. If your primary motivation is to earn money, that's fine, but there are other more appropriate outlets for that as SO as a site isn't built to support it. Linking to external content that requires a subscription seems to be less problematic to many people here than the self-promoting paid content. –  Servy Jul 20 '12 at 14:27
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@Chris "It remains ad hominem...". Credibility is inherently ad-hominem. –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 17:26
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Calling into question the credibility of the person who holds an opposing viewpoint is inherently ad hominem, yes; credibility itself does not affect the truth (or untruth) or validity of their statement. The point is that the SO rep of your critics here has absolutely no bearing on the validity of their criticism -- you add nothing to your defense of your behavior by bringing it up. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 17:33
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@Chris "credibility itself does not affect the truth (or untruth) or validity of their statement. The point is that the SO rep of your critics here has absolutely no bearing on the validity of their criticism". Wow, ok. Do you take medical advice from unqualified but strongly-opinionated people? –  Jon Harrop Jul 20 '12 at 18:17
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"he has only 2,269 rep on Stack Overflow and his most upvoted answer has just +5 votes." <-- for example, this. It isn't a strawman argument, this is the crux of your argument, that one must have high rep to have the "right" to voice an opinion on this subject. I am not avoiding your question, and generally, it doesn't matter what I think of it anyway. I am not the decision-maker here, and this isn't about your or ME. Take care, my good fellow. –  Chris Jul 20 '12 at 18:49
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"In fact, I would go so far as to question the value of any kind of moderator intervention at all." I think you seriously underestimate the volume of low quality or downright awful stuff that gets posted. The moderators do a great job treading that line and keeping the SNR high and attacking their work does nothing to boost your argument. –  Flexo Jul 20 '12 at 19:43
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I'm just being a bump on a log here - but if someone edits and you don't like it - roll it back. if your question gets removed or closed by the community - it was a bad question. If you get a few random downvotes but generally have good answers - they will all balance out - if you flame / bash or generally cause grief to the mods or people on the site you will be pulled into something like this here. –  rlemon Jul 20 '12 at 20:31
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This is dragging on past the point of being productive. Jon, thanks for responding here; I don't agree with your characterization of folks who criticized your links as "pennyless freeloaders", but your long-form explanation for this makes your position considerably more clear than the original comment. FWIW, your catalog of answers has now been reviewed by a couple of employees and at least one elected moderator; I think it's safe to say that we found nothing problematic enough to deserve all the ruckus - you do very good work there, even if your comments do at times tend toward flame-bait. –  Shogging through the snow Jul 21 '12 at 0:54

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