Branded For Life, formerly known as Billy Gibby. Photo by Stephen Nigl.

Wherever Joe Tamargo goes, people stare at his forearms. He likes it that way. Years ago, Tamargo, a resident of Rochester, New York, auctioned off space on his arms, transforming himself into a human billboard. “I just thought that would be the most visible place possible for people,” he told me. Today, they’re covered in tattoos bearing the logos of 15 different websites.

“When I tell them the story, they’re like, ‘Yo, that’s pretty cool. I’m going to check out those websites,’” Tamargo, 38, says of people who see him in public. “And then they get there and there’s nothing on the website.” Tamargo is not just a walking advertisement. He’s a walking advertisement for businesses that no longer exist.

Energetic dot-coms flush with startup cash were known in the late 1990s and 2000s for their marketing stunts. Of course, many of those businesses imploded. But unlike their expensive Super Bowl ads, tattoos aren’t so ephemeral. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people out there with the domain names of defunct websites etched prominently and permanently on their skin, the walking detritus of zombie websites’ marketing campaigns.

One of Joe Tamargo’s early forearm tattoos. still exists.

Dot-com “skinvertising” — a term somebody came up with when it was still a thing — was a media sensation in the mid-2000s. In 2003, the first advertising space of this kind was sold on the back of the head of an Illinois man named Jim Nelson. A Web hosting company then known as CI Host paid $7,000 for the space. Nelson signed a contract stating that he would keep the tattoo for at least five years.

Invariably, the only businesses crazy enough to pay for these things were dotcoms. Blue-chip companies didn’t want to be associated with such base stunts and the controversy engendered by purchasing human flesh to sell products. Eventually, reporters, news consumers, and people willing to buy or sell skin ads tired of these “news of the weird” tattoo stories, and the trend died out by the late 2000s. So did most of the dot-coms. But many of the tattoos are still around.

One of Tamargo’s tattoos is for, a site that was dedicated to keeping Martha Stewart out of prison following her indictment for securities fraud. Stewart went to prison. Stewart got out of prison. And yet Tamargo still has a tattoo imploring you to save her. He has tried to buy one of the defunct domain names on his arm,, a former online Viagra purveyor, and do something with it. He was unsuccessful. He doesn’t see himself getting the tattoos removed anytime soon.

“Don’t get me wrong, it kind of feels funny,” Mark Greenlaw told me of the defunct Web address inked in his skin. Greenlaw, now 32, sold space on his neck on eBay in early 2006. The winning bidder, a hosting company called Glob@t, had Greenlaw get a tattoo for their site. A video of the occasion still exists, fittingly for when it was taken, on Google Video. Greenlaw says he needed the money because he joined the Army, and during “basic training, you really don’t make nothing, so I wanted to make sure that my wife and kids had money while I was off training.”

Then there’s the case of perhaps the world’s most famous skinvertiser, Karolyne Smith (now Karolyne Williams), a young, blonde Utah mother who took her turn on the morning talk show circuit when she sold ad space on her forehead in 2005 to online casino for $10,000. She said she needed the money to finance private schooling for her young son. It’s unclear how long that money lasted, but Facebook photos show that the tattoo, now slightly faded, remains between her bangs. She wrote in a recent post that she’s been forced to move into the basement of her father’s house. (Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.) was in the stunt marketing game for many years, though online-gambling laws now make using the site illegal in the U.S. — and in many states you can’t even access the URL on Williams’ forehead. also purchased space on Tamargo’s arm and on the back of an Alaskan man now named Hostgator Dotcom.

Jim Nelson and Karolyne Smith

Dotcom, now 31, sold the ad to after deciding to donate his kidney to a total stranger — he needed money to cover his bills while recovering from the surgery, he says. Dotcom returned to selling ads on himself when the recession hit. “I did it to make sure my kids wouldn’t be homeless,” said the father of five. Dotcom, who also works as a courier to make ends meet, says he now has 37 tattoos, many of them on his face. He may be one of the only people in the world still selling ad space on his body today. Perhaps because the media attention surrounding skinvertising has dissipated, he has to hustle to move the inventory left on his body, contacting websites directly to inquire about advertising.

Dotcom took part in another stunt marketing tactic that had ignited a media storm in the mid-2000s: selling the rights to his name, which originally was Billy Gibby. The Internet was now offering everyday people the chance to sell to marketers directly, and they took advantage of it in interesting ways. In addition to more permanent moves like tattoos and name changes, other gimmicks popped up in the media like selling ad space on one’s daily wardrobe and “The Million Dollar Homepage,” a single Web page filled with small banner ads in a million-pixel block, sold off at $1 a pixel.

Gibby’s name went to Web-hosting service He’s currently trying to broker deals to add other websites to his name. In addition to offering BuzzFeed an ad on his forehead for $800 when I talked to him, Dotcom offered to change his full name to “Buzzfeeddotcom Buzzfeeddotcom Buzzfeeddotcom.”

Photo by Stephen Nigl

Doing all this for his family is quite literally selfless — in selling his face and his name, he’s sold perhaps the two most defining traits of one’s sense of self. How does it feel to be a company that owns someone like this? I don’t know. None of the companies mentioned in this piece that still exist would respond to requests for comment.

As the economy changes, the working class that once powered the nation’s manufacturing economy sees their options dissipating, and dotcoms and the tech industry at large, like many of the new ventures that drive the future economy, have little use for the less educated. What some of these companies could make of these humans, apparently, is objects — walking billboards for their brand. Still, the skinvertisers I managed to track down to have no regrets.

Tamargo and Greenlaw, who both own small businesses now, said they would never sell another tattoo, at least not for the same amount of money. But they take pride in providing for their families (Tamargo claims he made over $220,000 when he was still selling ads), and the tattoos are a permanent reminder of that.

Dotcom, who is still selling ink on himself, keeps track of all the websites on his body and simply covers up those that go defunct with a tattoo from a new buyer. He thinks he may one day sell a tattoo for his whole body to one company and become a “human-mascot-type thing.”

Some people may judge them differently now. “A lot of people think I’m a criminal just because I have tattoos,” Dotcom said. An amateur boxer, Dotcom said he was taken off the bill of a match airing on a Christian television station because of all the porn site ads on his face and body.

But most strangers appreciate the peculiarity of the tattoos. It’s one case of company branding making someone more unique. It’s way more hip, after all, to be advertising a long-dead porn website people can’t even visit than a blue-chip company like Coca-Cola that people see as a big, soulless corporation.

“It makes one hell of a story,” Greenlaw said.

Jack Stuef is, among other things, a contributor to the Onion and New York Magazine’s The Cut. He tweets here.

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The Craziest Man In Technology Through The Years

1. High School Yearbook, Circa 1962:

2. In the Early McAfee Associates Days, Circa 1987:

3. Norton Associates, 1989:

4. 1989 Interview:

5. At His Home, 2001:

Near the peak of his wealth.

6. 2002:

The Yoga phase (which never quite ended).

7. 2008, Roanoke College:

8. Talking to ABC in 2009, After Losing His Fortune:

9. 2010-2011, Belize, With One Of His Many Girlfriends:

Read more about this here, at Gizmodo.

10. May 2012:

Handout / Reuters

11. November 2012, Belize:

Ambergris Today Online-Sofia Munoz, File / AP

12. November 2012, Belize, Posing for Wired:

13. This Week:

Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters

Paramedics observe U.S. anti-virus software guru John McAfee at the Policia Nacional Civil hospital in Guatemala City, Dec. 6, 2012. According to McAfee’s lawyers, he was feeling as though he might lose consciousness and experiencing heart problems.

Authorities have since confirmed that he did not have a heart attack.

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The Library Of Congress Twitter Archive Won’t Be Online

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Two Artists, A Double Suicide And A Tumblr

When writer, filmmaker and videogame creator Teresa Duncan killed herself in July 2007 — and her boyfriend, video artist Jeremy Blake followed suit a few days later — their deaths shocked strangers and close friends alike. Now, five years later, Blake Robin, a close friend and musician, is trying to make sense of the chain of events through The Lovely Theresa, a blog that he began last week and plans to update three times daily for three weeks.

Part art project, part, the site traces his friendship with Duncan, in the hopes that it can “contribute to a better understanding of their story.” The effort will culminate in the release of a video of a song that Robin, who performs under the name Baron Von Luxxury, wrote in Duncan’s memory.

Blake went missing a few days after he had found Duncan dead from an overdose of Tylenol in their shared downtown Manhattan apartment. Evading friends who were keeping a watch over him, he had walked into the ocean. Robin begins his posts with vivid recollections of the days following Duncan’s death. “I didn’t understand what I was reading, it literally made no sense. I had just seen them,” Robin wrote. “It was impossible, they would never do this…they were too brilliant, successful, smart.”

So who were Duncan and Blake? Duncan, a tall blonde, was a writer and filmmaker who produced some of the first successful video games aimed at young girls. Parlaying a mid-’90s job as an assistant at a company called Magnet Interactive into that of a game creator, she and a coworker developed Chop Suey, a CD-ROM affair about two girls who eat too much Chinese food and drift into a dream world. Duncan enlisted hip collaborators and put them to work in this new medium: David Sedaris narrates and Nation of Ulysses rocker Ian Svenonius contributed animation. It won awards and she did two more CD-ROM games, although the format’s popularity proved to be fleeting.

Around the time of Chop Suey, Duncan met Jeremy Blake, who was pioneering a kind of slowed-down entrancing video style — color-saturated, haunting. The pair moved from New York to Los Angeles after Duncan sold a screenplay and Blake ended up doing the credits to Punch Drunk Love before embarking on a series of fine art installations.

From all accounts (including Robin’s) the pair had a rare, all-consuming love. From the time they met until their deaths, they were rarely apart.

But also, according to stories written in Vanity Fair and New York magazine after their deaths, a darkness descended. Press accounts paint a picture of Duncan and Blake as paranoid and unstable, as a failed movie project with Beck, a Scientologist, led them to suspect that Scientologists had tapped their phones and were following them. They claimed a dead cat was found on their roof and began fighting with neighbors.

And then, after they moved back to New York in 2006, some say that their fears and obsessions followed them back East. But in the snippets Robin has posted thus far, he indicates that those reports were overblown.

Much of what Robin posts don’t relate to Duncan’s death: they are about her life. The format he’s chosen is very appropriate to the experience of remembering someone: the memories pop up in bits and pieces, not unfolding like a feature film.

After Hollywood frustrated Duncan, she became a blogger: her literate and funny writings led to freelance gigs at Art Forum and other publications. The press coverage of the couple pegs them as part of the “art world” but their real genius was fusing the art world and the tech world. (Kara Swisher, for instance, mourned Duncan). Robin has only begun posting on the most controversial part of their story — their relationship with Beck and Scientology — which should be interesting, particularly the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes throws Scientology and its practices back in the spotlight.

Robin’s site reminded me of what McSweeney’s put up after writer Amanda Davis’ untimely death. Both use the additive, episodic qualities of posting to great effect: I didn’t know Davis but I was a fan of her work and I remember sobbing as people posted their memories. I have to believe that Duncan and Blake, two intrepid digital experimenters, would approve of this new project.

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Top Porn Search Terms From Each Country

PornMD, part of the popular network of free porn sites, has created a very cool interactive map showing search data for U.S. states and the world. In the U.S., most states top search terms are fairly predictable — teen, college, milf, ebony, etc.

Internationally, things get a little weirder. A lot of countries have a tendency to search for themselves. (Filtering out American porn? Or some kind of bizarre national cranking off pride?) For example, the top search term for the U.K. is “British,” Germany’s is “Germany” and so on.

And then…there’s Romania. Here are a few of the countries with the strangest tastes:

3. Romania: “mom and son” (ewwwwwwwwww)

4. Syria: “aunt”

5. Finland: “mature”

6. Australia: “aussie (gay)”

7. Ukraine: “raincoat (gay)” Not sure what this even means. Perhaps another term for “watersports”?

8. Russia: “russian”

9. Iceland’s No. 2 search is interesting: “native american (gay)”

10. South Africa: “hidden cam”

11. China: “japanese” is more popular than “chinese”

12. Iran: “pussy” — straightforward.

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How Future Cameras Will See In The Dark

To get a well-defined picture of stars, a photographer usually has to do one of two things: take a long exposure of a second or more, or crank up the camera’s sensitivity to a level that adds noise and distortion to the image. Today, Canon is teasing a full-frame (35mm-film-size) camera sensor that can not just capture photos in extreme low light, but video too. The above clip was recorded in real time with nothing but starlight.

This next image shows two video captures of the same scene, one without the new sensor’s improved sensitivity and one with. The only illumination is moonlight:

Canon’s DSLR cameras are known for their low-light performance — it’s one of the reasons so many filmmakers use the 5D series in addition to, and sometimes in lieu of, pro-grade video cameras. But this is something different and more specialized: “The newly developed CMOS sensor features pixels measuring 19 microns square in size, which is more than 7.5 times the surface area of the pixels on the CMOS sensor incorporated in Canon’s top-of-the-line EOS-1D X and other digital SLR cameras,” says Canon, which means the total resolution of its images is likely much lower than a regular full-frame DSLR. Canon says that the first generation of this tech will likely be used in non-consumer applications, such as surveillance and “astronomical and natural observation.”

It’s worth watching the whole demo video, though, because the sensor’s effect is profound. It basically pulls off night vision without screwing with image color. It’s hyperreal:

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This Is What Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter Network Looked Like

Betaworks’ Gilad Lotan and Justin Van Slembrouck mapped out Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s social footprint for a pretty amazing look at how the suspect’s Twitter network responded to the news. Check out the entire feature over at Digg.

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What It’s Really Like To Be An Amazon Super Reviewer

An Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix, AZ. Ross D. Franklin / AP

This week NPR published a story about Amazon’s Vine Voice invitation-only program, which sends free items, ranging from cookies to digital cameras, to top reviewers in order for them to be reviewed. The implication: People are writing hundreds or thousands of reviews in order to get free stuff. The story also solicited angry comments from Vine reviewers themselves, allowing a rare look into the world of the hardcore Amazon reviewers. The real story, they suggested, wasn’t being heard.

BuzzFeed reached out to some of the commenters, as well as people on Amazon’s Top Ten Reviewer List (the most up-votes currently) and in the site’s Hall of Fame (best over the years).

What we found was a peculiar world of cutthroat competition, gossip, drama, creativity, altruism, egos, and truly well-crafted reviews. For many, writing reviews can be a much-needed escape from real life; a creative outlet amongst a dull corporate world; a way to stick to the man; a place to find a voice, be noticed; and a way to make friends. It’s much deeper than free stuff. After all, you have to already be a reviewer with lots of up votes before you can qualify for Vine.

“There are a lot of reasons why people review on Amazon, ranging from the legitimate desire to share their knowledge (or show it off), the need to feed large egos, and even to just get ‘free’ stuff from Amazon and other vendors,” said one Vine reviewer who identified himself only as Mr. Frick, for privacy reasons.

For Frick, it started as a hobby while he was undergoing chemo treatment and needed a distraction. He used to write at least two posts a day, spending as much as three hours on ones that included videos. His thousands of reviews run the gamut from camcorders to low-carb candy, to sci-fi books, to headphones. “I did it because I appreciated others taking time to praise or warn about products, and it was fun to share what I thought of items I spent my hard-earned money on,” he told BuzzFeed. “I also enjoyed answering technical questions from other customers and ‘meeting’ folks with similar interests.” He’s made online friends with many of the other reviewers as well.

As his cancer treatment has progressed, he’s slowed down to batches of reviews once or twice a week. “It still takes a lot of time, but is much more manageable,” he says. “I have turned down hundreds of dollars in merchandise over the past few months because it would be hard to give them the attention they deserve.”

At its best, reviewing gives people a public voice and a particular sense of importance — something Amazon helps to foster. You get an official ranking, with badges and titles, affirming your expertise as one of the top writers on a website with 250 million unique visitors a month.

“You can provide feedback to manufacturers and vendors that is actually listened to,” wrote a user named rugby007 on the NPR website. “There are so many stupid products, with ridiculous features and meaningless, hyperbolic copy, and it’s rewarding — and fun — to point this out to the people who make and sell them. Maybe someday down the line we’ll get better products.”

“It may sound a little grandiose, but it’s a desire to help fellow humans make a little sense off the noisy and aggressively strident marketing-embellished reality that’s surrounding and is constantly pushing to take control over and redesign and reshape our thoughts, instincts, even reflexes,” reviewer Arth Denton told BuzzFeed.

For Denton, a big part of the equation is the “satisfaction of sticking it to ‘the man’ when I can debunk the hype (think obscenely overpriced Monster cables as a good example),” he said.

Arth Denton / Via

Denton doesn’t offer any personal details on his site; his location is listed as Minas Anor, one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional cities. He’s been on the Hall of Fame from 2009 through 2013, and he’s written 1,856 reviews since he started in 2000 — which breaks down to about 130 a year. His first began reviewing in 2000 with a one-star review about a “rather dangerous toy,” which received over 600 helpful votes and likely helped to protect some kids.

When I asked him if he feels like he’s obsessed, he replied, “Are you kidding? I am an extremely well-balanced, super-patient, thoughtful, intelligent, well-read and well-behaved person. I am not losing sleep over reviewing.”

Yesterday, he worked a 15-hour workday while also managing to write two fairly lengthy reviews — one of a humidifier, the other a wireless gaming controller. So far today, he has posted two more, both with videos, about a rubber-band loom kit for making bracelets and a tea pot.

Arth Denton / Via

Reviewing, he adamantly notes, is not his favorite pastime. “It’s probably number two. I am spending a lot more time gaming than reviewing even though I am a much better reviewer than gamer :),” he said in an email.

He reviews mostly electronics like digital cameras and computer accessories, kitchen gadgets (ranging from spatulas to an espresso machines), as well as DVDs and video games. He also covers items that you wouldn’t believe have reviews, like cardboard boxes, batteries, lightbulbs, and duct tape (“There’s not a lot new to say about Duct Tape and this roll is exactly what we expect,” reads one of his reviews).

When I asked Denton why he bothers with such mundane objects, he responded, “Why review anything? Whether it’s a cardboard box or a humidifier others may benefit from hearing the voice of the customer rather than the voice of the marketer and only the voice of the marketer.”

Denton himself shops almost exclusively online and relies on others’ reviews to fill in the gaps of being able to actually see the item IRL. “There’s the happiness… everyone gets when spreading the word about something that’s good or wholesome,” Denton said.

Bob Tobias, a three-year Hall of Famer, ends many of his reviews with this note: “I feel that honest, effective reviews can take the place of first-hand experiences that are often lacking in online shopping. I’ve always appreciated the help I’ve received from other reviewers and try to return the favor as best as I can.”

“It sounds sappy, but I mean it,” said Tobias, a wedding photographer, magician, and IT professional who lives in Arlington, Va.

Tobias is ranked No. 6 on Amazon’s Top Reviewer List, thanks to the 96% up-vote rate on his 906 reviews, as of Oct. 30. (Since rankings are decided by both quality and quantity, the top 10 posters range between 540 and 2,577 reviews.) Like any contest, particularly one with public rankings, reviewing can become addictive.

“I do not accept products lightly, and we don’t have a stockpile of lithium batteries, USB speakers, toothbrushes, etc.,” Tobias said, implying that may be the case with some reviewers. But his wife still complains about the number of delivery boxes arriving at the door. He reviews a lot of photography equipment and electronic equipment, including a $240 Pebble ePaper watch, a $600 LCD projector, a $200 Wi-Fi router — and random things like dry-erase markers, vinyl tape (“pretty handy stuff”), and a pineapple slicer, which managed to garner only two stars.

He admitted that he sometimes buys things specifically because they would be “good review candidates.” One example: a travel chess set. “I was looking to buy one and made my selection because of … a lot of misinformation that was posted by other reviewers and unanswered questions submitted potential customers,” he said.

“Not all of my reviews are works of art, and I would like to think they all contribute something,” said Tobias. The chess set review, for instance, is one of the ones he is proudest of.

Bob Tobias / Via

“I’m working on a review/exposé that will bust the counterfeit imported double edged razor blade market wide open! (Some people collect stamps and Hummel figurines…),” joked Tobias in an email to BuzzFeed.

But there is also a darker side to the reviewer scene. There are competing cliques and accusatory gossip that have led some to form “a mutual voting society to boost each other’s ranking,” according to Frick. Others down-vote their competitors’ reviews and run shill accounts to avoid the “Fan” filter. “It can be somewhat competitive once ranking comes into play, which is one of the reasons I have stopped reviewing as much as I had in the past,” said Frick, who wants the “no” vote abolished.

The public nature of the reviews foster a cutthroat environment. A reviewer — and everyone else — can see all rankings and badges, whether one has made the hall of fame, made the top 10 list, or been labeled a “Vine Voice,” or if someone has a “the” before one’s name. Reviewers have to work to keep their ranking. And since it’s not just quantity, one can’t simply spam.

As on any forum, arguments regularly blow up. Commonly, people vent that they think Amazon is just using the reviewers and making money off them by getting them to push their products, a viewpoint that draws criticism from other reviewers.

“Such reviewers should quit because reviews done right aren’t meant to help Amazon sell anything,” Denton wrote on the NPR comment section under the moniker “AD99.” “Yes, Amazon makes money because people are more likely to come shopping at Amazon…but the motivation should be to help others make good purchasing decisions and to counter and expose the marketing half-truths and omissions.”

Vine Voice has caused especially heated debates within the reviewer community. Voice participants get sent two new items at a time from Amazon, and they have 45 days to review them. Much like how tech companies will “lend” devices to tech reviewers, Amazon can ask for the item back at anytime — but that has rarely happened, if ever. You get to pick the items from a list, but you don’t always get the ones you want.

There is no expectation that the review be positive — just thorough and well-written. The site labels Vine reviewers, but few people know what that title actually means. Moreover, it seems possible to opt out of the badge — Amazon denies it, but I have spoken with one reviewer who said he in fact was able to do so.

While many worried that the reviews will skew positive, Vine reviews tend to be more negative, perhaps because they are reviewing something they wouldn’t have otherwise bought. “This is a topic that has been debated ad nauseam on the secret Vine forum,” wrote Denton.

“If anything, Vine, while far from perfect, is the bright spot and by far the brightest spot when it comes to review ethics and fairness,” said Denton, who always indicates on his reviews if he has received a product from its manufacturer.

Most top reviewers are contacted directly by manufacturers, who send them free stuff. Some have a pretty heavy hand. Last week the private forum blew up in outrage over a company that contacted a reviewer directly, asking them to take down or change a negative review.

“I don’t especially want to do nice things for the authors/publishers/manufacturers,” Suzanne, who was working on a review of a Kindle protective cover, wrote on NPR’s site. “That’s what is good about having an organization like Amazon in between us and the ultimate provider of the product. It provides a buffer zone, and Amazon is clear about what they want — honest reviews.”

The other controversy about Vine is whether Amazon should offer all the products to all Vine members or be more targeted. On one hand, everyone should get dibs on the good stuff. On the other, people tend to choose fancy things even if they don’t have the expertise to write a good review.

On the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m., Amazon sends an email out to a targeted list, with a limited number of products. A broader list, sent to a larger group, goes out shortly after. There are never enough of the good products to go around. “I equate the [first] few minutes to a feeding frenzy in a (nerdy) shark tank,” said Tobias.

“The Vine Voice person must be quick or someone else gets the bike and those who spend time thinking too much end up with the napkins,” Denton wrote on NPR’s site.

One such over-thinker, Julie Rose, a Vine reviewer since 2007, has complained to Amazon about the first-click, first-served system. Last month she received only two books and a box of tea. “We all get jealous when we find out others are getting free stuff, don’t we?! Especially better free stuff!” wrote Rose on NPR’s site. “I miss many items that I have knowledge of because of this, and have read quite a number of ‘gee whiz’ reviews from people who are just thrilled to have something they would never have spent their money on.”

“The issue is lazy targeting not fairness,” wrote Denton on the NPR site. “By throwing 10 laser printers at 2000 Vine Voices and let [sic] them battle to be first clicking the ‘send it to me’ button the Vine team does a deservice to the printer makers and to Amazon’s customers because they decrease the likelihood of getting helpful reviews from people who buy, use and understand laser printers.”

Update: Friday, November 1, 10:45 a.m. PST Reviewers are selected for the Vine Voice program based on their ranking, number of up votes, quality of reviews, and whether they review categories of items relevant to the program. An earlier version suggested it included the number of reviews.

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