The Silver Linings of a PR Fiasco

In the wake of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton debacle, silver linings are already starting to show. We've seen the power of social media wake up an entire city to demand better from our representatives.

By Dave Heidebrecht
Published January 10, 2013

It has only taken a few short days for the City of Hamilton's new public engagement strategy to implode in on itself, largely due to a social media uproar that took mere hours to take shape.

The project, titled "Our Voice, Our Hamilton" and launched on Monday January 7, was set up to seek Hamiltonians' opinions on what services people deem important in the fact of increasing deficits and an aging infrastructure.

After a Twitter guffaw involving a discussion about the HSR in which the @ourhamilton Twitter account user didn't seem to know that HSR stood for Hamilton Street Railway (the city's transit system), more critiques of the project website ensued, leading to an online outrage the likes of which Hamilton hadn't experienced until this week.

Using the hashtag #TellOHEverything (a clever play on last year's #TellVicEverything Twitter campaign launched against MP Vic Toews for his proposed online surveillance legislation), the online firestorm that took off on Tuesday is still going strong.

Already, the city has taken the project website down, citing "offensive content."

A Tuesday afternoon apology issued by the firm behind the project, Dialogue Partners, admitting that "the first 24 hours of this project wasn't what we hoped", has done little to ease criticism, with many in the Hamilton community (including City Councillors Judi Partridge and Sam Merulla) questioning whether Dialogue Partners should have any role in the project going forward.

This outrage has been covered by local media outlets CBC Hamilton and The Hamilton Spectator, and has been heavily covered by Raise the Hammer.

Silver Lining

As some of this coverage has already noted, and a point discussed more widely within Hamilton's online community, the fallout of this public relations fiasco has come with a very large (and very loud) silver lining.

It has brought Hamiltonians together to share their common anger and outrage at how our city has been run in the past, how it is being run now, and more importantly, how it should be run in the future.

If our political representatives embrace and support the long-term outcomes from this unified dialogue, the city will not only have achieved its original goal of engagement (though perhaps not of the type that had been envisioned), but will have an incredibly valuable pool of community feedback from which to make positive policy decisions for Hamilton's future-a goal that we can all agree on.

As new relationships and discussions are already flourishing, here are a few things for us to keep in mind going forward:

  1. Hamiltonians are passionate, smart, and engaged.

    Whether involved in dialogue via Twitter or Facebook, at a coffee shop, in a school, or in a Tim Horton's, we have pride in our city, we know our city, and we want to be treated with respect (and should also treat others respectfully).

  2. There is an incredible amount of frustration in this city with regards to the current functioning of City Hall.

    Hamiltonians have seen time and time again opportunities and resources wasted, and poor planning decisions made. As such, councilors should not be surprised that this frustration has finally hit a boiling point, and should take this growing outrage as a serious wake up call.

  3. The power of social media is real and it is growing.

    A no-brainer to those already engaged in genuine dialogue online, social media communities are made up of real people who are not only passionate but are also incredibly adept at connecting with each other (in a very short amount of time). In future planning and engagement, this reality should be embraced and not downplayed.

  4. Hamilton is ready for change.

    Yes, we have budget deficits, and yes there are infrastructure issues, but what this whole experience should tell us is that there are thousands of capable people willing, if not begging, to be part of a conversation that will inform the decision-making processes that we need if we are to achieve positive long-term change for this city.

These silver linings present us with an incredible opportunity to come together in a participatory and democratic manner. There is already a public meeting scheduled for this coming Monday, January 14, 7:00 PM at think|haus, 25 Dundurn St. North, to establish a community-focused online tool based on a program called "Change By Us".

And this debacle only started three days ago!


As this effort and others like it spring up from Hamilton's grassroots, I can only hope that councillors and employees at City Hall are taking notes. If they are, I have a few suggestions to end with.

First and foremost, Hamilton's passionate and prideful citizens are not only willing to engage, they are chomping at the bit! To successfully engage with Hamiltonians, however, City Council (and those who are contracted by the City) could take a few lessons from the unwritten rules of the Twitterverse (after all, one little tweet did trigger one big mess):

Lesson 1: Practice active listening. Though difficult and requiring much more energy, the ability to not only hear but listen can go a long way.

Lesson 2: Engage in a two-way conversation. Simply pushing out one's own agenda onto others will not win any favours.

Lesson 3: True dialogue takes time. Don't get frustrated early on. Stick it out, keep listening, and you'll find that in time you can make some incredible progress.

Lesson 4: Know that screwing up is part of the process. Knowing when to say sorry - and how to say it - is too.

Lesson 5: Be genuine and treat everyone with respect. That goes for all of us.

It's been an interesting week to be a Hamiltonian, and it's only Thursday! Already, we've seen an incredibly good idea at heart - to engage directly with Hamiltonians - fall apart due to poor planning, a lackluster apology, and a passionate citizenry who collectively called a spade a spade.

In the wake of this fiasco, though, the silver linings are already starting to show loud and clear. We've seen the power of social media wake up an entire city to demand better from our representatives. Already, some of those representatives have stepped up to their leadership roles in response.

Overall, we've collectively engaged in a meaningful dialogue, demanding to be treated with respect, and also serving notice that we care about our city and are begging to be listened to.

The passion is there, the ideas are there, and the opportunity has presented itself for the City to step up, take ownership of this fiasco, and start truly listening to the citizens who live, work, and play in our Hamilton.

First published on David Heidebrecht's personal website.

Dave Heidebrecht is the Manager of McMaster University’s Office of Community Engagement.


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By Diego (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:37:07

Great summary. Love to see this flower into a success using in house Hamilton talent and passion.

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By brendan (registered) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 14:20:38

Agreed. Personally I think the echo-chamber blew this issue way out of proportion. Like you said, I think the outcry has way more to do with Hamiltonians feeling disenfranchised (in general, and for good reason) than it does about the performance of the consultant. That said, any company that claims to be social-media experts ought to be able to deal with the shitstorms that online communities can brew.

I will be very happy if some lasting tools are borne out of this argument. Good luck on Monday! (I would advise that you get the city involved somehow. I think you need city councillors and staff to be partners in this kind of endeavor, rather than opponents.)

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By daveheidebrecht (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2013 at 14:42:53 in reply to Comment 85066

Definitely agree that the city and staff need to be involved in the next steps for the process to gain traction with EVERYONE in the long-term. Thanks for the feedback!

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By Aioli Moley (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 16:24:05

May I suggest "gaffaw" (gaffe + guffaw)?

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By Dane (registered) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 23:53:26

Isn't there a CasiNO meeting Monday as well?

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted January 11, 2013 at 00:42:59 in reply to Comment 85085

Yes there is.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:28:12

inappropriate comment deleted by editor

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-01-11 13:32:52

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 13:38:50 in reply to Comment 85100

What happened here was that the city attempted an exercise in self-serving, ersatz citizen engagement, and got a face full of the real thing instead. Why does it bug you so much?

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By tiredofit (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 12:43:15 in reply to Comment 85100

inappropriate comment deleted by editor

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-01-11 13:32:40

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 11, 2013 at 12:16:17 in reply to Comment 85100

The rest of the 500,000 citizens are welcome to speak their minds. I'm tired of being told to shut up because the rest of the city refuses to speak up.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 02:28:42 in reply to Comment 85102

Maybe it's because you're in the vocal minority and just don't get it?

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 12:23:57

Mahesh, I agree that this could turn into a lawsuit, given my limited knowledge of contracts via my experience purchasing. That is why I would not sign the petition, because I felt it was useless at that point and that it could turn into a lawsuit.

Whomever, in the city was responsible for oversight on this project, I am assuming the City Manager, should be the one that should be in the unemployment line.

So it has cost us almost 400,000 dollars, how much more could we lose in this fiasco?

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By J (registered) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 14:43:45 in reply to Comment 85105

why would we lose more than the 400K? Or do you mean the cost to retender the contract and pay the $400K again to hopefully a better organization? That's as far as it would go - and DP would have a duty to mitigate their losses, so we might not have to pay the full $400K since the training dates could presumably be easily mitigated by them.

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By Nasir_Jones (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 14:56:58

Am I the only one who thinks that the citizen response was beyond harsh?

I work in software and if we ever have to build a public- or client-facing application, the client comes in, runs through some UAT (user acceptance testing), and gives us the OK to go live. This is standard practice. Did this not happen here? I find it somewhat hard to believe that not a single person from the city gave the site a once over in the whole 8 months that the site was in development. Is it standard practice for city staff to buy cars without test driving them as well?

With regard to the consultant being unprofessional, incompetent, etc. There were less than 10 mistakes on their website by my count:
1. the t-shirt from Hamilton, WA
2. the courthouse from Hamilton, OH
3. the bike path from Ottawa, ON
4. the payday loans thing in the HTML source
5. the 'offensive' comment in the survey about minorities and the under-privileged
6. the website looks ugly (subjective)

Those things are all simple fixes. It takes <5 minutes to swap out a picture or change some text. Why the citizens reacted with downright hostility instead of constructive support is beyond me. Is it just general frustration with City Hall reaching a boiling point?

Needless to say, the website was only one part of what was supposed to be a multi-faceted project (including live speaking/interaction engagements for example), and those things will never come to light now that this whole thing was cancelled. Are we all so clairvoyant that we can we really judge the project as a whole by the first day or two?

The twitter backlash to "What is HSR?" is silly, too, in my opinion. How many times do you go in to Canadian Tire or Zellers and ask where a product is and a staff member there doesn't know. Is that enough to judge the whole corporation as incompetent? Do you then choose not to visit the other departments you had planned to and leave the store entirely based on one interaction with one employee? Do you refuse to shop at any Zellers or Canadian Tire in all of Canada? Maybe the guy running twitter at that time was new, who knows. Maybe they knew a lot about the city but that was one thing that they didn't know. I don't know. People make mistakes. Mistakes of all sizes, large and small. That's why they put erasers on the ends of pencils and HTML isn't read-only once published. Either way I think the #tellOHEverything response to that was uncalled for and juvenile, and obstructed the original purpose of the project, to engage Hamiltonians.

One thing that I've learned building software for clients is that the client has to work constructively with the contractor in order to maximize the success of a project. The vocal citizens chose not to work constructively and resorted to hurling insults, ridicule, and other juvenile tactics. The citizens demanded and apology and once presented with one, refused to accept it. What option did they really give the contractor except to get the F*** out of our city? Apologize again? Apologize harder? What ever happened to meeting half-way? The citizens didn't even meet one quarter or one eighth of the way. This is what disappoints me the most. Given that the contractor in this case had been working with the city since April of 2012, all that time, effort and money is spent. The vocal minority of citizens, on all of our behalf, have simply refused to accept anything at all and now the project is cancelled. Maybe there was value in the other 90% that we never got to see. Now what? A legal battle in court? Go back to the drawing board with one of the other 3 firms that weren't chosen? Cut our losses and accept that we just can't have nice things in this city?

I liken the judgement of this engagement project to the typical judgement of Hamilton by a Torontonian driving over the Skyway. They see the Steel companies and that's it. That's enough for them to make their minds up about us and be on their way, and that's exactly what was done here.

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By Jay "School Marm" Robb (anonymous) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 10:07:19 in reply to Comment 85113

Nasir's got it right and I agree.

As do many of the folks I talked to this week who don't spend any time on social media. They saw this as a combination of opportunistic grandstanding and lack of city oversight.

Still not sure if there was a comms strategy to support the review and rollout of the engagement process. Corporate communications at the city seems understaffed.

Yes, Change by Us will be a great addition to the city. Based on what I've read about the initiative in NYC, it doesn't replace what this city-led engagement set out to do.

Change by Us in NYC has folks putting forward ideas, joining teams and carrying out grassroots community-building projects that make a difference (we're a city that could use less talking and more doing).

The city's looking to engage citizens as part of a plan to tackle Hamilton's $2 billion infrastructure deficit. Some tough choices may need to be made on programs and there's likely to be retrenchment to delivering core services only.

We have a short window to pull together a gameplan. With an election year in 2014, it's unlikely many councillors will give the greenlight to unpopular program and service cuts. And the infrastructure deficit will continue to grow.

Attacking Nasir (and doing it anonymously of course) runs counter to Dave's excellent 6 rules, especially the one about treating everyone with respect. If you buy in to those lessons, you don't call someone a troll because you don't agree with their viewpoint. And you have the courage to put your name to your comments.


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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:32:46 in reply to Comment 85133


And it seems a bit inconsistent to take a back-handed swipe at Joey Coleman for "opportunistic grandstanding", and in the same post complain that "we're a city that could use less talking and more doing."

Comment edited by AlHuizenga on 2013-01-13 10:33:09

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 15:23:50 in reply to Comment 85113


Website was a template site.
Survey did not comply with MFIPPA.
Survey was done on a template site.

But just because these are "quick" problems to fix (as you pointed out, pics can be removed, etc.). The real problem is that the incorrect info was up there to begin with.

This isn't a mom and pop shop putting up a blog on their own website and putting up a picture of their cat instead of their daughter. This is supposed to be a professional corporation who won a $400,000 tender and had 8 months to work on the launch of their website and other forms of social media. When they "launched" we should expect that their product will be professional, accurate, and well researched.

You're cutting them far too much slack in my opinion as these problems, though easily fixed, should not have occured to begin with.

In the real world, if you misspell the company name on the resume, you don't get hired. If you misspell the client name on the first page of your report, your client is intsantly going to question the quality of the remainin greport. Sure it would take a second to fix in Word and print out a new copy, but you had your chance and blew it. In some aspects of life, particularly the professional working world, perfection is not only desired, it's required.

If you can't accurately identify your client, the city of Hamilton Ontario, you deserve to be fired by your client. You had your chance, you blew it.

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By Nasir_Jones (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 16:31:48 in reply to Comment 85114

Your post demonstrates more intolerance. Perfection is not required here. It's a social media campaign. Perfection is required in fields like engineering and medicine, and even in those fields people make mistakes. Have you ever heard of the concept of 'human error'? In those cases, we should offer constructive support, not simply state 'you had your chance and you blew it'. Man never would've made it to the moon if the U.S. government told NASA 'You had your chance and blew it' immediately after the Apollo 1 fire. By correcting these (simple) errors at minimal cost and continuing with the project, Hamiltonians stand to gain because it results in a better product and a better campaign, with Dialogue Partners learning as they go. No soldier is born a veteran.

You're suggesting abandoning the project at excessive cost (money and time already spent, legal costs for dealing with contractual obligations) based on what exactly? To teach these guys a lesson? Pride? Xenophobia (i.e. they're from Ottawa!)? It's just a case of biting off the nose to spite the face.

Your account of the 'real world' and the 'professional working world' is anecdotal. I can tell you my experiences have been much different from yours, and in mine, the inevitability of mistakes is accepted, and they are valued for the lessons that they teach.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted January 14, 2013 at 07:59:33 in reply to Comment 85116

I agree perfection is not required. But there are some mistakes, given the right context, that signal incompetence. Not knowing what the HSR is and mixing up Hamilton, Ontario with other geographical Hamiltons are the kinds of mistakes in the context of market research (which is, let's face it, what DP has been tasked with) that kill a contract.

Your analogy regarding software development is too simplistic because the problem domain and contexts are so very different.

Comment edited by Cultosaurus on 2013-01-14 08:00:30

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By kevin (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 00:58:53 in reply to Comment 85116

You make me ill.

Yes, you are the only one who thinks the reaction is too harsh. It hasn’t been harsh enough. I thought you were kidding.

What's wrong with expecting highly paid "professionals" to do a job well and professionally? Your lame-ass mindset is ruining this country: it's OK, you showed up, here's a trophy for participating, even though you didn't try all and your performance SUCKED, you're great! Don’t try harder, next time. Here’s more money. Pizza party!

I've never seen you on RTH before and you suddenly, anonymously, emerge to try and defend this abomination. Go stick your keyboard somewhere else.

You and yours are responsible for the impending Apocalypse, which will occur when your nuclear race to the bottom of the septic tank is concluded. I hope you win.

Hamilton takes MY hard money from ME. I have a right to be annoyed if they spend a lot on affrontingly frivolous, superfluous, childish, lousy, half-hearted, over-priced, ridiculous NONSENSE. This is money we could have given to Bob Young or Peggy Chapman. If my wife spent $400 000 on mindless, pathetic, cheap, sleazy, easy, sophomoric, cheerleading NONSENSE, I would divorce her, immediately.

When did Canada become so useless and lame and lazy? When, exactly, did the bottom feeders take over? When will it end?

Don’t bother responding, Nasir-Jones, you can tell me in Hell.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 16:38:19 in reply to Comment 85116

Possible Dialogue Partners trolling here? Has anyone else seen this poster before?

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By j (registered) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 22:01:13 in reply to Comment 85117

Let's all ignore that intelligent comment because we don't know the commenter!

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 01:03:41 in reply to Comment 85120

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By Nasir_Jones (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 17:21:58 in reply to Comment 85117

These opinions are my own as a citizen of Hamilton and I'm in no way affiliated with Dialogue Partners.

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 01:04:05 in reply to Comment 85119

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By mikeyj (registered) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 15:39:09

Bob Bratina is actually in the bike path photo - taken in Stoney Creek not Ottawa.

So let's file that under Twitter Rumors already.

Surprised there hasn't been retractions for something so obvious.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 14, 2013 at 09:31:00 in reply to Comment 85115

Both the Spec and Joey Coleman issued retractions that I know of. There may be others as well.

Comment edited by highwater on 2013-01-14 09:31:18

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By mikeyj (registered) | Posted January 16, 2013 at 19:17:54 in reply to Comment 85168

To be clear, I posted that on the 11th before any retractions were made.

The report surfaced the 8th, The Spec reported on the 9th and retractions starting appearing the 12th.

I'm still curious about the original source of the statement though. I'm just unsure why someone would make that up, and why the media was so quick to report it that was would seem to be a very simple verification didn't take place?

When I asked about the source on Twitter, Emma Reilly who wrote the Spec story responded "Good question, and one that I'm afraid I can't answer."

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By z jones (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 13:57:42 in reply to Comment 85115

Pretty sure that was after the photo was changed.

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By mikeyj (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 01:49:27 in reply to Comment 85135

There is a screenshot of every other OVOH mistake, but no proof of this alternate Ottawa pic ever existing.

Even the Spec's screenshot, labelled as the Ottawa pic is actually still the Bratina pic... (image 4)


Who is upvoting a "pretty sure" by the way? Slow it down twitchy fingers.

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 01:34:40

Nasir is definitely NOT the only one who thinks the reaction is overblown. The problems you cite - bad stock photos, "template" sites are really trivial. I would rather the consultant use a template site than charge twice the amount to build something from scratch! AFAIK, the "our hamilton" website was only part of the contract. I'm personally not willing to judge whether we got good value until I know what else was (or will be) delivered.

In the meantime Kevin, tone down the ad-hominem attacks. Heed Dave's advice: "Be genuine and treat everyone with respect."

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 02:24:25

I am sorry but the company who launched this website got bitch slapped, royally. You do not do business that way, I guess heads will roll, there.

What pisses me off is the claim toward globalized thinking, which would be part of the CETA language as well.

Who knew that the city did this or was part of this, endeavour?

This is just one part of things, givn the casiNO effort and the Idle No More effort.

Come on people wake up, what about aerotropolis.....

Are peole so stupid?????

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 02:29:23

Personlly, I am not pleased that this site exercised censorship.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:40:18 in reply to Comment 85130

Seems to be getting worse in the last couple of months. It used to be that just Allan Taylor comments would be blocked (posting anonymously after he was banned) and ad sites. Now it's comments deemed by the administrator to be offensive, which is subjective.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 12, 2013 at 03:32:09

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By me, me and me! (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:50:44

Old news...Next!

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By Dennis (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2013 at 16:08:15

The site that answers a single question

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