You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything


How does commentary affect the world around us?

Do Your Tweets Model You?

In Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte talks about the need to “model” his sister-in-law so he can buy her a present. In Remix, Lawrence Lessig mentions how Amazon can best model his purchasing habits, thanks to all the information they have about him. Now, there’s Twanalyst, which can tell you all about you based on your tweets.

It’s somewhat scarily accurate. The report for my personal Twitter account nails my personality as “likeable, inquisitive, cautious,” and calls my style “chatty” and “coherent” (wonder what it takes to be labeled incoherent!). I’m called a WRITER, which may be because I am one, or because I say I’m one in my personality. Either way, it’s relatively on par with reality (or so I’d like to think).

What does the service have to say about the Twitter account for Bostonist, the website about Boston that I help run? Bostonist’s personality is “renowned, sociable, vain” and our style is “chatty, academic.” (Is it chatty because I write so many of the posts?) We are identified as a ROBOT. The Bostonist Twitter account is primarily just a feed of our blog posts, so that makes sense. I am interested in our “renowned, sociable, vain” personality though. Are we renowned because we have so many followers (only about 1500, but more than many Twitter accounts)? Because we get retweeted a decent amount? Or is the retweeting what makes us sociable? Finally, “Vain” is perhaps the most interesting comment… does it stem from US not retweeting other content often (we don’t)? From our “royal we” writing style (which doesn’t usually come through in the tweeted content, I don’t think)? I’m not sure. Regardless, an interesting outcome.

Finally… what does the Twanalyst have to say about the Twitter feed of THIS blog? Well, it’s a little disappointing. My “talking” personality is “ordinary, sociable, cautious”–basically a blend of Bostonist and my personal account, but with “ordinary” thrown in. Ordinary is never a word you want applied to you! My style is “quiet, academic,” which makes sense. I am identified as a ROBOT which is true because the Twitter account is just a feed of the blog.

So it seems that automated personality analysis can have something to say about what we say on Twitter, and at least some of it is reasonably accurate. But what can it really be used for, other than telling us some things we probably already knew? Could it be used to connect people with similar personalities? Is that even a good idea, since “opposites attract” and all? Twanalyst in particular seems to be in beginning stages, but I think that “metatweets” containing information about what your tweets mean and what demographic your tweets peg you as will become valuable, particularly for advertisers. So, careful what you tweet… they’ll know what brands you’re looking for!


Filed under: Uncategorized

Remix Culture: Remix as Commentary

In discussing commentary, I’ve focused mostly on blog comments and tweets thus far. These are the most obvious, and perhaps the most common, forms that commentary takes online. But there are a lot of other online activities that could be considered commentary as well. Videos, for one. Photoshopped pieces, for another. Tags, reviews, and “likes” or “diggs” for a few more. I’ll address all these in turn, but for now would like to focus on multimedia works as instances of “remix culture,” which allows people to take what’s already been done/said/thought and add their own perspective. That’s pretty much the definition of commentary.

To me, commentary at its best should be about remix: creating your own spin on an issue. It shouldn’t merely be evaluative, agreeing with or critiquing the original content, though that’s certainly valid. It shouldn’t just add new information, although that can be helpful. What it should do is take the conversation a step further, “remixing” the original idea with new ideas, and in so doing creating a new perspective that owes a debt to what it was remixed from.

Who gets paid for a remix–the remixer, or the originators of the remixed content, or both? It’s a fine line to walk. Take these music video that quite literally “remix” parts of faces to create fascinating new content. Does everyone who appears in the video deserve to get paid for it? Should they be paid each time the video’s played? What’s the ideal economic structure for collage of this nature?

Maybe there is none. Maybe the point should be to play, to remix, to create: to comment. The role of the “publishing” industry in the future, perhaps, will not be to copyright that content but to supply the channels that make it possible. It’s getting harder and harder to copyright content. The mode in which it’s created may not necessarily be copyrightable but it can, perhaps, be owned.

In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig writes of “the freedom to quote.” When does quoting become “using”? Isn’t a quote a form of usage? So why, he asks, is excerpting a paragraph from a written work in making an argument about (also a “comment on”) that work less okay than using part of a music track to make a new one?

Remix is commentary. Commentary is creativity. It shouldn’t be falsely limited or discouraged.

Filed under: Blogs

Retweeting: The Ultimate Comment Compliment?

Regular online comments can sometimes be responded to: occasionally some blog systems allow users to “reply” to previous comments, or commenters simply take it upon themselves to respond to an earlier remark. But Twitter makes commenting on other comments much simpler and more direct. It even provides you with an easy, simple way to include the original comment in your comment. That’s the retweet.

A retweet is just that: a re-posting of another user’s tweet. It’s usually prefaced with RT (for retweet) and includes the @handle of the original commenter (Twitter user). If space allows, someone may insert their own commentary in a retweet, but 140 characters can be a bit tight for that. Still, the retweet is the ultimate comment: a comment on someone else’s comment. A meta-comment, if you will. But it packs a lot of information into 140 characters, including links to the original comment, the name of the original commenter and the retweeter, not to mention what’s actually being said.

This retweet phenomenon has become an amazing way of sharing relevant information quickly. Not everyone can follow everyone on Twitter–there are too many millions of folks to keep track of–but there seems to be almost a “six degrees of separation” phenomenon wherein any popular tweet can get to you pretty easily and remarkably fast. Thus the retweet as comment is almost less a “comment” than a platform for spreading information. It’s not just about the initial idea, it’s about the ease with which it spreads.

There are a number of ways to look at retweeted material. One is to check out the most retweeted people on Twitter. Are these people experts in their field? Do they have the most followers? Are they tweeting on popular topics? What is it about their commentary that makes it spread?

MrZand, a math teacher from Washington DC with a mere 500 followers, is currently on the top 10 retweeted folks according to Retweetrank. Why is this? He tweets often, and many of his tweets are about the topical Iran elections, and the unfortunate killing of a woman named Neda in them. Perhaps it’s being topical that makes you retweeted?

Maybe not. ZnaTrainer posts mostly inane quotations about love and smiling. Arguably topical at all times, but being perpetually topical is almost like not being topical at all. Yet she’s in the Retweet Top 10. Deservedly?

One attribute that almost everyone in the RTT10 has in common: they retweet others’ tweets a lot. Gotta play the game to win the game, right? Perhaps the takeaway message is, the more active you are on Twitter and the broader the audience to which your tweets have relevance, the more you can be retweeted.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Advertisers Have Entirely the Wrong Idea (Yet Again)

Publishers of websites are considering more intrusive advertising, such as video ads you can’t just click through. The thought is to make the internet more like TV: “It’s a similar type of user-interruption experience as a commercial in the middle of a TV show,” says one brilliant ad exec. This won’t work, however, because the internet is NOT TV–and that’s what’s so great about it. The interactivity, the potential for feedback: people go online to engage, they go to TV to veg out. Ads that can’t be avoided online will annoy users; I, personally, might consciously choose not to buy a product that messes up my internet experience with intrusive ads.

The only reason publishers are freaking out about online advertising is that the internet has finally given them the technology to actually know what their ads accomplish. The answer? Very little. It’s impossible to measure how many people see a billboard or print ad. (It’s possible to estimate how many people travel a highway or read a paper, but it’s difficult to say how many of those notice or care about ads. Even Google’s new billboards are somewhat odd: how can you click a link on a billboard?) But when you have metrics for your website, it’s painfully easy to see how few people click through. And not only can we not look at ads online, we can also block them altogether in many cases. There’s a reason that browsers have pop-up blockers and Firefox has adblock: people don’t want to see ads.

When will corporations learn this? When will the time-honored “advertising budgets” be spent in better ways, perhaps by providing special deals to loyal customers, referral fees for people who bring their friends over, and other innovative techniques? Maybe a site’s biggest commenter gets a 5% discount (hello, massive commentary!). Maybe someone who wins a contest based on site content gets a prize. But the ad execs’ thought process is just wrong. “If you want to move share over from TV, which is still the biggest ad marketplace, you better look like TV more than a newspaper,” another exec commented. I don’t mean to say that advertising can’t ever work. But I do think it’s dangerous to think about the web as TV OR a newspaper. It’s an entirely different medium and needs to be treated as such by advertisers, content creators, and users alike. Otherwise it will never realize its great potential.

Filed under: Business Models, Content

WaPo vs. Gawker: Commentary in Action

Ah, my favorite website gets in a tussle again! I love reading Gawker, often just as much for the comments as the content. It’s one of the snarkier sites on the internet, as well as one of the few sites where the readers keep up with the writers in terms of witticisms. I feel like the quality of the commentary has declined a bit as the site has become more popular, but maybe that’s just a personal perception.

Regardless, Gawker has pissed off many people–who respond in the comments, or sometimes in articles of their own. To get linkified for a moment: Ian Shapira wrote an article about business coach Anne Loehr for the Washington Post, Gakwer mocked Loehr’s job, and Shapira got mad. Initially, Shapira was actually pleased he had been covered in Gawker: it brought more traffic to his article and to the WaPo in general. But then an editor instigated thoughts of theft in Shapira’s mind.

Did Gawker “steal” Shapira’s content? Of course not. It excerpted it, giving credit to the source. And most of what Gawker excerpted were quotations from the subject of Shapira’s article–not anything Shapira said himself. Shapira objects to Gawker’s actions largely by chronicling the amount of work he put into the article: hours doing research, attending one of Loehr’s sessions, talking to Loehr, transcribing various conversations, not to mention writing the actual piece. It does sound like it took lots of effort.

But that doesn’t mean Gawker stole anything. The blog never claimed to have originated the content. They credited repeatedly with links to the story, and sourced the story to the Washington Post at the end (Shapira’s name was never mentioned, but did he really write that story expecting to be showered with personal accolades?). There was no “theft” involved. Nor does Gawker’s response negate Shapira’s work. In fact, it’s a credit to it: if not for Gawker, thousands of people wouldn’t have heard of Shapira, or the subject of his article.

Another odd aspect of the situation is how long it took Shapira to respond. Shapira’s original article appeared on July 8. Gawker responded on July 9. But Shapira didn’t get back to the debate until July 31 (Gawker responded to that article on August 3.) What was the reason for the delay? Did Shapira have to spend several hours interviewing himself and transcribing the results? Or was it just another grab for Gawker traffic (one that most likely worked very well)?

But perhaps the oddest aspect of the situation is Shapira’s apparent underlying assumption that journalism is worth doing for the work itself. He emphasizes the reporting he put into the piece, but never mentions what he expected to come out of it. If you’re going to research and write an article on a topic, aren’t you doing that for the purpose of getting a response? Shouldn’t the point be to invite commentary, even if it’s critical (of your subject, not you)? Perhaps due to the greater difficulty of commentary in the past–i.e., letters to the editor, screened BY editors who assigned stories, being the main form of newspaper “commentary”–newspapers seem to be having a tough time finding the best way to invite reactions to their stories. But in the end, a Gawker commenter put it best: “How dare people talk about the story I wrote?”

Copyright and credit are important. But so is the free exchange of ideas. If newspapers and related services want to charge for public domain ideas, or prevent people from commenting on their stories, they deserve to fail.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Nobody Wants to Dial Telephones: Does Anyone Want to Read Comments?

Yesterday, I lamented the marginalia of commentary, the lack of impact that most comments tend to have. It seems possible that commentary could do so much for us: instigate debate, give rise to new ideas, realize the full potential of the internet. But it doesn’t, at least not in most cases.

To determine why that is, maybe we can investigate the purpose of comments. I referred yesterday to the definition of “comment,” which involves explaining or criticizing an idea. Online comments can certainly do this. But due to their location online, in a space where everyone can see and respond, they seem to take on another dimension: of participating in a conversation.

But what if not every commenter wants to do this? Well, would-be commenters certainly have options: they can email the author instead. They can bring up the subject with a friend in person. They can make a phone call. They can write about it on their own blogs. Nobody has to comment.

In Being Digital, a book from the days before Google and Twitter (hard to remember those, huh?) Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab posits that nobody wants to dial a telephone; people just want to reach people. So do people really want to comment? Perhaps not–they just want to reach people.

So what are some alternatives to traditional online commentary? Twitter replies have become a popular one, enabling folks to show that they read and appreciated (or didn’t appreciate) something without investing the time to craft a lengthy comment. Twitter also offers the opportunity to reply directly to a person/article/idea, or to send your response only to your followers (or anyone else who happens to find your words, perhaps due to a search or a retweet). As with Negroponte’s telephone analogy, no one necessarily wants to Tweet, exactly–but people do want to connect. Twitter has become another, often effective, way for people to do this.

The telephone analogy could be taken further. The telephone reaches out, directly, to someone specific. (In so doing, it’s often annoying: it’s kind of nice that you can instant message with multiple folks at once, while we still haven’t really figured out how to multi-task with phone conversations, except for perhaps in conference calls.) The thing about Twitter–the thing that comments in general really lack–is its directness. But, like instant messaging, you can essentially be “direct” with a lot of people at once. You’re not stuck Tweeting at only one person for a while. You can Tweet in multiple directions, on multiple topics, in the space of just 140, 280, 420, or more characters.

It seems, then, that the directionality–the intended recipient–of commentary might matter just as much as the content of it. What is the best way to target comments? Should all comments be shared? People complain about oversharing on Twitter, but there’s an easy way to combat that: don’t follow such folks. In this sense, Twitter’s other revolutionary capability is that its directionality is multidirectional. Not only can you send a message to somebody, that person can choose whether to receive it and how to respond to it. Additionally, other people can see that message, and respond, but with the knowledge that the message/comment was directed in a specific way. And, most importantly, and unlike phone conversations or even instant messages, people can ignore you. A bummer if they do, but that in itself sends a message.

Thus Twitter appears simple, but it really contains a number of important capabilities that were missing from online communication, or present in different and unintegrated ways. By putting together public, targeted conversations with the ability to choose modes of responding, Twitter has opened up a whole new form of commentary online. And it’s not that we want to Twitter: it’s that we want to reach people AND let others know who we are reaching. That’s really something important, and something that it was harder to do before this tool.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

De- and Re-marginalization Of Marginalia

In his recent Kindle lament, Nicholson Baker described how, in Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,”

the fetching illustrations by Lorenz of a greylag goose and its goslings walking out from the middle of a paragraph and down the right margin are separated from the text—the marginalia has been demarginalized

In other words, the Kindle’s format removes illustrations from their rightful place within a text. But is that really a problem? Is the main point of these images to augment the text, to decorate, or to create a meaning of their own? Might not some new perspective be gained from the distancing of text and image?

The Kindle and devices like it even have remarkable potential to make images much more than marginalia. They could become videos, interactive features: actually watch ducklings follow Lorenz instead of see them frozen at a moment in time. It’s an evolution from traditional books, surely, but is it lamentable? Or might we not learn more from new technologies used in different ways?

A twist on the use of new technology to demarginalize marginalia involves a return to the Talmud: that book made of marginalia, literally constructed of commentary from rabbis created over years and years. Rabbis comment on each other’s works in the Talmud in ways very different from the ways in which we comment on items online. The commentary is serious, well-studied, and lasting, not ephemeral.

Thus we can see that ephemerality is not an inherent feature of commentary: to the contrary, Talmudic commentary is central to Jewish law and even in a sense constitutes it. The process of exchange and evolution over time is crucial to the ideas expressed in the Talmud.

Writing on the relationship between the Talmud and the internet, Jonathan Rosen compares the vastness of the Talmud–itself only a small portion of the many texts integral to Judaism–to the vastness of the internet:

when I look at a complete set of the Talmud.. my heart, along with my brain, begins to sink. Of course, I can get that same sinking feeling looking at the Sunday New York Times or entering the domesticated galaxy of cyberspace. Too much! I want to shout… I fear, with my limited skills, I won’t even be able to navigate my way to a solid patch of the past on which to drop anchor so that I can hold up under future assaults of information.

Perhaps this is part of the problem online. The Talmud is clearly and visibly textually anchored to something historical, even when it also incorporates later commentary. As Rosen marvels, it’s amazing that “a conversation that began two thousand years ago is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.” Everything online, by contrast, is amazingly ephemeral. Nothing is fixed. A website can be put up or taken down instantly. Comments and posts can be created, erased,

So why can’t online commentary come to occupy a similar space? Of course, no one would expect online comments to become central to any kind of thought or theory. But why don’t they at least try a little harder? Even on an intelligent site (with intelligent in the very title), the Economist’s More Intelligent Life, a reasonably intelligent article on novelists recovering from alcoholism receives mostly nitpicky comments aimed at one small factual error in the article (similar nitpicking happened on a post at NPR).

Once that error was first pointed out by one commenter, why did others feel the need to correct it, too? Was the point to make their voices heard? But why, when they had nothing original to say? Part of the point of the Talmud is to expand on what has already been said, to clarify, to refine, perhaps to improve. Online, the tendency seems to be to repeat, complain, devolve. People’s ideas are not appreciated or analyzed, just criticized for irrelevant inaccuracies. It’s as though one typo renders all intelligence moot. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t. So why do people behave that way?

Similarly, a nicely researched post on TechCrunch that profiles a number of female entrepreneurs in the tech sphere has been appreciated with an all-important comment on how “hawt” one of the women is. No comments on what the women are doing, the nature of their work, just an empty observation about something irrelevant to the topic.

Perhaps, like Google’s email goggles, all comments should have an “Are you sure you want to post this?” message pop-up when “submit” is hit. Better, the commenter could be asked, “Does this really contribute anything to the exchange?” The definition of comment describes the word as “a note explaining, illustrating, or criticizing the meaning of a writing.” If you don’t explain, illustrate, or (intelligently) criticize, why comment?

Much has been made of whether newspapers should “allow” comments on articles, particularly articles about crimes and other sensitive topics. Perhaps the issue should not be whether newspapers should regulate commentary but how commenters can regulate themselves, contributing only when they truly have something to say. Otherwise, they’re just talking a lot, not saying anything, and adding to a vast morass of marginalia that will never have the impact that it could.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary

Virgin Commenter Brutally Attacked… by NPR Listeners?

In this NPR All Songs Considered post about Weezer, one brave soul was driven to comment on the internet for what might be the first time ever. In response to ASC producer Robin Hilton’s ruminations about never developing the affection for the band Weezer in the same way that other folks of his generation seemed to, “Katie” opined:

Of all the drivel on the Internet, nothing has managed to get under my skin quite enough for me to post a comment until now. So congratulations on that, first of all.

The snarky opener: common for comments, but productive? For Katie would go on to be excoriated by the next three commenters for a factual slip-up: she lamented the loss of the wrong band member (Brian Bell vs. Matt Sharp) in her comment, undermining her authority as a Weezer superfan.

Did Katie’s comment, which was well-thought-out and contained a valid point, deserve to be trashed in this way? All the folks who nitpicked about the band member’s name ignored Katie’s larger message, a plea for the contextualization of Weezer: sure, the band’s current album (the red album) might sound good on its own, but when compared to the group’s history, it’s just subpar. Later on, a few commenters commended Katie for her point, but did the three initial negative reactions discourage Katie from commenting forever?

Comments are no less flame-prone and troll-friendly than the rest of the internet. It’s interesting, then, that Twitter replies don’t seem to have acquired quite the vicious overtones of anonymous comments. Is this because most Twitter accounts are so directly linked to the actual identity of the user, and it seems therefore like an actual human interaction rather than an anonymized debate focused on the issue, rather than the people involved? Or perhaps it’s that character limit: when you have less room, you’re less likely to waste it on a useless attack on someone else? Finally, could it be the increased visibility–i.e., everyone who follows you will see your cruel comment and identify it with you immediately?

Regardless of the reason, it does seem that the Twitterfication–and perhaps accompanying identification–of commentary has led to more reasoned, conversational-type exchanges. It’s a positive development in online commentary, and deserves to be encouraged–perhaps due to greater standardization of online presence?

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Social Relevance in Search

Back before the internet, the main ways to find out about stuff were to look in books or to ask people. For more serious, academic topics, you might turn to books—encyclopedias if you were in a hurry. But for everyday recommendations, you might just ask somebody: where’s the best brunch in Brookline, what dry cleaners should I go to? You didn’t have Google, Yelp, Chowhound, or other similar services to help you out.

Now it’s starting to feel like search—parts of it, at least—is coming full circle. On ReadWriteWeb, Brynn Evans discusses social relevancy in search, wondering about the best way to achieve it. Several obstacles are explored: imperfect access to information (your social search tools will not have access to information from everyone you want to get information from), varying levels of expertise (an attorney doesn’t always want her friends’ “opinions” on a law; rather, she might be more interested in professional perspectives on it), and so on.

Evans creates a continuum, from active search to passive discovery. On the continuum, in this order, RWW identifies the following: friends and following, taste neighbors, friends-of-friends, experts and influencers, and “the crowd.” That is, social aspects matter more when search is more active. If you’re in the “market,” so to speak, for a new dry cleaner’s, you will ask your friends in addition to perhaps searching online. But if you are satisfied with your existing service you will not seek out a new one, and only passively file away (probably to be forgotten) information you come across about dry cleaners.

One interesting aspect of the search-discovery continuum that Evans proposes is that social media can be woven throughout it. There’s no necessary distinction between social and non-social search; rather, the distinction is between the level of urgency/necessity of the search. Additionally, it’s possible to flip the proposed continuum: it’s easy to imagine situations in which you’re actively searching for something that you want an expert opinion on, rather than that of your friend. If you need legal advice, for example, you’re probably not going to tweet about it—or you might, but you’ll ultimately go with your lawyer’s response rather than your best friend’s.

I think the takeaway from Evans’ continuum and the notion of social search in general is that social information—of which we have so much now, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and the like—is going to be continually important in search. From the proposed Wikia Search (a user-powered search engine where users could “vote” on results) to retweets of important or popular information, there are many approaches to take to social search. The apparent demise of Wikia Search is unfortunate, but computerized algorithms will not continue to be the status quo of search. The algorithms should be adjusted to take into account human input and ratings. Human response—even in the form of blog/article comments, too long neglected as sources of information—must be calibrated in some way. This will change the search game and SEO for good, but it will also—hopefully—make better information easier to access.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Too Temporary? Why Comments May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Commentary is crucial, but it can also be ephemeral. There have been numerous instances of late–Iran elections/Neda, Farrah Fawcett’s death (quickly usurped by Michael Jackson’s death), Walter Cronkite’s death, and so on–that have attracted huge numbers of online comments or, specifically, tweets. However, what’s the power of that commentary, if it’s not harnessed? Does it just fade away and become irrelevant? Or could there be something to tracking and talking about it in more detail?

ReadWriteWeb recently analyzed Iran commentary, attempting to put the commentary into specific groups. Clusters are identified around Ahmadinejad, Khameni, Basij, and other topics; RWW says the research indicates comments moved “from a dispute over the election process involving Ahmadinejad (shown in pink) to a dispute over authority involving the supreme leader Khamenei (shown in red).”

This kind of comment compartmentalization could potentially be valuable. Right now, Twitter can tell us trending topics–but there are more and more services developing that tell you even more about said topics. Some of these come in the form of group-based services (such as Tweetizen) that allow you to form a group of topics that might interest you, while others report data ranging from number of tweets on topics to what those topics actually mean (a godsend for those confused by acronyms that rise to the top of the trends). Tweets, more then blog comments–probably primarily because of their more standardized form and platform–are easily analyzed for content and meaning.

Not only that, they are easily shared. Perhaps one of the best, or at least favorite (for many folks), features of Twitter is the ability to “retweet” tweets that users find funny, informative, or just plain interesting. In retweeting, a comment (in the form of a tweet) gains additional influence and shelf life. In theory (though not often in practice), a phenomenal tweet’s significance could linger on indefinitely as it is retweeted by person after person who finds the information important. In practice, retweets spread surprisingly rapidly, likely due to the very instantaneous nature of Twitter.

As RWW puts it, “Twitter allows these social structures to become data structures by means of the ‘RT’ convention. And this in turn allows us to perform extremely powerful computations on the social structures that underlie the flow of information.” Analysis of tweets may seem inane, but it may actually be the future. The power of Twitter is the power of analysis–and the analysis of data is just as important as the sharing of it.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Tweeting a Lot

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July 2018
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