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Google Buzz – another moral panic over “public by default”

The messages on Twitter and Facebook containing warnings regarding a ‘huge privacy flaw’ in Google’s Buzz started popping up right after the first users noticed Buzz was available. A few weeks ago, Facebook’s move towards ‘public as default’ caused numerous outcries, now Google had taken up this notion of a new status quo and provided Buzz users with public by default settings. What people keep bemoaning is clearly not a flaw but intention – why would Google launch a system that competes with Facebook but resort to privacy standards that they perceive below (depending on your view it is: above) Facebook’s standards?

In contrast to Facebook, where working through all privacy and account settings can take up quite a bit of your time, and where they seem to undergo changes every now and then, Google’s Buzz offers a simple link to your profile where you can edit it. 3 options are available, ticked by default:

  1. Display my full name so I can be found in search
  2. Allow people to contact me (without showing my email address)
  3. Display the list of people I’m following and people following me

Untick at least option 2 as viewers are actually able to see you full email address, once they click on it. Untick all 3 options and you are done with privacy.

A full list of all options and possibilities illustrated with screenshots that also show you where to switch off Buzz entirely is available on: FastCompany.com. There is also the Google Buzz Video on Youtube and more on Google.com/buzz .

Then there is an option to choose between 2 different styles of your Profile URL and a menu that allows you to add links (URLs) to your social networking sites, outside Google’s world (i.e. beyond Blogspot, Picasa, the RSS Reader etc.). You can add your Linkedin profile, your LifeJournal, Twitter, Flickr etc. So far, I found it a straightforward way to handle privacy and decide to what degree I want to keep my connections public or not. Following others is equally easy: either click on follow or unfollow in structures which resemble Twitter.

What I find a lot more complex is the ongoing pro/con debate on Twitter and subsequent blogposts. I wished we, in particular the academic and technology expert community, moved on to a tone that enabled a debate beyond the simplified notion: users need privacy [by default]. We have shown that privacy is on our mind, but not all the time. The degree, to which we post consciously personal details, full email addresses and other potentially compromising data on the web, is not static and purely based on our age, social class and educational background. Rather, we may post information, share links and leave traces that we regret at a later point – simply because we are not rational beings 24/7 (some of us tweet in pubs, in moments of overjoy, frustration, while tired or very hungry…).

We may also get distracted or experience an impatient moment when we log in a social networking site that offers an unexpected dialogue requesting us to make a yes/no or now/later decision when all we want right now is to respond to that interesting / hilarious / unfair / nasty comment one of our friends posted and it got forwarded to our email inbox. It’s all about priorities. Then we fail to remember that there was something waiting for us to make – a not so exiting, let’s be honest – privacy decision. And there is no reminder (we seem to have become used to reminders: welcome back, switch off your out of office reply; your payment is due; your deadline is fast approaching etc).

I agree with the idea that social networking sites need to offer privacy options that are easy to navigate, clear in wording and transparent in their accessibility within the site. However, I also believe that we urgently need to move on towards a more mature discussion of what we can expect from users and how we should learn to grow up within the social media that we keep using on a daily basis. We do not benefit from systems that reflect a virtual nanny state but rather, we are living in an age where choices and options can leave us somewhat paralysed (analogous to dozens of TV channels to choose from – and no one telling us to switch it off).

Once we have understood that privacy is not a vain exercise but vital to our long-term well-being and sense of control, it should become less of a controversial notion to navigate around in a new system and familiarise ourselves with the available options. Rather than waiting for the day someone annoys us with their comments or – worst case scenario – has hacked our account, it should be informed by our sense of belonging to a virtual community to do that minimal piece of homework and surf the very site we use. It’s a bit like in real life – you rent an apartment and hold the property-owner responsible for whatever does not work but you will need to take care of the keys, and ensure doors and windows are being closed on a daily basis.

I am not saying that all the responsibility lies with the user but that the world of social media is a very dynamic space and users need to continue to respond to security holes, hidden gaps, poorly structured privacy settings etc. But at the same time they also need to resist resorting to moral panics every time a new system is being launched – mainly, because this prevents system developers / providers and users from having an efficient and meaningful dialogue. It seems to create an aggressive bubble in which pro/con arguments are being traded when all we need is to look at how the system can be improved towards a standard that is acceptable (to all age groups) at a certain point in time. After all, Buzz privacy settings might become as overblown and still not fully satisfactory just as Facebook’s are right now, yet, it would be a lot more useful and socially sustainable to develop a stance as user that perceives negotiating various options and flaws by taking in more complex views – and making this the very ‘default option’.

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Tackfilm killed the hero

It was a short-lived celebrity status Tackfilm had bestowed me. In the early hours of Sunday morning I noticed Tackfilm had suffered and subsequently resorted to radical measures:

Thank you for visiting our International Hero Movie Application! Unfortunately, we’ve been forced to close this site for non-Swedish users due to the huge amount of visitors.

It seems, united we crashed it. United we mourn the short-lived existence of virtual heroes we were. Or perhaps we just flock to the next interactive video…supposed we find another one that promises just as much fun as Tackfilm had managed to give us.

Of course, Tackfilm is still available on its Swedish domain Tackfilm.se. Use Google Translate in case you can’t make sense of the Swedish instructions. If you use Google Chrome you will be able to access the site by help of a new incognito window, in case your non-Swedish IP address excludes you.

Yesterday, I had also trouble accessing Stopp.se’s website, the producers behind Tackfilm. More details on them in my previous post about Tackfilm.

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flickr’s seductive power

I have recently become a ‘flickr pro’ member and started using groups more meaningfully. It is a social networking site that taps into my unconscious, I feel. Frequently I am surprised to see my own connotations that spring up when presented with a new image uploaded by one of my contacts.

I love the daily flickr newsletter and those previews, the mix of them, 5 in a line maximum per contact, every day a visual treat. They trigger unknown associations in me. I click on the one that makes me most curious when I don’t have much time to explore all of them.

You never know, sometimes it’s light and shadows, details in the background, personal tags that add another layer of meaning, a comment by another viewer that is moving. It’s so intense the dynamic, like being pulled into a narrative that resembles a film. A few images tell a story but the story differs from what the person saw who took the shot which also differs from the real story. Interpretation of the interpretation.

Today, TooSix uploaded a simple neonsign saying Kreuzberg – the part in Berlin where I spent nearly 7 years – it made me do what expected least: a German poem-style memory unfolded, I typed without really thinking. I hadn’t been aware this was still living inside me. So fresh. Nothing’s ever lost. Nice. Grateful for the inspiration, thanks TooSix.

Gute alte Zeiten. Sehnsucht. Ratten. Strassenkehrer. Doner Kebap. Best in town. Politische Debatten nach 2 morgens. Ach.
Ein Neon Schild. Nicht mehr. Nicht weniger.

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recruitment and graduate internet user skills

This week I overheard a discussion between a few financial professionals. They threw in their collective knowledge about sushi and Aberdeen, Scotland. Apparently there are no sushi bars in Aberdeen and those folks up in the very North East of our island are poor souls who have to travel down to London in order to get a bite of cold fish and rice. While they argued back and forth I googled it – turns out there are 7 sushi restaurants listed in Aberdeen. I had suspected no less but it left me puzzled that those folks with iPhones and internet access right in front of them rather resorted to making themselves look less than smart than simply checking it first and then telling others.

The same applies to recruitment processes I learned the other day. Understanding what sort of personality you are about to recruit is still based on relatively old-fashioned conversations, going through CV (resume, Lebenslauf) data, checking references – all a bit slow and ignorant of the possibilities we could harness. Senior executives in charge of making final decisions about recruitment of graduates still believe you need to sign up for Twitter in order to ‘read it’. There is a profound lack of skills in making use of the considerable amount of data many graduates provide on the net.

Accessible to anyone involved in the recruitment process and able to pull the strands together, it won’t need to be the images of drunk nights out on Facebook that are compromising. That might be the worst case scenario only. Someone briefing decision-makers would go and search for patterns in order to see whether the applicant may fit in beyond the bare facts and if so, to what degree. Questions that matter most when recruiting staff, which are not easily assessed in personal conversations, might be:

  • What sort of moods does the applicant reveal? Stable? Erratic?
  • What kind of friends or conversational partners does the applicant engage with? What’s the tone of these conversations? Any consumer forums or communities that show technical or social skills?
  • Any skills that match the CV or are perhaps not even mentioned – check Youtube, Flickr etc.
  • Does the applicant appear to ignore copyrights or infringe others’ rights?

Internet usage skills are complex and reveal a lot more about a person than many keep thinking. While typical assessment practices provide nothing more than a snapshot of an applicant on a day of all effort being made to look good, the internet research will provide a long-term profile that says a lot more about potential employees with regard to:

  • team working including group blogging and
  • feedback skills including taking in and learning from criticism
  • broader communication skills and
  • general networking, dealing with ‘spam contacts’ as well as
  • digital media ethics

That is potentially a lot more and a lot more of a holistic picture than we could ever be able to find out in conventional recruitment talks. Smart and skilled applicants will make sure they have privacy settings in place for personal conversations that will not be haunting them in these kind of situations. It’s a question of being in command of the social media you are using rather than being controlled by technology in non-desired ways. Employers and applicants – as well as old media – frequently seem to hold less differentiated views on this.

The very same applies to the applicant perspective, they are free – and should make use of it – to check their future employer and senior staff’s profiles. If there is no online identity searchable, not even a few hits that bring up names in relation to conferences or affiliations to professional bodies, this conveys an equally strong message.

After all, what we want, is making informed decisions. It’s not about sneaking into people’s personal lives and moralising about life styles as some may argue, rather, it is about finding suitable matches and making sure you won’t need to waste a few months in real [business] life together before the mismatch becomes all too evident.

In this sense, Eszter Hargittai’s ‘The Role of Expertise in Navigating Links of Influence’ is a great read. The essay is available as part of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age (2008) by editors Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui.

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The presentation of self in everyday digital life

Today’s preconference at the University of Westminster, London, brought together a range of highly inspiring scholars who had re-evaluated Erving Goffman’s work in the setting of the everyday in digital life.

Heather Pleasants, University of Alabama, presented findings related to her digital storytelling project. Her illustrations of digital forms of communication were powerful stories posted on Stories for change and the paper was based on ethnographic observations framed by the works of Michael Wesch(2008), Erving Goffman (1963), Georg Simmel (1950), G.H. Mead (1934) et al. Particular audiences, for instance in education and health care, harness the possibilities provided by digital media, in authentically co-/presenting self and other. Trust, patience and respect in these spaces depend on self-representations and are constituted by the degree of authenticity. Here is another powerful example Life N Rhyme by Relixstylz linked by the Berkeley Language Center in California.

Mark E. Nelson’s (University of Oslo, Norway) presentation focused on the Space2cre8.com project and raised interesting questions. The data analysis had been based on semiotics and appeared to be reductionist in so far as user profiles produced in South Africa had been presented to users in Singapore which were interpreted from within the a certain cultural context. In more or less global networks, though, the idea to refer to one and the same system of symbols and meanings appeared to produce results limited in validity. The social, psychological and cultural embeddedness would need to be acknowledged. Also, representations and narratives may need to be accepted as ambiguously understood. In this sense, understanding would also require the dialogue between producer and audience who, in order to ensure predictive devices such as expressive gestures are understood as intended, will need to negotiate the clues given off in a non-intentional manner.

Sonia Livingstone, LSE, applied Goffman’s concept of the participation framework, production format and participant status to new social media. Goffman’s notion of modes of participations such as co-presence, bystanding, eavesdropping etc. appear to be applicable to f2f social situations as well as to online encounters. Whether participation has to be ratified as suggested by Goffman is less clear. In spaces such as Twitter or Facebook it seems to be perfectly fine to hold endless monologues which may be picked up by automated systems in order to be re-distributed. This may count as machine ratification, an entity not exactly covered in the model of the production format (principal, emitter, animator, figure – united in one agent at times). Reception roles and production roles are not clearly defined in the complexity of online social interaction (c.f. the concept of produsage, A. Bruns – blogpost and presentation
from prosumer to produser ). Impression management in mediated communication may require to address the fact that some communication online is meant to be self-reflection and monologue ‘only’, which, in contrast to offline space, does not require any ratification at all.

An aspect also discussed in Larry Friedlander’s (Stanford University) presentation – the representation as strategic action: never spontaneous, never pragmatic. In social networks the self-presentation is accompanied by anxiety to demonstrate and create status in a careful mix of showing and disguising by applying methods of evasion.

So, is it all staged, choreographed and scripted? Only if we assume people are not able to learn and grow while engaging in online social relations (even if ‘only’ with their self in reflective encounters). Narrating the self involves the negotiation of boundaries which entails self-defence as well as the growing self-confidence resulting from practising, exploring and observing what happens at the knots of connections or interfaces. However, the construction of self involves the negotiation of other, and even if only in observing monologues, non-ratified by the observed other. This complex layer of self-representation may only surface once the process has come to the point where an author determines to express a facet of their complex self.

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why I love the way people find their way to me

Today someone had searched for ‘peer review makes me cry’ – and ended up on my blogpost ‘statistics makes me cry…’. Sweet. I love this. Search engines hold the key to secret thoughts, sentiments and moods – how often do I take a look at the statistics of my blog and smile? Yes, I resort to the very same strategy. Whenever the initial search produces rather poor results, I find myself typing entire sentences, in a sort of let’s-see-what-the-machine-makes-of-this mood. Surprisingly often I am presented with very interesting links I would otherwise not have found.

Tagging, categorising and other lablling practices are often subject to temporary and arbitrary, individually shaped, highly selective patterns – or no recognisible patterns at all. What’s beneath the keywords and the hunt for information that responds to my fragmented questions is then, perhaps, a more empathetic approach. I take a step back, focus on what I actually really look for or feel in that very moment, and here we go: someone else thought it at an earlier point. And blogged or twittered or videoblogged about it.

It’s a moment when the machine becomes more human…an illusion, I know. But I love it, this kind of imagined and part-real connectivity.

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Stanford study: Media multitaskers pay mental price

Stanford University just published the findings of a study that showed that Media multitaskers pay [a] mental price. It appears to be a considerable price actually, as those who find it hard to focus on a small number of channels or switch off entirely while working in one area, end up being “suckers for irrelevancy”. But does it affect all multitaskers equally? A sample of 100 students is not representative, nevertheless, it would be interesting to know what makes some people multitask to such high degree. How do they become attracted to distraction in the first place? On the other hand, equally interesting is to see that low multitaskers are actually doing really well – so is it all a question of getting the balance right between stimulation and overload?

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.
High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments.

But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.
“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”
Social scientists have long assumed that it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.

…continue to read Stanford study: Media multitaskers pay mental price

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Soundbites – trust the unknown

I discovered this here us.uuuuuu.us the other day on Twitter. It’s a minimalist site that features sound recordings only. The tropical storm in the Bahamas and the all-you-can-eat buffet midis are my favourites. Personally, I am a lot more word-driven in what I consume and produce. I find our contemporary obsession with language can sometimes result in mind-numbing soundscapes of bubbles of noise. We miss the signals among all the noise, not just on Twitter where crap-detection* becomes increasingly the one key skill, but also in real life where it all started off. Sometimes it’s so bad, you need the personalised soundscape, that’s why you see all those folks in the London Underground on a Monday morning with their white or black earpieces. Too much talk, blather, genuine noise in its various disguises – decibel overload. It’s not just calming and inspiring to listen, to tune in into what a chance encounter while cross-country skiing in frozen Norway told me a few years ago: listen to the silence, it’s peace. The lady was right, there is a lot to hear when we just remain quiet. For a long moment or so. The one thing I love about audio is the narratives and visualisations it triggers. There is something fundamentally different in entering an audio-recording compared to reading a text, on the web. To me it has to do with trust. Even though I can exit either of them at any point, the audio experience seems to be a lot more intense, complexer, kind of faster than any text ever can be. I like what it does to me, it sort of abducts me, into another world, within seconds. It also seduces me.

Robb Willer’s podcasts, UC Berkeley, on Social Psychology turned the tables: I started falling in love with a world I was not so very fond of in the past. What I like about those lectures is that Robb is not just very entertaining and great in terms of throwing in bits of research that illustrate and again, that make me wander off in their respective eras and geographical areas, but he is also good in relating to the audience. The one that’s visible to him, so you hear faint questions and comments by those growing numbers who try to get into his class. Imagination runs high, the degree of engagement is considerable, yet, it offers me space to be creative in my own imagination and meaning-making processes. Sometimes, less is more.

___
*following Howard Rheingold who very recently gave a fascinating talk on 21st century literacies:

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Shopping. Love it. Hate it. Fluid Social 2.0 promises genuine fun, tap the friendcrowds

Benny Evangelista, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle recently discussed user product reviews in the context of social networking. The sort of thing I keep relying on when buying a product on Amazon for instance, where I want to find out about the reliability and trustworthiness of private sellers – but currently I do miss the interactive bit and remain unable to spot friends or family among the hundreds of pseudonyms.

Brief comments, stars/ratings and ideally more in depth-analyses of a book I take into account when considering a purchase for study purposes. I would not necessarily look for friends and family’s opinion when it comes to study material, though. Rather, I am keen on finding a review that’s marked by critical and thorough summarising, not too poetic in language, not too abstract, strength and weaknesses in balance – and please not at essay-length. I would trust an academic friend’s opinion most in this case. This is different when I look for a camera, for instance, or some other electronic gadget I would be likely to search for on Amazon.

Now, social shopping is what Andy Floyd and his team at Fluid inc. have developed. Here is a taster of their tool
Fluid Social 2.0 that facilitates collaborative buying – which is promising fun, creativity, and interaction. The process is simple: you check out the item, below the photo of the product there is a Facebook application which, once pressed connects and allows users to publish comments, start a live instant message chat and helps to suggest amendments to the model etc.

Not a brand new idea itself but simply taking what we’ve got so far one step further. Amazon reviews are getting more in terms of quantit. Nice. But they do not necessarily make purchase decisions any easier. How do I evaluate 587 reviews and 4.5 out of 5 stars? What does it actually mean? I for one still look for the last critical comment, the last angry customer who awarded 1 out of 5 stars. He or she will tell me what possible problem I might have to expect with that specific supplier. If the problem appears to be based on communication or some minor issue and if it was handled well by the supplier, I go ahead. Usually I even award some mental extra points for such handling, it shows care and that means I trust. But this is not exactly what I think a useful, interactive system in the age of web 2.0. It still leaves the bulk of work/evaluation with me.

Seriously, I just wonder why it took so long to get to this point. Living in London means real life shopping experiences are marked by tiny fitting rooms (often with an umbrella in one hand, exposed to poorly working air conditions), limited selection of items on display (London is madly expensive, shops pay horrendous rents), hence limited sizes available, crowd-pushing, and a tendency towards reducing the shopping experience down to an as-fast-as-possible transaction. Get out here syndrome, I’d call it. In contrast, the last genuinely enjoyable purchasing moment I had was in a skater shop in Palo Alto, CA. A sun-flooded little paradise, full of awesome stuff, relaxed beyond hopes. No stressed out staff. I came out with a pair of Reef flip flops.

Let’s hope retailers pick this up quickly, and understand that shopping 2.0 during recession urgently requires a make-over, not just a glossy façade, piles of cheap items on sale noone really wants to waste their money on, but something innovate and interactive that does lead to customer feedback being taken into account in a collaborative manner. Something dynamic that promotes identification with a brand and customer loyalty the way the California Academy of Sciences (+ San Francisco Symphony, de Young Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, et al.) has shown what can be done by smart harnessing of Facebook, Flickr, Twitter etc. in relation to attracting audiences: making them truly understand what the services are about – and help them come back. I am not just a customer, I have also turned into a fan as you may have noticed.

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Crowd-sourcing responsibility: Google and the Italian bullies’ video

Today’s news, covering the Google content trial’s delay, made me connect my current notions on ethics to the wider issues of responsibility in the virtual world. The BBC (Technology) reported that the continuing court case against Google Italy could “have major ramifications for content providers around the globe”. Posted in 2006, shortly before Google acquired YouTube, a video was published, “which showed a teenager with Down’s Syndrome being bullied”. Accused of “defamation and violating privacy”, the prosecutors want to see the four Google executives being charged (up to three years in prison) for not engaging enough monitoring staff and lack of content-filtering devices in place.

Basically, I agree with the Italian prosecutors in that last point. However, arguing that Google, YouTube or Dailymotion should be obliged to seek consent of all those appearing in a video is a step in the wrong direction. Rather than stifling social media sites with bureaucratic measures and creating new problems resulting in problems such as:

  • defining what constitutes consent and who can give consent
  • verifying authenticity of consenting parties
  • ensuring successful follow up of consent when changes have been made to a video

it would be time to think about users who produce and consume (produsers, following Axel Bruns) as involved, responsible, and potentially proactive audiences. Their practices of consuming and distributing content by options such as ‘favourite’, ‘share’ etc. are not given and static, but are socially constructed and hence, they can be shaped and re-constructed. In fact, they should be developed with the users (supposed a learning user is the one imagined by corporations and regulatory bodies), rather than against them.

The kind of protectionist politics informing the debate around the Italian court case echo approaches based on censorship and responsibilities, placed in the hands of a limited number of profit-making organisations rather than the 21st century communities of users. Crowd-sourcing has many faces, one of those is to harness the power of the communities and engage them in the dynamic processes of reviewing, critiquing, and reporting/suggesting changes or removals. Yet, unless the facilities are provided, little will happen in this regard.

I wished corporations would come up with more innovative ideas and helped to expand the notion of citizenship. The least promising option is full broadcast rights applied to social media, resulting most likely in a new wave of passive consumers. Hence, rather than continuing to favour and expanding an ideology of a welfare state policing its territory and society, it would be a lot more beneficial and sustainable to develop a stronger sense of responsibility, citizenship and connectivity in online space that impacts upon offline settings. For instance:

  • obligatory pop-up tutorials (brief, relevant and in plain language – similar to plagiarism statement we use as students at The Open University when submitting papers online)
  • an extended and meaningful Q’n’A section: it is not sufficient to provide a REPORT button and suggest that’s all that can be done – complaint processes must be transparent and efficient
  • citizens who face a lack of resources when reporting crime in real life will have little trust in online processes aiming at regulation: duality rather than outsourcing is required
  • an ethical turn – driven by corporations who understand that profit and ethics belong together as ignoring these repercussions, social ills can be tackled in concerted efforts rather than technology-based workarounds
  • governments present role-models, they need to do their homework: bullying (as well as other crimes) start in real life, where they need to be taken seriously. Online practices can change and make a contribution towards changes of offline/real life social practices (including reduction of neglect, ignorance, and apathy).

Internet freedom comes in a package with responsibility, I believe, and we cannot assume there is a universal sense of inherent responsibility adopted by each user who uploads or watches videos. But we can work towards stronger ethics, responsibility and citizenship. And we can start understanding that less simplified regulation would be beneficial beyond the one individual instance when the upload was prevented – otherwise, the bullying, the filming, and distribution of such content will continue, by other means, in other ways – it would be a lot less visible and less traceable, though.

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