Monday, March 8, 2010

To censor or not to censor? Reader feedback requested

This recent post at Zenpundit, authored by guest-blogger Charles Cameron, has had me thinking about the comments section here at Ink Spots. Mr. Cameron takes Abu M to task for not policing his comments section and allowing the nut cases to usurp the conversation. I think he takes his living room metaphor a bit far in the post, but was probably more accurate with his coffee-house analogy in the comments. That said, the point is worth considering.

I may think that because I am one who rarely comments, or even reads the comments, at AM because of the trolls that now inhabit it. The discussions contained in the comments were what drew me there in the first place and it was disappointing to see the quality degrade so much, so quickly. More personally, that virtual meeting-place is where the Ink Spots crew met and led to the creation of this blog. It is also where we virtually met a number of our regular commenters.

Sentimentality aside, as this post isn't about AM and his comment section, I'd like to hear what our readers have to say on the subject. Obviously, we don't really have the same issues here, what with our readership numbers being a fraction of his (this is merely an observation, not a complaint - I'm much happier with higher quality). Ex has his reasons for his policing policy and stated them in the comments at Zenpundit. As for us, we have had a couple of comments that we discussed deleting in the interest of not providing nut cases a platform for their vitriol, but have left that decision to the post's author to police as he or she sees fit. I don't have any exact data, but I think that right has only been exercised once by our crew, with all of us concurring that it was the correct move.

I think this topic raises a number of questions, from the philosophical to the practical. I can't speak for the other four, but one of the main reasons I blog here is to engage in conversation with our readers (although bloviating for its own sake can be therapeutic). So if you'll oblige me, I'd like your take on the following questions.

  • In open comment blogs, do the commenters have some ownership in the blog?
  • Is the blogosphere really the coffee-house of the internet age? Is it really a useful place to exchange ideas? (I guess I'm trying to get at the discussion vs. soapbox bit.)
  • Do bloggers have a responsibility to engage and respond to their readers in the comments section? (I'm not always very good at ensuring I take the time to do this myself...)
  • Are our readers happy with the conversations in the comments section? What could we do better?
  • What are your thoughts on whether or not Ink Spots should have a comments policing policy and if so, what would that look like?
This is really just scratching the surface and to be honest, I'm oddly intrigued by the whole subject. So please let us know what you think about these questions or any thing else you think is relevant. (And for heaven's sake, if this post doesn't have any comments by noon tomorrow, someone, anyone please just leave at least one - I'm not that big a fan of irony, or at least of being its victim.)

30 comments:

  1. This has nothing to do with censorship. Policing the comments of your own board has to with your personal preferences. Anyone can at any time start up their own blog and post whatever filth they want. But when you allow it on your blog, you are not supporting "free speech," you are instead giving a platform and a broader audience to a particular set of views. We all have a right to decide, as individual bloggers, what sort of "speech" we want to tolerate. But make no mistake, tolerating hate speech is a form of endorsement. It says, "I may not agree with these comments, but I consider them a legitimate form of expression."

    Well, I am grateful that Ex tolerates dissent, but I think he is dead wrong on tolerating vicious, homophobic rants. It is not a legitimate form of expression, and while I would defend anyone's right to post such things in their own forum, I also think it is a misunderstanding of the role of a blogger -- who is essentially a publisher as well as author -- to believe that exercising some control over content represents "censorship" or a violation of "free speech."

    It is the about the kind of dialogue we wish to promote and the kinds of debates we want to encourage. Exum seemingly wants to live in a world where dissenting opinions are shouted down with threats to rape commenters. I don't.

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  2. Exum seemingly wants to live in a world where dissenting opinions are shouted down with threats to rape commenters.

    Come on Bernard -- this is a bit over the top. I think it's far more likely that Ex simply doesn't have the time or the inclination to police the comment threads for each of his posts. This indifference is likely exacerbated by the frequent accusation that Exum and others of his ideological camp, so to speak, are resistant to criticism or the airing of alternative viewpoints. It should be easy to cull the vulgar homophobia from the pointed, substantive criticism, but I think we'll agree that at AM that's not always the case: several of the most egregious trolls are really just disguising what they would argue are legitimate criticisms in absurdist language and nearly incomprehensible sarcasm or parody.

    So then suddenly those comments get deleted, and it feeds the criticism that alternative viewpoints -- and yes, these ones are reprehensibly expressed -- aren't considered or tolerated. Can't win for losing. I'd have no qualms whatsoever about deleting the nonsense that goes up over there on a daily basis, but I don't think we're exposed to the same sort of criticism about groupthink and whatnot.

    While I'm on the subject, though, it's probably worthwhile for me to note that what Gunslinger has highlighted is precisely the reason that I very rarely peruse the comments at AM these days.

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  3. HAHAHAHAHHAHA.

    I AM QUOTED IN THAT ARTICLE FOR USING "SALTY LANGUAGE."

    I wish he could have just used my awesome name.

    With regards to the actual topic, moderation (by moderators, not by commentators) is an absolute must. I am one of the firmest proponents of free speech you will ever find, but when it comes to the internet, it is readily apparent and unquestionably obvious that to maintain a particular level of discussion, moderation must be employed. In the real world, trolls get booted out of conferences for shouting repeatedly. Or they get punched in the face. But here, one guy can pretend to be 30 different people and effectively halt or derail any conversation taking place. You guys are probably totally unfamiliar with 4chan or the Tucker Max Message Board. The former, anyone can post, and as you can see, it is a catastrophe where there is little to no sane discourse. Simply type "www.4chan.org" and go to the /b/ section. After reading the front page, click f5. Within minutes the front page will be completely different. You know what you're guaranteed to find? "Nigger, faggot, nigger, faggot" and loads of porn and worthless opinions. The latter website, although currently shut down, employed vigorous moderation to ban morons/trolls/spammers, what have you. You can go against the grain, but you must argue and reason.

    Saying "gays must die and will burn in hell for being fucking faggots who do fucking sodomy and are disgusting fucks. fuck you fag." is very different from ARGUING with an attempt at LOGIC that having gays in the military may inundate an already burdened system with a great many problems. I may disagree entirely with your position, but what makes your post OK is that you attempted an argument.

    -Deus Ex

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  4. Now, hold on, in the thread on Zenpundit's board, Exum came in and explicitly said it was not a matter of time, but rather a matter of principle that he would not moderate the comments.

    Fine, but let's admit the logical consequence of that position which is that instead of reasoned debate, you'll often get people shouted down or chased away by abusive morons and trolls.

    It is a choice to allow that to be the mode of discourse, and it is a choice Exum seems to be making with open eyes.

    It is amazing how many people are bedeviled by this issue. In college, our newspaper decided they had to accept an ad from a holocaust denier group in the name of "free speech." But really, it isn't that complicated. You can be opposed to government regulation of speech without concluding that a logical corrollary is that you are required to give a platform to every nut and bigot who comes along.

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  5. Gunslinger:

    This is a great post to, well, post. And damned if I know the answers. I'm with Finel in re: homophobic rants that do nothing to elevate the conversation. Yet I'm not in favor of the Pat Lang moderator model, either. I do question why this site - or Schmedlap's, for that matter, where I've been having great dialogues between him and Mike F of late - get low volume. I think it's partly because, to be blunt, your posts are too long. AM used to have short commentary attached to news articles, upon which readers weighed in. Now he supplies the article, so to speak, in the form of longer commentary (so to speak). Still, some of your (by which I mean the "editorial staff" as a whole) posts are, once more to be blunt, not of interest to many people, or less bluntly, too long for easy consumption. I realize this might all be interpreted as mean-spirited, and I apologize for that. I'm just trying to work through the question as are you (even if I'm not doing so methodically.

    Respectfully
    ADTS

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  6. I wonder if there is not some - and God I hate the overused phrase; damn you, Malcolm Gladwell, damn you to hell - tipping point at which a blog's readership reaches a certain critical mass (another bad or inappropriate metaphor? probably). At that point/mass, the blog comments become more voluminous in quantity, and the quality of ideas expressed and exchanged improves as well. Perhaps, though, this function is an S-shaped curve: the initial phase is where you're at now, the rapidly-rising component of the S is where AM once was, and the taper of the S is where AM is now. Is there any work on the phenomenology of Internet blogs? Probably not, or, tucked away in somebody's desk drawer because it wasn't accepted for publication, or published in some obscure journal whose tables of contents no one ever peruses, let alone the articles.

    ADTS

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  7. I don't think I've ever seen spam on Exum's site. Does he not get spam? Or does it get deleted and the rest of the nonsense remains? Then again, I'm not a regular reader.

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  8. I think y'all answered your question. If you allow in the trolls, then you stop reading. I only visit and participate on a handful of blogs. Inkspots is one of them b/c 1. I usually learn something, 2. there is a wide variety of informed, thoughtful, smart people that challenge each other through dissenting views, and 3. b/s is usually quickly shot-down through peer-review (like SWJ). Yes, sometimes the debates are heated (our fields are of the human nature so they are contentious) and sometimes we're crude (um, many of us are military). I guess I'll take the same stance that I did with DADT. If you decide to moderate, don't be gay about it :).

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  9. Oh man, this is the post and comments thread you had to link to, Gunslinger? Thanks a lot! :)

    Well, if you read the comments thread at Zenpundit (a fantastic and mind-expanding place) then you've already read my thoughts on the matter, and my little, er, confusion. (In my defense, such an incident occurred in my real life, albeit with different people, naturally!)Anyway....

    I will clarify ONE thing: denominators matter. When AM was a blogspot blog, and the political winds were all about getting his "crew elected", and the site was getting over 100 comments per thread as part of a larger conversation (half from SNLII) then the crazies didn't matter. They were white noise and my point about the similarity to second hand book stores, that Charles Cameron nicely highlighted, stands.

    Now, with fewer commenters, the trolls really stand out, and perhaps he ought to reconsider and do some banning? I don't think I care either way - I will continue to comment when I feel like it, and when the subjects interest me. I have a life long love of the second hand, the flea-market, the hidden antique-y gem, the street-market artist, and so on. I shall take the internet in that fashion: as you seek, so shall you find.

    As for Inkspots, I hope it stays the quiet and "cozy" and intellectually challenging place it is. Not that I don't want you guys and gals to become Nerd famous with appearances on CSPAN, but that I hope this site remains as high-quality as it has been. And, to be honest, we get silly around here, too, it's just that it is the humor of internet regulars and "buddies", is not the same as the outright hateful rhetoric that now takes place at Ex's.

    You know what else I like about Inkspots? By virtue of the topics discussed - and the serious nerd bait nature of it - this blog and the commenters span the "right" and "left" and everything in-between blogosphere in such a wonderful way. It reminds me of the olden days, when the internets were still kind of new and such blogs fewer and people across the spectrum spoke to one another.

    So, even though I'm kind of mad at you Gunslinger, I'm not really. You have opened up worlds for me, and for an autodidact, there is nothing more amazing.

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  10. Wow, I sure do sound stuffy in the above comment, don't I?

    Yeah, maybe I should put the books down for a bit....

    *One a side note, there is a conference this weekend at my work abode where a bunch of docs are going to talk about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm going. I'm really excited to hear the talks!

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  11. Madhu,
    If you're looking for good questions to ask them, I recommend the following:
    1) How hot was it?
    2) Did you kill anyone?
    3) Was it just like Black Hawk Down?
    4) What was it like?

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  12. It's work related remember - I'll ask a medical question or I'll just keep my mouth shut. Point taken, though....

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  13. If you're looking for good questions to ask them, I recommend the following:
    1) How hot was it?
    2) Did you kill anyone?
    3) Was it just like Black Hawk Down?
    4) What was it like?


    If this was facebook, I would "Like" this post.

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  14. Bernard -- Now, hold on, in the thread on Zenpundit's board, Exum came in and explicitly said it was not a matter of time, but rather a matter of principle that he would not moderate the comments.

    To be fair, I hadn't read Ex's comments on the post before I made my own here. It's plain to see that Ex's own engagement in the comments section is way down on the "new" site, so I guess I assumed that his lowered level of involvement with the blog contributed somewhat to the lax moderation.

    That said, I very much agree that this isn't a free speech issue. Ex suggests that in the marketplace of ideas, the crazy ones will lose out. But that's not the problem; the crazy stuff has already lost, as it's not even making an argument (or at least not a comprehensible one). It's not a matter of difficulty sorting out the good ideas from the bad ones, but fighting through all the chaff is just time-consuming, distracting, and annoying. And it hijacks the meaningful dialogue and runs off the good contributors, which is the real down side.

    Still think Ex is in a bit of a lose-lose bind, though, as he'd get criticized no matter his policy on this stuff.

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  15. ADTS -- think it's partly because, to be blunt, your posts are too long. AM used to have short commentary attached to news articles, upon which readers weighed in. Now he supplies the article, so to speak, in the form of longer commentary (so to speak). Still, some of your (by which I mean the "editorial staff" as a whole) posts are, once more to be blunt, not of interest to many people, or less bluntly, too long for easy consumption. I realize this might all be interpreted as mean-spirited, and I apologize for that. I'm just trying to work through the question as are you (even if I'm not doing so methodically.

    I don't think anyone's getting bent out of shape either by our traffic numbers or by anyone's constructive criticism. It's pretty plain to everyone involved that we'd write our posts differently and focus on different subjects (celebrity goings-on?) if our prime imperative were click-throughs or other measures of traffic.

    I've seen it said that 250 words is the perfect length for a blog post. I think it's likely that this is true, or at least closer to true than "however long it takes you to feel like you've vented your spleen." But I guess that's the point: we're not looking for the perfect-length blog post, but rather the post that's long enough to say what we have to say on the issue. At least that's the way I approach the subject.

    Maybe it would be a more productive exercise to tightly edit these things, at least from the perspective of improving my/our writing. But that's not really what I use this thing for, to be honest, and I can't imagine how much my commitment level and post count would suffer if I viewed blogging more as skill development and character building instead of rule-free ranting.

    Of course, we all recognize that there's probably a trade-off here in the interest level of the reader.

    But again, I digress. I don't think traffic was the point of Gunslinger's post, though the impact of certain formatting or editing decisions on the reader -- who is, after all, the person who makes this entire enterprise something different from scribbling notes on our bathroom mirrors -- is something that we all consider when making those decisions.

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  16. Gulliver:

    I think I see your point better, and I was probably more fixated on "driving traffic" than I ought to have been. So I - somewhat - misunderstood. Once more, damned if I know. I do still think that why I wrote may hold true. Yes, you're not trying to write about dresses at the Oscars. That said, I think perhaps the question or comment prompt is crucial. I've seen a few meandering ones on this board and decided not to read them. Perhaps constructing and honing the question or comment prompts more carefully would increase the people willing to take the time to (1) be intrigued and (2) write more intelligent comments. So I guess my suggestion would be somewhat akin to Orwell's "Politics of the English Language:" "Excise all unnecessary words."

    ADTS

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  17. I'm all for weeding out the trolls, as long as you don't do it based on poster's names ... ;-)
    Positroll

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  18. Interesting topic. I'd like to add a different thought to the discourse. To me, censoring comments has to do with the established purpose of the blog. If the blog is ment to highlight news articles and such, and not ment to foster discourse, then comments sections really aren't needed. The whole purpose of a comments section is to gain inputs from readers and engage in debates.

    AM used to be a great resource on COIN and related topics. I've found many resources and read books that commentators or Ex talked about. Now however, AM is more of a recepticle for articles/topics that interest Ex (similar to Drudge or Sullivan at the Atlantic) than it is a resource/discourse like it was in the old green/brown website days. As such, as posters here have mentioned, its not worth reading the comments there anymore.

    I've enjoyed this site because i feel it does aim to be a discourse-esque blog rather than a source for "Here's what you should know about". Towards that end, i don't care how long the posts are... and some censorship of comments (the old 'i'll know it when i see it' phrase about obscenity) may be necessary so that the purpose of the blog stays the same

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  19. I have to agree with Bernard Finel. Blogging is publishing. As a publisher, you choose what you publish - and that includes the review comments on the dust jacket. It's bunk to suggest that exercising judgment and imposing in-house standards and preferences is akin to censorship.

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  20. Well, today was kicking my ass so I'm just getting around to reading and thinking about this in detail.

    First and foremost, I was using "censor" flippantly. No one's First Amendment rights are guaranteed on this blog - that is not up for debate. My question was more about the philosophy behind that process.

    I'm inclined to agree that inflammatory, inappropriate, or whatever comments should be deleted. Know it when you see it and all that. Thankfully, and again, we've barely had to do it all and an explanation was provided as a comment. I imagine that we're going to keep that policy.

    As a lot of you mentioned, this blog is about the discourse and I know I would like to protect that. I'm not particularly interested in driving more traffic, but in driving the conversation. While I appreciate Madhu's best wishes for making it onto CSPAN, I don't imagine they would take the trouble to blur out my face (we are anonymous after all!), so CSPAN can wait and is not the impetus behind my blogging.

    And for Madhu - I'm glad you're not really mad at me!

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  21. Gulliver typed:
    I've seen it said that 250 words is the perfect length for a blog post. I think it's likely that this is true, or at least closer to true than "however long it takes you to feel like you've vented your spleen." But I guess that's the point: we're not looking for the perfect-length blog post, but rather the post that's long enough to say what we have to say on the issue.

    So let me get this straight. You don't see any merit in a ratio of words per post. And you recognize that there are historically derived metrics to measure successful blogging. Yet you decide to do something different. You don't get blogging. Have you even read the manual? This is graduate level of web surfing. Either you are blogging full court press or you are not blogging.

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  22. I agree with the "we as publishers have a responsibility to edit" argument and am all for cutting any comment that is inappropriate. Now, how we define inappropriate is another issue... I remember a feverish email exchange between Ink Spots contributors months ago about what to do about a comment that could (or not, depending on how you saw it...) be considered an ad hominem attack. Collective action is never easy, especially when it touches such sensitive issues as ethical judgement.

    Ex does not have this problem, and I honestly do not understand why he does not edit the comments on his blog--maybe for the same reason why he has stopped intervening in the comments in the past months: because of lack of time (although he understandably does not make this point). I stopped reading AM's comments when it started going really overboard, in spite of the fact that I usually learned much more from the comments than from the post itself (as did, I believe, most of AM readers). I also stopped commenting on AM--who wants to try to make a rational point in a room full of crazies?

    And Gunslinger, you should not apologize for using the word "censorship". Some things should be prevented from reaching wider audiences (well, obviously that's not a problem we have yet with this blog, I am just making a general point here). I know the First Amendment is pretty much sacred here, and for reasons that make perfect sense considering how the US was constituted as a nation. But where I come from (capital: Paris), you can be prosecuted (up to one year in jail) for hate speech. Many other countries have similar laws, which I don’t find particularly shocking. Again, my perspective…

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  23. But where I come from (capital: Paris), you can be prosecuted (up to one year in jail) for hate speech. Many other countries have similar laws, which I don’t find particularly shocking.

    This is probably going to launch a whole separate thread that has next to nothing to do with conflict or counterinsurgency, but I find this (and the philosophically similar law in the UK, where it's illegal to say mean things about other people -- so it's not just Francophobia!) to be really, really, really, unbelievably uncool. The whole laicite thing is already discomfort-inducing, but this takes it to a whole other level.

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  24. So let me get this straight. You don't see any merit in a ratio of words per post. And you recognize that there are historically derived metrics to measure successful blogging. Yet you decide to do something different. You don't get blogging. Have you even read the manual? This is graduate level of web surfing. Either you are blogging full court press or you are not blogging.


    Effort B+
    Execution C-

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  25. I'm having mixed thoughts the more I consider the issue. I do kind of wonder, how hard is it for a reader to filter out the trolls on a comments section? I don't care to read about Daniel Drezner's anatomy, but I had a decent exchange with "Scott Wedman" on a recent AM post, even though such posts (on Daniel Drezner's anatomy) existed in the comments section. I imagine the issue of true ad hominen attacks would be more salient on this blog, because, as Madhu noted, this is a more "cozy" venue. And I do suppose you, after all, *don't* want to become AM, where one *does* have to filter out such comments. I had derided the Pat Lang model, but I suppose it might be what it is because of who Pat Lang is, not necessarily because of what the model is. Obviously such a model - posts are only posted if approved by the moderator (and I wouldn't want my anonymity lost by having to give my real name or email, although I don't think that would be necessary) - would require more work. But I don't think that's your primary objection. I think it's that you yourselves - as indicated by the questions Gunslinger posed, and Alma's anecdote about a discussion about whether to take down an ad hominen attack - aren't sure how to proceed. Simply put, you want a constitution of sorts, or a manual or procedure - Madhu: a METHOD :) - of deciding what and how to post. Of course, that was probably the point all along, and slow me has just now realized it...

    ADTS

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  26. Schmedlap:

    "graduate level of web surfing"

    LOL

    ADTS

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  27. @Gunslinger - Sorry, to clarify: I mentioned censorship wrt Ex's comments about being a free speech fundamentalist - I took his meaning to be that constraints of any kind placed on that is tantamount to censorship or worse. Wasn't meant as a swipe at you guys.

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  28. @Mike - I didn't take it as a swipe, but thanks for the clarification. I completely agree with you.

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  29. To answer your questions directly - which seems to be a problem for some people- ;) -

    In open comment blogs, do the commenters have some ownership in the blog? Sure, absolutely, especially if they are return visitors who enjoy dialogue and not preaching.

    Is the blogosphere really the coffee-house of the internet age? Yes. Certainly beats Facebook and other electronic forums for serious discussion.

    Do bloggers have a responsibility to engage and respond to their readers in the comments section? Yes. I think if you want to put out a thought, it's with the intention of dialogue. Although not all bloggers feel this, obviously, due to volume or personalities.

    Are our readers happy with the conversations in the comments section? Yes. Don't change a thing.

    What are your thoughts on whether or not Ink Spots should have a comments policing policy and if so, what would that look like? As others have pointed out, this is up to your personal desires. Personally, I delete all spam ASAP, and I delete personal attacks on (my or other commenter) character. I occassionally correct grammatical errors. Other than that, I let it fly.

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  30. "To answer your questions directly - which seems to be a problem for some people- ;)" - "J"

    LOL

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