My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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PDF Talk: “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”

Two years ago this week, I wrote a controversial essay in an attempt to locate divisions that I was seeing play out between MySpace and Facebook. This week, at the Personal Democracy Forum, I revisited these ideas in a new talk:

The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online

Needless to say, this talk provoked some discussion which is why I thought it might be helpful to share it. What you have here is the crib from the talk. Comments are VERY much welcome!

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27 comments to PDF Talk: “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”

  • jon

    Great talk, danah. It’s been pretty cool watching the tweetstream and seeing how it’s shaped conversation. I remember describing your “American class divisions” essay to people as *the* most important essay to read when if first came out, and it’s been amazing watching the ideas develop since then.

    jon

  • Aisha O'Brien

    Hi Danah! I stumbled across this from a Facebook friend (heh). Thanks so much for saying/writing this!

    I’m helping out the City of Las Vegas in their social media initiatives and developing social marketing strategies in their Office of Business Development/Redevelopment Agency.

    I will show this to all those involved so that we don’t make the mistake of discounting a very large portion of the downtown constituency.

    Cheers!

  • danah,

    I was lucky enough to see you give this talk in person at the PDF; I very much enjoyed it and wanted to make two comments here.

    First, substantively: while I entirely agree with the substance your analysis of the “sorting out” or “disaggregation” of communities online, I wonder whether you overstate the (in your opinion, it seems, bad) normative consequences of this communal sorting out. In short: is the communal banding together by “tribe” online always bad? In particular, one of your regular citations (Nancy Fraser) has pointed out that subaltern counter-publics exist both in contradistinction to the Habermasian public sphere, but also exist so subaltern groups can build solidarity and political power. In particular, there is a long tradition of a feminist press, the African-American press, labor press, etc. existing as a means to take political power away from those formally certified by the mainstream (white, bourgeois, male) public sphere. While there is no doubt that these counter-publications come together in part from their exclusion, they also come together to fight for themselves. In short, I’m worried that this paper overvalues the deliberative and formal equality promised by the online public sphere and undervalues the agonistic potential of counterpublics.

    Second, less formally: I am concerned with your use of “digital white flight” in this paper (which was a much tweeted phrase that came after your presentation and obviously has good attention-getting value). While there are obviously very serious consequences to the Myspace / Facebook developments you describe, “actual” white flight had the consequence of demolishing entire urban cores and helped to impoverish an entire generation of structurally disadvantaged communities. By calling the move from Myspace to Facebook “white flight” I feel you give short shrift to the seriousness of earlier instances of white flight.

    Despite those concerns, I think this was a great intervention, one which is much needed in the utopian realm of events like the personal democracy forum. Hope to see the dissertation as a book soon!

  • Great essay and discussion. I touched on similar issues (far more cursorily) in my Ignite talk at Google I/O “Why are we bigoted about Social networks?” (and at SCS last year)

    http://bit.ly/socialbigot

    While you focus on MySpace and Facebook and the US audience, I see the same pattern in other social networks worldwide too, though I haven’t seen as good qualitative research as you have done there (oddly, all the US academics seem to be studying Facebook… homophily strikes again?)

    As we start to use social networks to provide peer-filtered media, are we in danger of reinforcing these homophilic groups, or are the many publics a buttress against the existing homogenous assumed public?

  • Suzanne Aurilio

    Great piece. I would disagree that we don’t have a language for talking about issues of race and class and stratification. I think we have quite a lot of critical orientations, theories, etc that span across the social sciences and are specific to the U.S.

    What I don’t see are those folks and their ideas hanging out with us, digitally-driven folks. There are several reasons why that might be.
    Conversations about the digital divide have all but vanished in the last 5 or so years. In the U.S., we’re all supposed to be more or less hooked up now. Those of us who are both networked up and oriented to social justice may just assume all is well and good. But when I look at the names and faces of the people in my digital worlds, I notice the homogeneity.

    Facebook is like a gated community in many respects. I feel it often. I posted a critique to an Obama thread on healtcare reform and it was deleted. Let’s keep our lawns looking tidy.

    I’m doing an ethnography of “learning in the wild” of Second Life, which is without a doubt an adult fringe culture. In some respects, you’d expect some boundary pushing on these social issues, or at least I would. I guess I’m naive, when I think fringe, I think left fringe. Ha! Anyway, not only is it amazingly White, it’s filled with lots of idealized-bodies and stereotyped gendering. In an environment where you can “be” anything, that’s indeed telling.

    There’s lot to figure out.

  • danah,

    An hour ago, a Twitter friend forwarded your essay
    to me after he noticed that I was having a conversation about
    the fact that twitter removed both “fakeassniggas” from
    the trending topics an hour ago and “omg black people”
    last night.

    (Background: Last night, during The BET Awards, the trending
    topics were nearly all Black singers, rappers, etc.)
    http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:aisNLRhOHm8J:omgblackpeople.tumblr.com/+omgblackpeople.tumblr.com&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

    My general contention was, why do we expect for people to
    be any less racist online than they are offline.

    As a Black woman, and a feminist who writes about
    class and pop culture, it as affirming to hear that
    other folks are having these conversations as well.

    I look forward to reading more.

    -Renina

  • Ben Masel

    I played in myspace a lot as an outreach tool for my no-budget 2006 US Senate campaign in Wisconsin, running against Herb Kohl in the democratic primary. Here, at least, the clearest divide between the platforms is rural vs urban/suburban, which also overlays class issues.

    I put muy time into Myspace mostly because the culture’s more friendly to spamming, a precedent set by bands, who’d trained me in using the site for outreach. The site’s tools are also more suitable for cold calls. I could use “browse’ to make a first contact in a town where i didn’t know anyone, and then follow their friend loop. Building my network around musicians was also very effective, by the week of the primary I had over 51,000 votes against an incumbent who had Party backing, and spent $3.4 million out of pocket. My numbers surprised alll the pros, who’d figured I’d do well on college campuses, but no-one expected me to hit 15 and 20% in rural townships, where I often outpolled the 2 established Republicans running for the Attorney General nomination.

    My issue focus on the drugwar played well with the MySpace demographic, which is after all the kids who get busted, since suburban kids have basements to get high in. The Facebook users may intellectually oppose the War on Drugs, but it’s a lower priority since they’re less impacted.

  • Steve

    danah,

    As you have done before, you position yourself, at least de facto, as the conscience of your profession – or perhaps more accurately of your social and educational milieu. To use an expression I learned among poor urban white folks of my acquaintance, you are “good people”. Thank you.

    The issues of class and education loom large (in absentia) among discussions of teen culture, online culture and modern life. Indeed, they loom as large as the proverbial “elephant in the living room” which is a comnmonly used metaphor for the unacknowledged central dysfunction in an environmant of denial.

    I first noticed some years back that when I would explore analyses of teen culture available online, they were extremely privelege-centric. One writer (journalist – not academic) even acknowledged openly that they had found their interview respondents at the local mall (the respondents featured in the article were a cheerleader and a star (male) athlete).

    At this level there is no great mystery as to the source of bias. Without being able to cite stats I think it is safe to assume that the largest consumer of research about teen culture is the marketing industry. (If you are not familiar with the Frontline episode “Merchants of Cool” I recommend it. It is accessible from the Frontline web page along with a host of comentary and resources). For a marketer a teen must be defined as a teen with disposable income. Other categories are simply not of professional interest. This introduces a whopping bias into the research community right from the get.

    Then, of course, we must acknowledge that researchers themselves are of the professional and educated “class” (I use quotes because this is not at all a class in the classical Marxian sense.) And this creates a lens through which perceptions are inevitably filtered, despite the researcher’s best efforts at “objectivity”. (And I rather suspect that “objectivity” itself is somewhere between a myth and an epistomological pathology).

    Class distinctions in online environments are interesting, but I don’t think they are the entire “elephant”. Perhaps they are the trunk of the beast. However, there is still more to be discovered, including the pile of poop at the far end.

    I am interested in questions of how class distinctions and educational distinctions play out in areas such as the following.

    Degree of Internet access.

    Frequency of Internet use.

    For what purposes is the Internet used.

    Does the quality of Internet access available as a high school student degrade significantly after one leaves high school and enters the world of work – or, for the priveleged, college.
    (Or, can you afford high speed access working at Mickey D’s)

    There is an interplay between online relationship and relationship in physical (“meat”) space. How does the balance and the dynamic differ among classes. How much of one’s relationship time is spent online versus offline.

    If you are online, how likely is it that someone of your
    acquaintance from another generation will also be online?

    I would expect to see a class/education bias in all the above areas. I have not explicitly mentioned SNS issues, but the points I indicate would obviously extend there.

    There is much more I could say about all this. As a college educated person whose current group of friends is almost exclusively from the urban poor, I have a bit of an unusual perspective. But I must stop somewhere and get back to my day job.

    danah, thank you again for having the courage to explore areas of class online. I encourage you to keep pushing the envelope.

    Warmest good wishes,

    -Steve

    P.S.

    I should add that I see some positive benefit in the fact that class distinctions are now observable online. Because of the well known features of networked publics, class distinctions online are more readily available to observe (compared to traditional ofline venues) and probably physically safer to explore, challenge, and transform. This could probably be leveraged into something constructive, given the appropriate commitment.

    “The street finds its own uses for things” -William Gibson

    P.P.S. An issue twitching around in the rear of my brain has just found formulation as follows. Do more educated and less educated people think differently – both in style and content of thought? How does this affect their relationship to social technology?

  • “Digital White Flight?” the literature you link to in your speech doesn’t say that AT ALL. In fact, it shows that African-Americans make up roughly the same percentage of the population on both sites.

    The only correlations that are backed up by that study are education level (are you saying education “is the new class”?). The fact that Latinos make up a relatively small percentage on Facebook could be language, again not a class distinction.

    Your “ethnographies” seem eerily close to “ignorant/arrogant stereotypes”. Maybe you should think about the completely un-hidden class/race/ethnic biases in your own thinking.

  • Absolutely fascinating. As a marketer, the line that stuck with me was: “If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others.”

    To Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg above: according to 2009 ComScore, Facebook is 87% white/13% non-white, while MySpace is 82% white/18% non-white. Facebook also skews coastal and higher income (27% have incomes of $100k or more) while MySpace skews midwest/southern and lower income (only 18% make $100k or more).

  • Robyn Sewall

    I stumbled onto your speech through a link from an internet class I am taking. I’m a sixth grade teacher in a Title I school, and thought your speech was very interesting and right on the money! My students all use MySpace, but a friend of mine, who teaches at a predominately caucasian, wealthier school across town, says her students are much more into Facebook. I found what you said very profound. Although I live in a highly educated town – Huntsville, AL, home of NASA, we are still very segregated. The African American residents live on the North side of town and the Caucasian’s live on the South side of town. I find this very troubling, especially when I here that my friend’s students get to partcipate in activities my students don’t get to, because they are PTSA sponsored events. My school is lucky to have five parents join the PTSA. It saddens me that it has bled into the social networking sites as well. Just when I think we’ve come so far, something comes to my attention that makes me wonder if we’ll ever truly find a balance.

  • Danah, thank you for your work which raises consciousness about online class politics. It’s very interesting and troubling to me. In my world of higher education enrollment and marketing, most of our colleges are focusing their efforts in Facebook and not MySpace, proving your point and exacerbating further the divide.

    I hope more digital elite will grapple with what’s happening. But isn’t this all to be expected? Wouldn’t one expect homophily to take place when humans find online communities? I’m a twitter user, and just as you infer at the end of your presentation, I find people with whom I have no social media contact when I go into certain trending topics. For most of the time, I’m generally interacting with my same class. And isn’t it natural for teenagers to behave online just as they do offline? Why would I think they would behave otherwise? It all makes me concerned and anxious, but as I think about it, should we expect people to have different values when they interact online? I am not condoning it, rather wondering if there is any hope for change online.

    Thank you. Keep raising the issues.

  • Interesting article. However, I think you are going about this in the exact opposite way. As an above comment pointed out, online spaces are a reflection of offline spaces (and of course vice-versa now): how did Facebook begin? As a college social networking site. What is our college attendance rate re: race? d

    Facebook and myspace are different animals. Facebook, especially, integrates itself (or attempts to) with actual space – events, gatherings, etc.. while myspace has just recently added this feature. Before that, myspace was a largely self contained space.

    Facebook is moving toward universal online spaces
    as myspace moves toward a more integrated online-offline space

    in 1-2 years i bet we’ll see these numbers even out if myspace cleans up its ad-infested, complicated mess. People leave myspace not because of the kind of people on it, but because you cant try to find anyone without music blasting in your face and pages that take forever to load. (which they dont seem that skewed in the first place)

    How many people have both accounts?

    I also think its tough to draw a “white flight” argument without introducing economics. And the use of Ghetto is really inappropriate. I see no metaphor here.

    Dannah, why dont you go into the actual ghettos and conduct your research – maybe see how that turns out? See if people go on myspace or facebook in the ghetto and what they think of this so called Digital Ghetto metaphor.

    There is so much more going on here than you detail, its pretty ridiculous.

  • Hi, danah. Marvelous essay, as usual. However, I do think that Ben Polinsky, just above, has a good point about the origins of these sites. Facebook, after all, aimed itself at first at an educated, upper- to upper-middle-class audience, and so it still has that kind of exclusive atmosphere. MySpace, by contrast, went for mass appeal from the start.

    One aspect I’d be interested in learning more about is whether people who migrate from MySpace to Facebook see it as a form of social upward mobility; in other words, if they’re consciously aspiring to join what they see as a “better” class of people. Not so much white flight, as class envy. Have you looked at this?

    b.

  • Giacomo D.

    I think the web in general will favour fragmentation. This is a peculiar effect of the web model which makes it quite different from TV (and radio).

    The TV model, a model based on great audiences concentrated at the same time on the same channel has many effects, three of them are worth to be noticed here:
    1. concentration of power in who is able to control mass media (see Mr.Berlusconi in Italy)
    2. mass conformism
    3. some sense of common background

    The first two items of this set are bad for democracy and healthy democracies tried to create antibodies against them (more or less successfully), while the third item is a good one, in the sense that it allowed people from different corners of a single nation to develop some sort of common experience, unfortunately this good effect was contextually hampered by the fact that TV markets are fundamentally national markets and that the common experience was always a passive experience.

    The web model is a model based on fragmentation instead of concentration and it will have different effects on society because of this.
    In some sense it is symmetrical to the television one:
    -1. less massive concentration of power (and so more democracy)
    -2. less conformism (and so more freedom)
    -3. more sense of individualism (and so more emancipation)

    Ehi, wait… is it true?

    mhm…
    +1. Google is the first example of successful massive accumulation of communication power, maybe others will come in the future
    +2. Fashion is not dead, yes in some ways it’s becoming more weird than it possibly was before, I mean less controlled by major entertainment labels and so even common people can have their 15 minutes of fame on YouTube, but, wait, wait… what about massive storing of statistical data about consumer habits and preferences by Facebook or MySpace… well, the control model is adapting…
    +3. people do not like to feel alone, and so they started to aggregate on the web as they did in the real life. However here the lack of the “television glue” comes up.
    Of course nations pre-date television and radio and they developed following they’re own historical paths, but I think these media were crucial in the developing this sense of national community.
    Now they will slowly fade away, well, television will remain, but channels will multiply and it will become more and more an on-demand-I-watch-when-I-have-time thing instead of a synchronized-mass-passive-imbibing.

    I do not know how it was for former generations but for mine (’79/Italy) it was quite common to pass the morning break at elementary school talking about what we had seen on the TV the day before and still today, when I meet someone of around my age which I do not know, I have an always ready ice-breaking topic for starting a conversation: Japanese cartoons we watched in the ’80s!
    Well this happens in some way also on the web where you can exchange your favourite videos, songs and so on… but there is no more that nation wide effect, you share stuff with smaller communities and communities of people that already share your taste. There will be no more, or at least will be quite reduced, that force that in some way compelled you to share some daily experience with your neighbours, even without knowing them…
    So individualism reveals not to be, as clearly highlighted in the paper, the actual effect, the main point becomes your relational conglomerate.

    Personally I think this will revive a kind of tribalism in the social approach and, for what said above, a revival of some kind of feudalism in politics, but probably in my view I am too strongly influenced by what I see here in Italy.

    Anyway, I think the root problem is that we need some kind of ‘social force’ in order to overcome the ‘homophily’ (or better to call it ‘self-ghettoization’?) tendency which seems to be something ‘anthropological’ as you said, but at the same time we are that kind of person which put a lot of stress upon freedom and plurality…

  • Giacomo D.

    I think the web in general will favour fragmentation. This is a peculiar effect of the web model which makes it quite different from TV (and radio).

    The TV model, a model based on great audiences concentrated at the same time on the same channel has many effects, three of them are worth to be noticed here:
    1. concentration of power in who is able to control mass media (see Mr.Berlusconi in Italy)
    2. mass conformism
    3. some sense of common background

    The first two items of this set are bad for democracy and healthy democracies tried to create antibodies against them (more or less successfully), while the third item is a good one, in the sense that it allowed people from different corners of a single nation to develop some sort of common experience, unfortunately this good effect was contextually hampered by the fact that TV markets are fundamentally national markets and that the common experience was always a passive experience.

    The web model is a model based on fragmentation instead of concentration and it will have different effects on society because of this.
    In some sense it is symmetrical to the television one:
    -1. less massive concentration of power (and so more democracy)
    -2. less conformism (and so more freedom)
    -3. more sense of individualism (and so more emancipation)

    Ehi, wait… is it true?

    mhm…
    +1. Google is the first example of successful massive accumulation of communication power, maybe others will come in the future
    +2. Fashion is not dead, yes in some ways it’s becoming more weird than it possibly was before, I mean less controlled by major entertainment labels and so even common people can have their 15 minutes of fame on YouTube, but, wait, wait… what about massive storing of statistical data about consumer habits and preferences by Facebook or MySpace… well, the control model is adapting…
    +3. people do not like to feel alone, and so they started to aggregate on the web as they did in the real life. However here the lack of the “television glue” comes up.
    Of course nations pre-date television and radio and they developed following they’re own historical paths, but I think these media were crucial in the developing this sense of national community.
    Now they will slowly fade away, well, television will remain, but channels will multiply and it will become more and more an on-demand-I-watch-when-I-have-time thing instead of a synchronized-mass-passive-imbibing.

    I do not know how it was for former generations but for mine (’79/Italy) it was quite common to pass the morning break at elementary school talking about what we had seen on the TV the day before and still today, when I meet someone of around my age which I do not know, I have an always ready ice-breaking topic for starting a conversation: Japanese cartoons we watched in the ’80s!
    Well this happens in some way also on the web where you can exchange your favourite videos, songs and so on… but there is no more that nation wide effect, you share stuff with smaller communities and communities of people that already share your taste. There will be no more, or at least will be quite reduced, that force that in some way compelled you to share some daily experience with your neighbours, even without knowing them…
    So individualism reveals not to be, as clearly highlighted in the paper, the actual effect, the main point becomes your relational conglomerate.

    Personally I think this will revive a kind of tribalism in the social approach and, for what said above, a revival of some kind of feudalism in politics, but probably in my view I am too strongly influenced by what I see here in Italy.

    Anyway, I think the root problem is that we need some kind of ‘social force’ in order to overcome the ‘homophily’ (or better to call it ‘self-ghettoization’?) tendency which seems to be something ‘anthropological’ as you said, but at the same time we are that kind of person which put a lot of stress upon freedom and plurality…

  • dana,

    You might want to look at this paper.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/325/5936/48

    I think it is an explanation for the Nietzsche quote

    “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

    Even if you try to avoid something having an impact on you, just by trying to avoid it having an impact on you it will.

    People associate with others like themselves because of homophily. If they associate with people not like themselves, they change, they become like the people they are associating with.

  • Great talk. However, as a young person who switched from MySpace to Facebook (upon transitioning from suburban HS to a liberal arts college) I think you avoid a major narrative.

    Around 2006, MySpace began to become flooded with spam messages, virus messages etc.

    No one — especially those early users who were used to spam-free social networking, and likely privileged/tech-savvy — wanted to be a part of that. Facebook was spam and virus-free. That is definitely a part of the story.

    Beyond that, I think there’s some great evidence and analysis here of how class colors our social networking experience.

  • Soryahh

    Am really interested in this talk and the work you have been doing. I wonder if it is very US centered as I don’t see the same divisions in my students in the UK. I like your calmness and sense logic about social networking which is often absent when words such as teenagers and Facebook are discussed.
    Thanks

  • Really fascinating stuff. Will definitely share the info. :)

  • I’m seeing an interesting side of this topic – I’ve been in games and entertainment for a 15 years or so – we’ve been seeing casual gaming going after FB integration. Grabbing your friends from FB and adding them to your in-game cohort – making the game more personal, more ‘sticky’ from day one. Now we’re seeing a crossover with iphone as well. If/when FB becomes one of the major handheld game platforms – which are growing competition with traditional consoles (Xbox/Playstation) they’re going have more clout in the social networkign arms race. MS by contrast is not getting the same attention – perhaps the FB tech is just easier to work with – or perhaps dev’s know instinctively MS users are less likely to have disposable income to harvest.

  • Arthur Lange

    That’s a really interesting point that you make. I think online social networking is a dangerous hotbed of risk. Nowadays there’s no telling who is looking at your profile.

  • It strikes me (as a noobe in Britain) that the chattering classes are terrified of social media because it is reforming the lines of communication.

    I agree that the political economy will influence digital use but the ‘chatter’ is more that people who are currently dominant are not using it. Endless smirks about Twitter by Wimbledon commentators, for example.

  • Writeup in the NYTimes: Does Social Networking Breed Social Division (currently linked from the NYTimes homepage). Congrats!

  • I do see the argument but I contend there is another dynamic emerging in the social networking landscape that is more dominant than socio-economics and that dynamic is trust. This I believe is becoming far valuable in determining how social networks (and even the next gen web for that matter) will evolve.

    I do not discount the social fragmentation you describe, but I contend, trust in the case of Facebook and a lack of trust in the case of Myspace was the key factor. This AdAge article explains this point based on casual conversation I had one day with a 16 year old. http://adage.com/digitalnext/post?article_id=137602

    Judy Shapiro
    Sr. VP, Paltalk

  • I, an Indian-American woman, ditched the “ad-infested, complicated mess” known as MySpace specifically for that reason, but kept the FB one. FB also has better privacy settings so that I can keep certain handpicked people in and creeps/pervs/younameit (plenty on MySpace) out.

    With that disclosure out of the way, why do you see whites and non-whites self-segregating online based on the offerings of their online hangouts as a bad thing? MySpace offers colorful wallpaper & ways to dress up your blog and, most importantly, the ability to play music; color, pizazz, music and their culture are more important to African-American and Latino populations than most white people (trust me, I moved from New Orleans to middle Ohio – not much color, joie de vivre or music here). Do you have a problem with predominantly black or Hispanic nightclubs vs. white ones? With that in mind, perhaps a majority of non-whites just like to hang out in their own scene, rather than white people rejecting them for “whiter, more preppy” venues as you think. Many Americans awakened to social media with MySpace – groups & cliques formed their bonds there. Some got into their late 20s and early 30s and ditched MySpace for Facebook; others stayed on due to allegiance and a much better time. Yes, given the choice between standing next to a white person or a black person, most white people will probably choose a white person, but I don’t think that white people leave MySpace because of “ghetto-fication” or white fright/flight.

    This nation does suffer a huge digital divide, I don’t doubt that for one second. The biggest problem we New Orleans bloggers faced was getting the poor, who suffered Katrina and The Flood the worst, to blog about their experiences. Forget the obvious fact that many poor don’t have computers or smartphones, you had to offer them motivation to get into social media: what’s in it for them? Their kids & grandkids got onlline, though – onto MySpace to find music and to interact virtually with their real-life friends, especially those displaced by the storm. A circle like that is hard to break. What’s in it for them to move wholesale to Facebook?

    I’d also be interested to see the MySpace vs. Facebook breakdown by age.

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