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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Web2.0 Expo Talk: Streams of Content, Limited Attention

I prepared a new talk today for Web2.0 Expo that I wanted to share with you:

“Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media”

The talk is about the shifts in information flow thanks to new kinds of technology, focusing on some of the challenges that we face because of the shifts going on.

Unfortunately, my presentation at Web2.0 Expo sucked. The physical setup was hard and there was a live stream behind me. I knew something was wrong because folks started laughing in the audience. Unable to see anything (the audience, the stream), I found myself closing down. And so I collapsed and read the whole thing, feeling mega low on energy and barely delivering my points. Le sigh. I feel like I failed the audience so, if you were in the audience, I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll get more out of reading the presentation than I got out of giving it.

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39 comments to Web2.0 Expo Talk: Streams of Content, Limited Attention

  • danah,

    I’m sorry to hear about the set up trouble and am happy to help you anytime you want to do these without slides or a stream and how you can be great even in those situations.

    But I want to reassure you (and I watched online) that what feels like an “off day” presentation-wise for you was still packed with so much fantastic stuff that really you delivered a lot. A whole lot. You have such an important voice and insight for our community and the web. I tweeted you some of my thoughts and responses.

    Anyway. Sending a reassuring hug and letting you know that you’re a pro. Your “closing down” is still pretty unbelievably good.

    (hugs)
    heather

  • Cesar

    this is that bad side of social media, especially when it’s set in a real-world / time environment. the presentation rocked and so did you! don’t let these jackasses bring you down!!

  • The really unfortunate part was the the nay-sayers were in the minority (looked like 4-5) and feeding off one another (and not followed generally by people). If it wasn’t for the scrolling tweets behind you, nobody would have known. In fact, like all trolls, they would have probably stopped at one tweet and listened.

    I wasn’t there in person, but was watching tweetdeck. From a not-in-the-audience, but reading the quotes religiously, it sounded like you did an amazing job.

    Now…I’m running off to read your awesome paper!

  • I really enjoyed your presentation and found the audience’s behavior unbelievably rude.

  • I’m not able to attend the W2E but was following the stream. It seems people on both sides of the podium were frustrated, and that’s a shame. However, it also seems these circumstances are shaping up to be a prime example of some of the dangers we are facing with information overload and so in some ways it’s serendipitous.

    The topics you are addressing are extremely important, and I’m looking forward to reading the full text of your presentation – at a leisurely pace :)

  • Thank you for posting your presentation here. I found it fascinating and also ironic, given that your presentation was hampered by competing attention/information streams. Thank you for all you do — your work is important.

  • Thanks for posting this Danah. Enjoyed your content-rich presentation and just wished you’d had the extra time you needed to deliver it!

  • Vijay

    The whole incident supported one of your background points very well – many audience members were more interested in the gossip in the twitter stream than the content itself. The content was great. Thank you.

  • Peter C

    Your presentation was a bit fast but what you were saying was so important that anyone who was paying too much attention to the stream lost out. i wonder what kind of conclusions you would draw about the dynamic of the tweet stream as it mixed with the ‘real’ world during your presentation. gotta be a fascinating case study in there somewhere

  • I was there in the front row and I will try to tell you my balanced judgment on what happened.
    I’m a CTO and evangelist and do very often public speaking. I spent a lot of time refining and learning how to present to an audience. So I want to share my empathy for what happened.
    Being on a stage is a very powerful BUT fragile situation, hence there need to be a balance of respect between the two parties.
    I think in this case it partially missed from both sides for different reasons.
    1. reading without looking at the audience is a form a non-respect, each presentation is based on bidirectional communication
    2. critics and jokes on twitter while you were obviously not able to read them is a form of non-respect (I was tweeting about how bad is reading in presentations and evoked nancy duarte too, so I am guilty of non-respect)
    3. The presentation contains a LOT of interesting content
    I’m sure there could be reasons and excuses from both sides BUT i hope you appreciate my openness and transparency in judging this.

    What to do next:
    1. moderate the twitter stream that goes on the stage – i don’t see why not I’m sure they did it before when O’Reilly and digg were on stage
    2. always have the twitter stream available to the presenter
    3. don’t read ever

    I hope you appreaciate my effort here :) be good

  • Dana,
    I feel that you were given the hardest task of talking about real information after a couple of causal interviews…

    I felt like you had the most information to share and found myself really enjoying the 2nd half of the dialog.

    The content you were talking about was GREAT – and the slide images were totally amazing… wish there was another chance – a different setting – wish there was a way to watch the whole thing again to process – and digest the information better.

    Awesome job with a hard crowd with a hard time slot!

  • I didn’t get a chance to come to #w2e this time, but certainly thought your written speech was incredibly thought provoking. Especially interesting to me was your ideas on stimulating content, and how this leads to an almost counter-intuitive idea that the good content does not rise to the top. This, along with your update of the “Daily Me” (I love your examples of people’s misunderstanding of MySpace and FriendFeed!), and most importantly, the new power of the modern information brokers – this is a very interesting and very scary change happening.

    Regarding the whole twitter stream thing, which I did spend some time on, I found it interesting that our notions of appropriateness are changing. Everyone (myself definitely included) has had poor showings on stage – to err is human (so is forgiveness, which we often tend to forget when looking at the person in the mirror), but a transformation in what is considered appropriate is certainly taking place.

    We’ve already seen it with cell phones on trains, texting during movies, and the like. But I’ve attended a number of conferences with twitterfall in the background (including with many horrid presentations), but haven’t seen what appears to have gone on during your presentation. Its almost as if the anonymity of snarks on threaded discussion boards has carried over to a more public forum. As an aside, in looking at the twitter accounts that spouted many of the snarks during your presentation, I was struck by the relatively high percentage of them that were “just” created – meaning they had no posts prior to the conference. Perhaps this is a new innovation in trolling – create an account ahead of time just for trolling. But the public nature of it is certainly going to cause changes in how twitter is used during conferences.

  • Perhaps it would be a really good thing for the presenter to be able to see the stream. Having comments made behind your back while you present is unfair.
    From the tweets and comments I have seen, it seems you may have given a much better presentation than you think.

  • Danah, I won’t accept your apology… As you did nothing wrong.

    I watched the live web stream and you rocked! If anything, it’s yet another credible Case Study that just proved your whole theory and all of your work as pretty darn accurate, not to mention fact based. It’s living Gospel.

    Having the audience fail to pay attention and get caught up in the very “Streams of content”, of which you are trying to educate them about is extremely scary.

    The irony that you proved your point as you presented it, without planning it this way, is just uncanny. “One never can see the thing in itself, because the mind does not transcend phenomena” (Hilaire Belloc) Your work transcends more than phenomena here, that’s for sure.

    I think many industry folks need a little INTROSPECTION before they can begin understanding the shifts in the media landscape. And that the “we” you spoke about was referring to them as industry folks as well as consumers. Hopefully they will continue to look to you and the many others leading this area for guidance.

    Shame on the boorish bunch that acted the way they did. I hope in the days to come you will be able to turn this into a positive plight. You didn’t fail the audience. The few that apparently ‘giggled like school girls’ failed you. Your talk was about the “Challenges” we all face. We as a society. Not just as Broadcast Media Folks.

    I look forward to leading these challenges head on and grateful to have you leading the charge. Thanks again for sharing.

  • John

    I was in the audience. I think in a different setting your speech would have been great, and I would guess (and a lot of twitter comments were saying this) it was hard to follow such a lot of content delivered so fast. I would love it if you re-recorded your presentation with just the voice and images, took the pace down a bit.

    It was clear you had a lot of great insights to deliver. And your images were beautiful and captivating. I do agree, though that you should avoid reading a live presentation. It’s not the exact words that count, but the thoughts. If you connect with your audience, sometimes you’ll express and idea differently; its the beauty of a live presentation.

    Nobody is used to presenting with tweets running behind them. You have to admit this is something totally new and either we are going to get used to it, or this is going to fall the way of a short-lived fad.

  • Mashka

    I am wondering, why are YOU sorry, not the people who tweeted. I read about it here
    http://www.internetevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=466&doc_id=184743
    and I feel angry for that stupid guys, who had a chance to listen to you and behaved like idiots. Good luck with your researches ( I research social networks in Russia and I am inspired by all your work:)

  • Bert Bates

    Danah, you rock!

    To the back-channelers… please, please share with us the full glory of your uninformed, ad-hoc ‘reckons’ – you non-contributing zeroes.

  • We’ve had similar experiences in the UK in the last few weeks at conferences with Twitterwalls. I’m sorry it happened to you – up till now its been lesser known speakers that have been worst hit, and the tendency was to diss them as not being able to connect with their audiences, but your experience is proof IMHO that its the mob behaviour dynamic that is the issue.

    In my opinion SocMed evangelists have been very shy to date about admitting the dark side, so you will not have died (on stage) in vain if it produces a better – and more nuanced – understanding of social media dynamics :-)

    That said, I think there is a valid criticism to take on board in reading too fast from a script – but an apology is the perfect response.

    Anyway, my notes on the actual essay are over here:

    http://broadstuff.com/archives/1962-Streams-of-Content,-Limited-Attention-and-Twitterwalls.html

  • Danah, I am betting the crowd was the issue. Your talk here at Penn State last year is still discussed as a turning point for our faculty to understand what is happening in the social media space. I’ve seen this crowd before and I have to say they are largely self-absorbed and way too quick to judge what they don’t get. There are clearly smart people at the event, but in a totally different space. I wouldn’t let one experience change what you are saying — we need strong research based voice in all of this!

  • danah, I didn’t get a chance to attend your talk, but wish I had.

    As you mentioned it in your paper, the whole issue is probably related to power: “if I – Mr. or Mrs Almost Nobody – can trash a conference speaker/a high-profile presenter on Twitter, it gives me power and reinforce my status as information broker (critics and snarky comments travel more quickly as you pointed).

    Moreover, I’m wondering if as a researcher/ an academic you were not perceived as an outsider (which you are not, I know) by some in attendance.

    Something very similar happened a month ago at a Higher Ed Web Conference. Funny thing is that the Chronicle of Higher Education just wrote about it today (Conference Humiliation: They’re Tweeting Behind Your Back http://bit.ly/29YY3E).

    In that specific case, the keynote speaker didn’t meet the expectations of the attendees AND was an “outsider.”

    I’ve heard so many great things about your talks (including the one you gave at Penn State) that I hope to get a chance to expose your great ideas and research about social networking and teens to more higher ed professionals in the near future.

  • Scoomey

    Danah, You failed nobody.

    What transpired was nothing more than a mob mentality where mindless drones got into a “let’s see who can be the wittiest tweeter at someone else’s expense” war. I found your presentation thought provoking and engaging.

    Thanks for hanging in there for those of us who were with you.

  • Danah,

    I apologize because I was one of those who laughed, and I’m sorry that you weren’t feeling well (today I was feeling sick with a cold myself).

    But please don’t take this talk as a failure. One should take situations like this and turn them to good. Just watch the video of Baratune Thurston’s talk. Forget that he’s a comedian – even without being humorous, it’s possible to shake up and engage the audience. I’ve seen people move around – ask questions to elicit audience engagement and participation do all kinds of things to *distract them from the distractions* and make them focus.

    There were many good things in your talk and I look forward to going back to the video to parse them out more slowly.

    I look forward to reading or seeing you again (perhaps at another Web 2.0 Expo).

  • Danah,

    I’m a student that attended yesterday’s Web 2.0 Expo and I caught your keynote. Please don’t apologize for your presentation. It was, in my opinion, the best one given. You didn’t fail the audience, we failed you. Thanks for posting the text from the presentation. Maybe those in the crowd who were too preoccupied with immature comments can view it and see the value they missed.

  • Reminds me of my 20 years teaching middle school children … you start a lesson on career preparation and ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The guys answer, “Park ranger, hunting club owner, professional football player,” and the girls answer, “Pediatrician, or I’m gonna get me a sugar daddy.” A few start laughing. A fight starts. What do you do next?

    I enjoyed reading your presentation. I’ve been thinking about successful “social networking” as in a lack of cookbook method, a natural inclination to seeing the teachable moment, the confidence to to just know naturally the right thing to say at the right time, to go with the flow. Like you say, “in flow.”

    I’m not a teacher anymore. I’m involved in serving IP communications companies now. But I apply lessons learned from teaching early teens to the type of companies and people who were in your audience at Web 2.0 that I enjoy dealing with today. I met you through WomenWhoTech on Twitter where I am suzannebowen. Would you consider creating an audio file, like a podcast of this presentation, post it online where we can listen? If you do that, be sure to Tweet the online location of it.

  • Hi danah,

    I’m sorry to hear you had such a rough go. But, this is an aberration. Your talk at our Symposium was outstanding (http://symposium.tlt.psu.edu/conference/keynotes/boyd). We sill have people referencing is six month’s later. In fact, I can tell you that several of the faculty proposals we received this year were directly influenced by your talk. I think there is no better compliment than that for a speaker and an educator.

    Take care,

    Jeff Swain
    Chair Person
    Penn State’s Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology

  • I’ve seen Danah piss off a number of crowds in the best possible way[1]. She speaks about complicated, sometimes uncomfortable topics, and if the audience can’t handle something more substantive than “Why Twitter is Teh R0xx0rz!”, that’s on them.

    [1] – The PDF talk on homophilly and the danger of institutionalizing class differences by social media platform fragmentation rocked. ROCKED!

  • david

    “If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity.”

    This is the brilliance of a creative mind. Thanks. The paper is excellent; the sectionon four core issues-inspired.

  • Sleeprun

    We have found that guys, especially type-a, tech guys minds:
    - Do not track what women are saying well
    - Do not pay attention for very long
    - On social media tend to regress quickly to: A. hostility, B. inappropriate sexual comments

    In my consulting work it’s critical to be able to put firm and instant boundaries and block these pretty typical behaviors. In most social situations where a type-a guy is stressed the hostile/aggressive behavior take over. Too bad, but predictable.

    Never take it personally.

  • Hi danah,
    I was at Web 2.0 New York City on Wednesday and Thursday and so I missed your talk. I’m sorry to have missed it.

    I found the live twitter feed to be annoying and distracting, and I tried not to read it.

    I thought that the people running Web 2.0 were very naive in thinking an unmoderated twitter stream that the speaker could not see — that it would work. Of course things were going to get off track and out of control. This is something that even people who control and engage difficult audiences for a living would have found difficult. Heather Gold was pretty good at using the live twitter stream, but she’s done live stand up comedy (though she may not call it that) and that’s what comics do, control an unruly audience. Also, by the next day, when I saw the keynotes, the streams were moderated, so there was no way your unfortunate situation would have been repeated. I think that if you are going to have live twitter streams displayed, they need to be moderated if they are displayed behind the speaker. I hope that, at the least, the Web 2.0 organizers learned something from your presentation. That should not have happened to you.

    I’m interested in what you think of having a live twitter stream behind th speaker, albeit a moderated one. Is that something you think is a good idea, does it work? I don’t like it, but does displaying the tweet stream in the background help to control the crowd and keep them engaged?

    On the comments in this thread — I do think that both engaging and controlling the audience is the job of the speaker, but the speaker has to be given the right tools to manage and engage the crowd. A live unmoderated twitter feed the speaker cannot see is not appropriate. It’s also hard for me to figure out the best way to engage and control an audience of people who IM and tweet to each other in the middle of a presentation, about the presentation!

  • Hi danah. I was in the audience and you did a great job. You should not apologize. You are a brilliant pioneer in this space and I don’t think people realized how fortunate we all were to have you there. I appreciate the time and effort you put into a great presentation. Thanks!

  • mszv – Personally, I think that nothing is gained from having a Twitter stream behind the presenter. The presenter is unable to consume that content when on stage so it becomes a way of publicly talking behind the speaker’s back. I think that there’s a lot to be gained by having a backchannel than anyone can be a part of if they so choose, but I think that forcing the audience to simultaneously consume a Twitter stream while watching a speaker (especially at the expense of their slides) provides little to the actual conversation. Even when people are just saying they like the talk, nothing is gained. Even when people are just taking notes about the talk, nothing is gained. I didn’t learn about the Twitter stream until right before I went on stage or I would’ve balked because I’ve never seen such heckle bots contribute to the dialogue at any event.

  • I’m an old time showbiz guy now doing web stuff and I can tell you, any person presenting a scholarly paper, or any work requiring sustained attention, that tries to compete with a twitter stream is going to FAIL.

    It’s like performing with animals or children. There’s no win in sight. IMHO.

  • Sleeprun

    ….me agin, remember that this is a SYMPTOM not the problem…the problem was that her ideas and thinking blew the brain fuses of a lot of the audience…

    ….that’s why we avoid conferences…if it’s not already accepted wisdom…ppls defense get triggered…they either zone-out or flame-out!!……who cares…the research on group information processing has this covered pretty well……

    …we save real ideas for selected groups who already “get it”…pablum for the rest….getting slapped down like this is a good quick signal for her to avoid these kind of forums…the rest of us would prob even pay to get her latest and very quickest ideas…

    ….taking it personally from either sender of receiver doesn’t track the data…it’s largely unconscious reflex….externalizing behavior…..pretty boring…

    …in any somed you gotta expect it and slap them back down immediately….and block ‘em….sure they’ll change…they’ll get worse!!…..clyde knowz….

  • Dan

    I attended the Web 2.0 expo Tuesday and Wednesday and saw your presentation. I was following along with what felt like a bit rushed, more scholarly than sales oriented talk (unlike those that preceded you) until the person next to me gave me nudge and pointed to the twitter grafiti wall. I admit to laughing, quipping, and completely falling out of the flow of your presentation and apologize for my lack of attention and decorum as well as my snarky comment.

    On Wednesday, the organizers began screening the comments and they seemed suitably innocuous for Baratunde Thurston’s Twitter Humor Review. However, I noticed a bit of a return to the off-the-cuff snark during Douglas Rushkoff’s more provocative presentation on Radical Abundance.

    It seems that the more subtle the speaker’s point, the more impatient and nasty the audience became. While it’s easy enough to blame the new tech in the room for this shoddy behavior, I’m not sure we’re seeing anything new at all here. It certainly didn’t feel new to me from where I sat. Consider the recent Town Hall meetings around health care – substantive discussions of important issues were subsumed in cat calls and shouted rumors.

    That said, having participated in this bad behavior, I noticed something else about the way it felt to put something on that wall. The twitterwall subverted twitter’s more symmetric conversation model of communication. Posting to the wall was like creating and sharing a public secret about the speaker (a little like political grafiti except it wasn’t anonymous).

    The wall made a spectacle of the crowd’s impatience and anxiety feeding on the speaker’s inability to respond. That spectacle united us not as a single group receiving challenging ideas from a thoughtful orator but as quite separate individuals struggling to listen, read, respond, and make sense of the event. We moved from web conference to twitter circus.

    Again, my apologies and my sincere thanks for speaking and publishing your ideas. I concur with earlier posts that yours was truly the most substantive keynote of the event.

  • Sleeprun

    i’ve been listening to your vids….sum feelings:

    - your stuff is VERY rich and kool…blah, blah, blah
    - it’s waaaaay too rich for general audience, ‘course you can always frame it for them
    - like your topic, your style is highly anecdotal, impressionistic and fast-constant stream….that’s kool but not many brains and even fewer guys brains can track this kinda presentation…we have 1/2 the verbal brain space of women…!

    overall, i would suggest that what you’re missing is that most of this is driven by mating (and associated resource) searching, the age of adopters and those putting energy into determines this…then it seems to move into family resource negotiation…

    …mating stuff is age bounded because of the internal cohort competition and resource sharing…thus the generation gap…if not looked at from this grounding, we end up spending awhole lotta time dealing with symptoms/epiphonomena…that feels triggered but is pretty uninformative….that’s my prob w/ most soc/pol activism, a whole lotta energy on symptoms….

    …the depth of your empathy for kids and the time you’ve spent on field work shows….that feels like your core….very valuable and tough to find….if you don’t have any interest in brain stuff team up with some one, prob a guy, who can handle that….there is a whole proposition on this which is for another time…

    ….the idea of “context” is fascinating…there are so many different kinds now…mental, tech, physical, social/sub-grps, apps, cultural, national…etc…..gender…gender targets…huh!…

    …like the idea marketing “preying” online…that iz how our brains code it….unconsciously….mainly….

    …oh, yea, ther iz the whole frontal lobe maturing thang…at play here…

    courze u know all thiz already….

    …i happen to agree wid ur social activism stuff…and say let’s use same tools that rightwingnuts and repubs use….!

    …tryin to see adaptative advantage of stranger danger since other adults are resource rich, jobs, referrals, money…:
    - keeps kids resources tied to parents – “selfish”….. that makez sense
    - but separates kids from adult resources outside the family which in this hyper competitive econ is not good…

    …kids have to go along as long as parents control their living resources…

    … ultimately, like all my political action friends i’d like some data that conscious action makes a difference, with blowback taken into account…i know politcal action, like religion, feels real good NOW! but….seems pretty pop to me….

  • i’ve been listening to your vids….sum feelings:

    - your stuff is VERY rich and kool…blah, blah, blah
    - it’s waaaaay too rich for general audience, ‘course you can always frame it for them
    - like your topic, your style is highly anecdotal, impressionistic and fast-constant stream….that’s kool but not many brains and even fewer guys brains can track this kinda presentation…we have 1/2 the verbal brain space of women…!

    overall, i would suggest that what you’re missing is that most of this is driven by mating (and associated resource) searching, the age of adopters and those putting energy into determines this…then it seems to move into family resource negotiation…

    …mating stuff is age bounded because of the internal cohort competition and resource sharing…thus the generation gap…if not looked at from this grounding, we end up spending awhole lotta time dealing with symptoms/epiphonomena…that feels triggered but is pretty uninformative….that’s my prob w/ most soc/pol activism, a whole lotta energy on symptoms….

    …the depth of your empathy for kids and the time you’ve spent on field work shows….that feels like your core….very valuable and tough to find….if you don’t have any interest in brain stuff team up with some one, prob a guy, who can handle that….there is a whole proposition on this which is for another time…

    ….the idea of “context” is fascinating…there are so many different kinds now…mental, tech, physical, social/sub-grps, apps, cultural, national…etc…..gender…gender targets…huh!…

    …like the idea marketing “preying” online…that iz how our brains code it….unconsciously….mainly….

    …oh, yea, ther iz the whole frontal lobe maturing thang…at play here…

    courze u know all thiz already….

    …i happen to agree wid ur social activism stuff…and say let’s use same tools that rightwingnuts and repubs use….!

    …tryin to see adaptative advantage of stranger danger since other adults are resource rich, jobs, referrals, money…:
    - keeps kids resources tied to parents – “selfish”….. that makez sense
    - but separates kids from adult resources outside the family which in this hyper competitive econ is not good…

    …kids have to go along as long as parents control their living resources…

    … ultimately, like all my political action friends i’d like some data that conscious action makes a difference, with blowback taken into account…i know politcal action, like religion, feels real good NOW! but….seems pretty pop to me….

  • whoever decided to put this live stream behind you needs to be fired.

    if it was you, sorry. it wasn’t a good idea.

    its like letting people walk around behind you on stage – just simply does not make any sort of sense whatsoever.

  • MLG

    It’s too bad that the conference planners didn’t set up a monitor for the presenters to view as they were speaking/performing. Although it might be a bit distracting for the presenter, it would be a totally different ball game for the twecklers in the audience. You might have gotten the message to slow down your delivery a bit and done so, and the audience would have been satisfied. Furthermore, if the audience members knew you could see their tweets, they might have been more respectful.

    The bright side of this is that we all learned something from the experience (I hope!).

  • lau

    danah,
    just saw the video at the web 2.0 expo site, after watching several of your presentations through the years i couldn’t believe it could have been so bad.
    So, briefly, the content was inspiring and thought provoking. Your speech was clear (i’m not an English native speaker and didn’t have any issue following you) and the graphics great.
    I do believe it’s a bad idea to use live tweets during a rich content-oriented presentation, probably this technology is more suited to a Q&A session after the talk. More so when you have an attention-challenged audience that cannot try to understand what they are listening to before starting to criticize it.
    In any case the words of Schiller/Asimov could apply: “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

    warm regards,
    Lau

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