on being notable in Wikipedia

Back in July, Justin Hall created a Wikipedia entry for me. I found this very peculiar. I was also mildly intrigued by how i was described in such a setting. Since then, some of my colleagues have edited the entry and my advisors have taunted me continuously. The most that i could say was weird weird weird.

A month ago, a discussion emerged in the Talk section about whether or not i was notable and then i was nominated for deletion. My colleagues (who are also dear friends) were accused of crafting a vanity page. People wanted “proof” that i was notable; they wanted proof of every aspect of my profile. Then, when people in my field stood up for my entry in the discussion for deletion, they were attacked for not being Wikipedians. This was really intriguing to me, especially when Barry Wellman (who is an expert on social networks and online interaction) stood up for me. (I was completely honored.) Wikipedia is not prepared to handle domain experts. Of course, this is a difficult issue – how do you know someone is a domain expert? Still, something felt strange about the whole thing.

As the conversation progressed, people started editing my profile. While the earlier profile felt weird, the current profile is downright problematic. There are little mistakes (examples: my name is capitalized; there is an extra ‘l’ in my middle name; i was born in 1977; my blog is called Apophenia). There are other mistakes because mainstream media wrote something inaccurate and Wikipedia is unable to correct it (examples: i was on Epix not Compuserv and my mother didn’t have an account; i was not associated with the people at Friendster; i didn’t take the name Boyd immediately after Mattas and it didn’t happen right after my mother’s divorce; i didn’t transfer to MIT – i went to grad school at the MIT Media Lab; i’m not a cultural anthropologist). Then there are also disconcerting framing issues – apparently my notability rests on my presence in mainstream media and i’m a cultural anthropologist because it said so on TV. Good grief.

Why does mainstream media play such a significant role in the Wikipedia validation process? We know damn well that mainstream media is often wrong. In the midst of this, the reference to my fuzzy hat had to be removed because it couldn’t be substantiated by the press and because i didn’t wear it on O’Reilly. Of course i didn’t wear it on Fox – i was trying to get across to parents, not be myself. As much as i don’t think of the hat as core to my identity, i’m very well aware that others do. Hell, just last week, John Seely Brown decided to start his keynote wearing my hat, talking about how the hat is the source of all of my brilliance while i turned beet red and scrunched down in my seat. As embarrassing as that was, it’s more embarrassing that Wikipedia is relying on Fox over JSB for authority.

What really weirds me out about all of this is that everyone acts like i’m dead and incapable of speaking for myself. It is culturally inappropriate for me to edit my entry, even when there are parts of it that are dead wrong. No one asks me to fact check – journalists matter more than me. I understand why i shouldn’t have the right to get rid of negative commentary about me, but wouldn’t it make sense to allow living “notables” correct facts? Am i not the leading expert on the biographical facts of my life? I wonder who else is looking at their entry and shaking their head at the biographical inaccuracies.

I can’t fully put my finger on why the media-centric thing bugs me, but it does. The media has decided that i’m an expert because of my knowledge in a specific domain; Wikipedia has decided that i’m notable because i’m on TV. Why is Wikipedia not using transitivity and saying that i’m notable because of my knowledge in a specific domain? Why does it matter more that i’m on TV than why i’m on TV?

Now, i love Wikipedia. But i think that there’s something broken here. Personally, i would rather my entry been deleted than have this very inaccurate and media-centric entry written. (Deletion would’ve been far more entertaining.) I think that this approach to notability makes Wikipedia look downright foolish. Personally, i’m embarrassed by this public representation full of mistakes. There has to be a better way to handle living people. The “no original research” approach is really not working here.

I’m posting this both because it’s interesting and because i can’t fully get a handle on why this situation is really bugging me (other than the fact that it’s weird to be an object of inspection). Anyone have any thoughts?

(Here’s a proactive thank you to those who are inevitably going to correct my entry because of this blog post. For those who are looking at the entry after this correction, look at the April 13 version to see what i’m talking about here.)

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43 thoughts on “on being notable in Wikipedia

  1. Terrell Russell

    Oh no!

    danah needs claimID!

    I think your points about living people and their expertise concerning themselves is very interesting. This *is* a new area – we *don’t* have a vested way to allow people to speak for themselves.

    Your hat not withstanding, your brilliance should be allowed to defend itself in a public space – “culturally inappropriate” or not.

    We need a way to allow those with domain specific knowledge to be recognized – we need a way to allow our expertise to show through and be counted on when the topic is at hand.

    Is it not just a matter of time? Do we simply need more people watching wikipedia?

  2. staffpsy

    what an interesting dilemma! i say edit your own profile, if its out there it might as well be right, even if you have to do it yourself

  3. Dan

    You being on TV does give you more reason to have a wikipedia article about you, in that it could lead a lot of people to look you up. This is an area where I think wikipedia should reflect the priorities of the mainstream, however imperfect it is. Its role is a reference, not as highlighting wonderful-but-unknown people.

    That said, I do think you’re notable enough to have a Wikipedia page – but then I read your blog, so I likely have an inflated idea of your status.

    I wonder who else is looking at their entry and shaking their head at the biographical inaccuracies.

    I guess very few will be in your position of realising that it is culturally inappropriate to edit your own entry: they will either correct it obliviously, or not realise that they are even able to edit the page themselves. You know more about wikipedia than most people written about in it.

    Incidentally, I find it interesting that none of your readers have yet altered the entry; I would have expected at least a few changes by now.

  4. John Mayer

    You simply must listen to Jason Scott’s podcast called “The Great Failure of Wikipedia”. It’s a polemic, but once he settles down, he provides some fascinating insight into Wikipedia and it is possible to extract some meta-meaning from what projects *like* Wikipedia must grapple with.


    If you love or even like Wikipedia, you will have the urge to rip the headphones right off – but listening to the end will be fruitful.

  5. Dan

    Also, Wikipedia guidelines say that “you should feel free to correct mistaken or out-of-date facts about yourself, such as marital status, sexual orientation, criminal involvement or lack thereof, current employer, place of birth, work done in foreign countries, etc.”

  6. James

    I second the recommendation of “The Great Failure of Wikipedia”. There’s also a transcript http://www.cow.net/transcript.txt but I recommend listening to the speech, as I was so drawn into it, I wondered where I was when I went to get a glass of water.

  7. Kirsten Chevalier

    As a regular Wikipedia contributor, I can tell you that you won’t be frowned upon for editing an article about yourself in order to correct mistakes. It’s only frowned upon when people edit articles about themselves to remove negative info, or add in irrelevant vanity crap.

  8. James

    Damn, wish I’d seen that when it was going on, I would have tried to pitch in and help (I’ve got enough of a Wikipedia edit history that maybe they’d believe I really was a “wikipedian”, even!).

    FWIW, you’re notable in my neck of the woods; the newspaper I work for has linked your Friendster/Myspace article at least once that I know of in stories about kids and social networking.

  9. Lindsey

    danah, I find this especially interesting because I recently created a Wikipedia entry for my sister. Although I’ve made minor edits to a number of Wikipedia articles, this was the first time I had authored one completely myself, and I was concerned that it would be considered a vanity article and deleted, especially since I, as the creator, have the same last name. But it’s been a few weeks, and the article seems to have made the cut.

    Man. I’m starting to think that, if a certain critical mass of people are bickering about whether one should or should not have a Wikipedia article, then that’s evidence enough that one should. If you weren’t important, then they wouldn’t care.

  10. Doug Noon

    This reminds me a little bit of Huck Finn’s funeral in which he realizes he’s become the product of an author:…the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities…

    or maybe the Simpsons version, which adds a little twist to the event.

  11. Gareth Simpson

    Surely this an article like this is the correct response to inaccurate biographical information?

    Even if you correct the article directly, the changes could get lost in the churn of revisions.

    A post like this provides an external source that Wikipedians can respect like any other. Moreso, in fact, because it’s straight from the horses mouth.

  12. Liz Henry

    Take a look at “Feminist Consciousness and Feminist Research” – and other articles/books by Liz Stanley and Sue Wise. They asked exactly that question… Dale Spender also consciously made it part of her research practice to talk to anyone living if she was writing about them – and wrote a great essay on how it made a difference to her research, and how difficult it was.

  13. B

    You ask why you bother so much?

    Well, reason one should be that you were better treated by O’Reilly that Wikipedia, and your values claim the opposite: wikipedians should know better; you asked in a previous post what would be the one thing we couldn’t accept to be wrong about; this one was close for you: yours was that understanding and freedom would lead us to the greater good, was it? On the same level, I might add (haven’t heard the J. Scott piece) that wikipedia is for the people, by the people, and this is what is makes it so different than bad, despotic, undecent, barbaric, voyeur Fox news; however the people (as in “by the people”) are still watching Fox news.

    Second would be more be cause of a cognition barrier, one that wikipedia revealed lowering the publication costs: the drop in quality (because this is what editor look after) is not the most annoying thing there: you can always complain about it and be offered better somewhere (paying); what is really enlinghtened when anyone can do anything is whether (s)he knows (s)he can do it, and it would be worth it.

    You are not annoyed for yourself, but for the many people that when through your site, and to wikipedia, and didn’t correct it, but not because it was too tedious, simply because they did not. . . think of it ? That no-self-correction rule that you abided to gave you an interesting anthropologist view, knowing but hands tight.

    Lucky you: that rule was a misinterpretation of yours, is seems; you can do it yourself. Won’t make that strange feeling leave, huh? Because you will still be surronded by people whom, empowered by Wikipedia, won’t help your entry out of the nonsense it dopped into? Because it is obvious to you that this was wrong and must be corrected? Yes-once you noticed it; once you pointed at the blatant inaccuracies; blatant, when revealed; blatant, but not for the people who know you otherwise than through mass media. That barrier is about the limited attention your surronding can spend for you, or rather the cognitive pattern that could help them help you without thinking too much of it. Because publishing is made so easy, you just have to think of it-and this is truely what is left. And it is the most precious thing they have, the freedom to have their mind wander.

    Hopefully: revealing that cognitive isolation is the fisrt step to lower it when needed, so wikipedia and the discussion about it are the best way to have people know what is god for you without asking.

    We’ve been having cell phone and braodband for longer than in the US here, and had time to laught at the attention economics initiative, use pervasive digitalness and suffer from “having been able but not think of” sending a mail, a call that could have changed it all. Alarms are fine, but need to be configured; knowing the adress of a relevant site, however small task and easy to remember is our modern challenge; understanding someone’s point of view, grasping the nuances that would make his point is legitimate is little work, but these are the only efforts left.

    You demand little of you relatives, and this little could change much, but this small thing you cannot anticipate because you are not in they mind, however close you are, and however closer “pervasive” comunication made you.

    This incertitude to understand someone, even close, demands two things, and the fact that youngsters grew up facing this problem explains why they have commpletely adopted these behaviors:
    – prefered communatarism, strong identity markups beyond the usual “prefered music” categories, ties to others as a social branding: you need those both to lower your cost to be situated, and to be surronded be people who can understand you faster and better;
    – transparency, a concerning transparency: youngsters prefer to show to anyone they adress, schedule-anything because they know they won’t know why it will be used for (and they trust openness); setting up a availability rule is too tedious (and artificial: you have to justifiy the rules you want to be followed) and closing one’s access will mostly prevent relatives to find you back; well, you won’t hear about the other ones anyway. . .

    And no, I don’t want to edit your entry, not because I don’t have time but because I am positive that you can do better. And this would make a point to the Wikipedia community: however unsufficient that could be, its users are unable to google-whack they way to the very relevant page, or link to it, or simply read it. At least not those who are numerous enough to have they edition to remain visible on the wiki. And this is not about restricting whomever to edit, it is about giving wikipedia to users that can integrate, live with, relevant correction rules.

  14. Adam Megacz

    Ouch, that sucks.

    It’s probably not much consolation, but all of wikipedia has been having this problem lately. There appears to be a “deletion gestapo” going around and nuking anything that can’t be validated using the first four hits from a one-word search on google. Kinda sad.

    I stopped contributing regularly a while ago because keeping up with deletions/alterations by the librarian types got to be too much effort. These people cause real problems for any sort of material that isn’t taught in high school.

    I still have a feeling that a peer review process somewhere between nupedia (super-restrictive set of expert contributors) and wikipedia (anybody can contribute) is the right solution. And when we get it worked out, it’s going to solve the bogus-patent-filing problem at the same time. The PGP Web Of Trust and Consensus Realities keep itching at the back of my skull when I think about this. And its somehow related to the immutable fact that any social networking site that attracts a critical mass will eventually abuse or neglect the users who have invested so much in it (cough, tribe, cough).

    Anyways, Danah, this sucks all that much more that it happened to you on the topic of your life rather than just some topic you’re interested in. But somehow I think you did the right thing by “summoning the minions” 😉

  15. Wendy

    Hmm… if I were in your funky pink boots, this would bother me because it’s a bunch of people who don’t know you defining who you are (always horrible). It’s even more bothersome that the system is set up to dissuade and discount input from people who know you (even horribler). In fact, it sets up an inverse relationship between knowledge of danah and qualifications to write about danah, where you are on the far end of knowing almost everything there is to know about danah, and being strongly discouraged from fixing errors (most most horrible).

    On the other hand, it’s like these people just wrote a chapter of your thesis for you…

  16. mobius

    don’t feel so bad danah, my wikipedia bio keeps getting defaced by right-wingers and anti-semites. i’d be flattered to have scores of people debating the accuracy of my biography and my notoriety.

  17. Jason Scott

    I have to take issue with that assertion; some of the people who I assume are behind Wikitruth asked for an outline/draft of my speech in February, which I sent along, as a thank-you for their sending me tons of updates about what Wikipedia things they were learning.

    But “The Great Failure of Wikipedia” is 100% mine.

  18. andy carvin

    Yeah, it’s perfectly kosher for you to post comments on your entry’s discussion page. Other wikipedians encouraged me to do the same thing when I found inaccuracies on the Wikipedia entry about me. Meanwhile, if you’re a Wikipedian as well, there’s a tag you can put at the top of your entry’s discussion page signifying that you’ve officially posted comments on it:

    {{Notable Wikipedian|yourlogin}}

    Just replace “yourlogin” with your wikipedia login and that’ll do it.

  19. Jeremy Wright

    I simply submitted corrections (and even suggestions, including the photo that’s in my profile) in the Talk section. Some folk emailed me with questions to confirm bits, and that was it. It’s been changed a few times since then (in good ways, like linking to my birth year), but nothing drastic.

    I’d agree that Wikipedia *can* be broken, and systems of correcting bits about yourself can be difficult at best (the irony that my company was deleted for not being notable, while I stayed because I lead my company wasn’t lost on me).

    However, it’s damned better than what we had before. You nor I would never get a Britannica entry, for example. And the fact checking really is “as good as it can get” when they want to rely on purely “trusted sources” (and trust isn’t transferable).

    The community there really is trying to do the best it can, while crafting rules, policies and guidelines that have to apply to everyone generically without allowing so much wiggle room that every entry becomes a battle ground.

    Massive challenge, and I really, really respect them for their efforts.

  20. Torley Linden

    It is weird when the root of the tree can’t sprout new branches. 😉 Or when you’re talked about in the third-person when you’re nearby.

    Well, it blows the mind… without a danah boyd there would be no wikipedia entry in the first place–

    Heck, the fuzzy hats deserve their own entry! 😀

    (And thus marks the first time today I’ll be typing “apophenia”.)

  21. Dare Obasanjo

    I have a Wikipedia entry that was also nominated for deletion for not being notable. The entire experience definitely is weird.

    Although I’ve been tempted me to correct the entry about myself, I’ve shied from doing so for the cultural reasons you cite.

  22. Shelley

    Interesting seeing the Wikipedia editor entries for your article. Went through this earlier, as Marshall pointed out, but I think my Sock Puppet post is a better read for understanding the nuances.

    Looks like your article did get a keep vote. But under the miscapitalization. Curious, why do you use all lowercase?

  23. zephoria

    Shelley – it started out with my mother having an obsession with typographical balance. The ‘h’ was added to my name to make ‘danah’ look balanced. My full name at birth was ‘danah michele mattas’ – all balanced. I was always embarassed by this as a kid and so i ketp my name mixed case until i changed my last name for the second time in college. Then, i reverted it to the lower-case version that my mother originally envisioned. As i grew older, i learned to appreciate the lower-case version and found that it really was more aesthetically interesting.

  24. Shelley

    Thanks for explanation. The second ‘e’ in my name is for the same reason: it looks more balanced than Shelly, though the second ‘e’ is redundant.

    Wikipedia is wrong for forcing capitalization on the record. At a minimum, all references to you in the post should be all lowercase–with a note that this is correct and not to ‘fix’. When the smoke settles if this isn’t corrected, I’ll edit.

    There was a fascinating discussion in your talk page and the delete page. For that, the experience is valuable though, as you say, weird for being the person in question.

  25. Aaron Suggs

    Regarding the culturally appropriateness of editing your own WP entry, I like the suggestion of pointing out mistakes on the discussion page.

    I’m a wp contributor and work for somebody famous enough to have their entry. I noticed several factual errors and editorially dubious arrangements of facts.

    I pointed it out on the discussion page, noting my personal relationship, and within hours, many of the problems were corrected.

    I think that’s the most prudent way to correct wp errors that you’re personally connected to.

  26. Kesava Mallela

    May be there should be a mandatory section called “Comments by the addressee” in the talk page for all entries on people. Wikipedia can thus be even more unique by being a place where notable people had a say on their public representation of self.

  27. jean

    well, i’ve just corrected the capitalisation of your name on my blogroll, which doesn’t have the technical limitations of wikipedia, only the perceptual limitations of it’s author 😉

  28. jean

    well, i’ve just corrected the capitalisation of your name on my blogroll, which doesn’t have the technical limitations of wikipedia, only the perceptual limitations of it’s author 😉

  29. Blissyu2

    Would it be fair to say that you believe that there should be special rules on Wikipedia for biographies of living persons? You might be interested in the cases of Ashida Kim, Sollog, Jack Sarfatti and Daniel Brandt, all of whom were treated harshly by Wikipedia, and all of whom were banned from Wikipedia for trying to correct inaccuracies in the Wikipedia entry for them. And, to make matters worse, the inaccuracies aren’t just about someone’s middle names – they are inaccuracies that discredit them as people. Ashida Kim had his real name published on Wikipedia, and Daniel Brandt was described as a “privacy activist”, in order to call him a hypocrite, when in reality he is interested in making people accountable for their actions. You can see a bit more about it on http://www.wikipedia-watch.org/ and http://www.wikipediareview.com/ and also http://www.ashidakim.com/ . This kind of thing seems to happen quite a lot. People getting libelled on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia refusing to react, instead banning them for “legal threats”. Why would Wikipedia want to make a rule to ban someone for being libelled? That’s just crazy.

    Daniel Brandt has probably been the most proactive about all of this, and has suggested that Wikipedia consult people who are the subject of living biographies, to ensure that they get accurate non-defamatory information. Not that they’d have to be wholly supportive of the subject, but just so that they are not lying or unfairly demonising them. Obviously, some people don’t want to comment, but at least allow them to comment. Yet Wikipedia refuses to react. They have said that Daniel Brandt is not an expert on Daniel Brandt, because, according to Wikipedia, he is a crackpot. But most sections of the media don’t regard him as a crackpot. He’s been referenced for the past 30 years as anything but a crackpot. Why is Wikipedia so keen to demonise him? And why is Wikipedia so keen to demonise Ashida Kim, a man who was demonised on bullshido.net, a site that claims to denounce “fake martial artists”, a site which Wikipedia has denounced as unreliable and full to the brim with false defamatory material. Where is the proof to justify these claims? None of these people are convicted criminals. These are just rumours. What gives Wikipedia the right to spread these rumours while claiming to be some version of an encyclopaedia. Do you see rumours flying around in Encarta? I don’t think so.

    There should be some kind of collaboration between people who have been affected like this. Whilst http://wikipediaclassaction.com/ was apparently a hoax, the reality is that there is a need for unification. And whilst a site like http://www.wikitruth.info/ is useful to look at, if you want collaboration, a message board is a good start. I hope that you come over to post your thoughts over at http://www.wikipediareview.com/ . You would be welcome.

  30. Glenn Fleishman

    The Wikipedia editors comments in the discussion area are just insane. I had no idea that they had descended into such ridiculous navel-gazing that there is no truth but press truth.

    Now, I’m a reporter, and I’ve written hundreds of print articles. I do my best to prevent errors and correct any (even minor spelling or capitalization ones) after they occur. But as someone who works in the sausage factory, I don’t assume that print journalism is authoritative or definitive. It simply cannot be because of the pace at which it operates and the reluctance to make corrections fully.

    The idea that the style guide of various publications overrides how someone chooses to spell or use their name is bizarre. The New York Times required email to be spelled E-mail for some number of years. I doubt if I wrote about danah for the Times whether I’d be allowed to spell your name “danah boyd” because the house style forbids it.

    So when Wikipedia editors point to the requirement of print sources as the only reliable method of verification of orthography, facts, and appearance — I don’t get it.

    I also don’t see the fuss about the fuzzy hat. danah, every time I’ve spotted you at a conference or in pictures of a conference, you’re wearing that hat. Isn’t that a describable part of your identity? I’m missing why it can’t be in your Wikipedia entry.

  31. jeffb

    I think you all are missing the point. Wikipedia does not have a notion of “expert editor”. All editors have the same rules which is they have to use high quality published sources. The reason that Danah Boyd’s media information is given the most weight is because it is the highest quality public source. If Danah wrote her own biography on either of her websites then there would be a higher quality public source.

    Asking you questions about yourself constitutes research which is forbidden, since that is a private source. Research requires expertise. Ask yourself the question: how do you write an accurate book about every topic regardless of how complex or specialized assuming you do not have experts in every topic? The policies of wikipedia are in many ways a reasonable answer to that complex question.

  32. Psychology

    Psychology is everything.

    Wikipedians want to look good – with minimal effort, so not too much research.

    They’re probably more at home in front of a computer than talking to a real live person.

    They subscribe to the ‘neutral POV’ theory so can delete anything that doesn’t fit THEIR POV rather than allowing natural variations to flourish.

    Logic, logic, logic – the ‘neutral POV’ denys emotions and 6 billion individual world views. Logic has to be backed up by ‘facts.’ ‘Facts’ come from the media. Wikipedians by nature don’t have much in the way of critical abilities or they wouldn’t be Wikipedians – what sort of people swim with the notion that there is such a thing as a neutral POV? Wikipedians also love ‘authority’ – the greatest authority being to be seen on T.V. The neutral POV demands that there is one neutral solution to everything.

    Change the concept of the neutral POV and allow – let’s say – up to five different variations on any one subject (five different pages – extreme ‘left’, ‘off-left’, netrual, ‘off-right’ ‘extreme right’) and the whole nature of the beast will radically change.

    For a start Wikipedia will start to attract people who can think for themselves and who currently are driven away by the group-mind that pecks away at anything it doesn’t like.

  33. Samuel Browning

    As the Bullshido staff member who led the Ashida Kim investigation, I am writing to provide a link to our article. http://www.bullshido.com/articles/ashida-kim-3.html

    We discovered that Ashida aka Radford Davis was selling mail order black belts and arranged to purchase one of them from him.

    Please review the article and come to your own conclusions regarding the reliability of Bullshido’s investigations.

    The fact remains that “Ashida” has been publishing works claiming to be a Ninja for almost thirty years even though he does not have an actual lineage to someone who could properly teach this art. Ninjitsu is a historical art, if you can’t show that your teachings trace back to an actual Ninja clan in Japan you cannot claim to be studying or teaching Ninjitsu. We at Bullshido have called him on this, and he’s not happy, ask him about how he then threatened Jimbo Wales at Wikipedia, this action which is not reported above, also played a role in his banning.

  34. WhippyGoldberg

    People love Wikipedia out of pity, like the token, fun-loving autistic savant in your neighbourhood.

    Like an autistic savant, Wikipedia is full of mostly useless trivia, and like an autistic savant, lacks any ability to understand the world around it or to understand complex concepts like “layered irony”, “witty comedy” or “utter incompetence”.

    Yes, we all have pity-love for Wikipedia but we wouldn’t let Wikipedia drive a car or take care of our baby. We just pat it on the head and move on.

  35. TWD -

    nice [post ,Please review the article and come to your own conclusions regarding the reliability of Bullshido’s investigations.

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