comScore misinterprets data: MySpace is *NOT* gray

Read the ComScore press release. Completely. Read the details. They have found that the unique VISITORS have gotten older. This is _not_ the same thing as USERS. A year ago, most adults hadn’t heard about MySpace. The moral panic has made it such that many US adults have now heard of it. This means that they _visit_ the site. Do they all have accounts? Probably not. Furthermore, MySpace has attracted numerous bands in the last year. If you Google most bands, their MySpace page is either first or second; you can visit these without an account. People of all ages look for bands through search.

Why is Xanga far greater in terms of young people? Most adults haven’t heard of it. It’s not something that comes up high in search for other things. Facebook’s bimodal population pre-public launch shows that more professors/teachers are present than i thought (or maybe companies are more popular than i thought? or maybe comScore’s data is somehow counting teens/college students as 35-54…).

Can someone tell me exactly how comScore measures this? Is it based on the known age of the person using a given computer? Remember that many teens are logging in through their parent’s computer in the living room. Is it based on reported age? I kinda doubt it but the fact that there are more 100+ year olds on MySpace than are living should make people think about reported data. Is it based on phone interviews? How do they collect it? This isn’t really parseable into English.

My problem is that all of these teen sites show a heavy usage amongst 35-54. I cannot for the life of me explain how Xanga is 36% 35-54. There’s just *no* way. I don’t get how the data is formulated but it seems like an odd pattern across these sites to see a drop in 25-34 and a rise in 35-54. Older folks aren’t suddenly blogging on Xanga. So what gives? My hunch is that comScore’s metrics are consistently counting teens as 35-54 across all sites. My hypothesis is that because comScore is measuring per computer and teens are using their parent’s computer, comScore can’t tell the difference between a teen user and a parent user. If so, maybe all this is telling us is that parents have definitely listened to the warnings over the last year and are now making their teens access these sites through their computer?

Finally, when we talk about data, we also need to separate Visitors from Active Users from Accounts. The number of accounts is not the same as the number of users. The number of visitors is not the same as the number of users.

All this said, there is no doubt that more older people are creating accounts. Parents are told that they should check in on their kids. Police officers, teachers, marketers… they are all logging in to look at the youth. Is that the same as meaningful users? Some yes, some no.

From my qualitative experience, the vast majority of actual users are 14-30 with a skew to the lower end. Furthermore, the majority of the accounts are presenting themselves as 14-30. To confirm the latter (which is easier), i did a random sample of 100 profiles with UIDs over 50M (to address the “last year” phenomenon). What i found was:

  • 26 are under 18
  • 45 are 18-30 (with a skew to the lower)
  • 10 are over 30 but under 70
  • 1 is over 70 (but looks less than 18)
  • 6 are bands
  • 11 are invalid or deleted
  • 1 is complete fake characters (explained in descript)

A few more things of note…

  • 18 have private profiles
  • Of those over 30, only 2 has more than 2 friends (one has 3 friends; one has 5)

This account data hints that the general assumption that approximately 25% of users are minors is correct. Of the remaining, the bulk is under 30. Qualitatively, i’m seeing the most active use from those under 21. Given account practices, i don’t think that i’m off in what i’m seeing.

I do suspect that MySpace is holding strong at being primarily for younger people but that older folks have definitely been checking it out a LOT more. Still, i’m still suspicious of the fact that 35-54 are common across all youth sites. I’d really like to see comScore’s data on something that we can check. Maybe LiveJournal?

(I’d really really really love to be proven wrong on this. If anyone has data that can provide an alternate explanation to the comScore numbers, please let me know!)

Update: Fred Stutzman and i just jockeyed back and forth to find something we could agree on wrt the comScore numbers. Here are some ways of making sense of the data of VISITORS:

  • Xanga is more of a teen-flavored site than MySpace, Facebook or Friendster
  • Facebook is more of a college-flavored site than MySpace, Friendster or Xanga
  • Friendster is more of a 20/30-something flavored site than MySpace, Facebook or Xanga
  • Of users going to these four sites, MySpace does not swing to any one group; it draws people of all ages to visit the site.
  • A greater percentage of adults (most likely parents) visit MySpace than any of the other social sites

This is all fine and well and confirms most intuition. The problem is that what we CANNOT confirm via this data is that more adults visit any of these sites than minors. Again, intuitive but the comScore data seems to indicate that adults visit each of sites more than their key population. This is really visible in their “total internet” users which seems to suggest that the vast majority of visitors to all of these social sites are adults. I cannot find a single person who works for one of these companies that believes this.

I’ve spoken to numerous folks since i posted last nite. Most believe that comScore gets this data by running a program on people’s computers. Young people are supposed to use a separate account than their parents. This data seems to indicate that comScore is wrong in assuming that people will do so. Most minors probably use their parent’s account to check these social sites. So, if we assume that, Xanga is obscenely a teen site, Facebook probably has nearly as many high school users as college users and MySpace swings young but is used by a wider variety of age groups than most social sites.

Finally, it’s all nice and well that Fox Interactive spokespeople confirm this data but i’ve watched over and over as FIM has confirmed or said things that were patently untrue in public. I don’t know if this is because FIM (the parent of MySpace) doesn’t know what’s going on on MySpace or if it’s because they don’t care whether or not they are accurate publicly. I don’t honestly believe that FIM has any clue about the age of its unique visitors. They know the purported age of people who have accounts and it would be patently false to say that 35-54 dominates account holders.

Frankly, i’m uber disappointed with comScore but even more disappointed with all of the press and bloggers who ran with the story that MySpace is gray without really looking at the data. This encourages inaccurate data and affects the entire tech industry as well as policy makers, advertisers, and users. I’m horrified that AP, Slashdot, Wall Street Journal, and numerous respectable bloggers are just reporting this as truth and speaking about it as though this is about users instead of visitors. C’mon now. If we’re going to fetishize quantitative data, let’s at least use a properly critical eye.

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25 thoughts on “comScore misinterprets data: MySpace is *NOT* gray

  1. Amanda

    As I understand it, you’ve hit on the crux of the problem — computers monitored for the panel are generally registered to one person in the household, but that orgs that collect data in this way do not distinguish use by others. Even with password protection, I imagine that in HHDs with broadband that often the password is entered once when the computer is turned on, and then people jump on and off. Besides, if they truly pwd protected the “measured” account, people could simply not use the password when engaging in “socially undesirable” online activities that they wished to hide, depriving these orgs of that information/data. All of which points to the young people using a parent’s computer explanation.

    Still it would be nice to hear a confirmation or explanation from the source about their methods.

  2. Trevor Bechtel

    At my institution, where facebook is rabid among students, none of whom is older than 23, there are 3 faculty on. My guess is that there are no less than 500 students. So sure I teach at a church college in Ohio, but we aren’t that atypical.

    35% is way too high for facebook too.

  3. Joe Hunkins

    Good for you to question methodology, but I think they are “correct” here. You are probably right that we need more slicing and dicing of data to assess the significance of this finding.

    1) I’m pretty sure the methodology is very strong in terms of demographic specifics. I think they have a pool of people they interview or mesure regularly and then mine this data from this controlled and “known”, but very large online population.

    2) Users *are* visitors! They are using the term “users” in the normal metrics sense of “unique visitors to the site”. You are making a distinction between users and visitors as active vs passive participants. We’d want to see more info about time spent at the site but I don’t think this would not refute the “user demographic” they are talking about. However, if young users spend 10x the time at the site as older ones it would make the comscore finding less important.

  4. albert sun

    Those results seem absurd to me.

    For Facebook, how are these older people getting on the site at all? Have they all signed up since the opening of corporate/regional networks?

    I doubt it. My hunch tells me that the hits by the 35-54 crowd are mostly 10 second scope outs of the homepage or of their child’s profile.

  5. zephoria

    Joe – i respectfully disagree with you about saying that visitors are the same as users. Perhaps i should’ve used “active users” to better clarify but these companies sell ads based on users, not based simply on unique visitors. Ads are more successful when people are active users of these sites.

    I also think that you’re wrong about the methodology. The more i talk to people, the more that i learn it’s based on a program that is run on computers at home where each family member is expected to use a different login.

    The more i look into this, the more i think that parnets aren’t checking in on their teens but comScore is misleading everyone based on a methodological failure.

  6. Randy

    You answered your own question back in your ‘Quirky danah Speech’. To quote Bill and Ted during their excellent adventure, “69 dude”. The answer is 1969 – a year of birth that will certainly put you into the 35-54 age bracket. If Comscore is scanning registration information and profiles this could be part of obscure data trend.

  7. Irina

    If you want to argue problems with comScore’s methodology, you can contend with their method of recruitment through random digit dialing – a method that requires calling people on their landlines (it is against the law in the US to solicit anything via cell phones unless people opt in). However, with a sample size as large as theirs, the sample selection problems would likely go away as the population parameters approach normal distributions. The question here is this – does the age distribution of the sample match census and Pew reports? I don’t know, but a cursory look suggests it doesn’t.

    The rub here, as danah pointed out, is not whether MySpace has turned gray but that according to this data, all of the social networks sites except for Friendster turned gray. Odd, isn’t it? The recent Pew report sez that 87-88% of people between ages 17 and 49 use the internet. This percentage drops to 76-79% for people 49-65 and further still for people over 65. The demographics of the US population have this bump that’s moving along our age distributions – namely the baby boomers – there are more of them than anybody else. 49-65 is about the age for them at this point I think (correct me if I am wrong) so their numbers on the Internet actually might be closer to the same as every other age groups because of that dip in percent using that Pew reports.

    comScore’s sample has a very very LARGE bump in the 35-54 range and it’s unclear why this is so and where it comes from. Does this mirror other assessments of Internet user populations? Because of this bump though, it’s not surprising that you see the same bump in all other measurements except for Facebook, where college-age participants are SO many that they outnumber the “bump” anyway.

    Also, comScore boasts having lots and lots of higher-income participants in that age range – people in that age range more likely to be using these sites, just as they are more likely to use the Internet for a variety of other things.

    What puzzles me is how comScore could put out a pressRelease without taking pains to ensure it is clear what kinds of distributions this data matches and providing some support for their claims. As it is right now, all I see if that comScore has a sample where more than a third are people in the 35-54 age group, who, according to their own methodology page, are more likely to be of affluent backgrounds. They also have a substantial college kid sample. Taking these two snippets into account, I am not surprised at all about the numbers they list. I am just wondering what they are trying to say?

  8. Webwonk

    Did ComScore say it got this data through a phone survey? It mentions a random dial survey. But historically ComScore has gathered its data through proxy servers. Here’s what their web site says about methodology:

    “Participants in the comScore Global Network receive a package of benefits that have proven to be broadly appealing to all demographic segments:

    Server-based virus protection
    Attractive sweepstakes prizes
    Opportunity to impact and improve the Internet

    Participants are protected by industry-leading privacy policies that ensure anonymity of personal information. Membership is provided through an efficient sign-up process.”

    I’m not sure if this is still true, but they used to sign people up by offering a “web accelerator” that routes all web browsing through a proxy server operated by ComScore that tracks their online browsing and buying habits. Because the proxy server stores regularly-visited pages, it can download them faster. This would also be consistent with the ability to provide “server-based” antivirus capabilities (at the proxy server level rather than the traditional desktop).

    Advertisers like ComScore it tracks actual usage. But by whom? Is the audience that desires web acceleration and web-based antivirus a good representation of MySpace?

  9. Joe Hunkins

    Danah – thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    Are you saying that user = subscriber? You and Fred seem to agree on a definition of “user” I’m not familiar with at all.

    Whoa – why would the computer login method distort the findings toward older users? The incentive is to login correctly to preserve settings anyway, but if anything one would expect the younger person to be online more and thus a parent, not a kid, is more likely to jump online on the kid’s account.

  10. Michael Rubin, comScore

    We (i.e. comScore) would like to clarify some of the issues and answer the questions being raised in this conversation.

    First and foremost, we don’t rely on the age that individuals submit when they register for a MySpace account. Our demographic data are based on the ages of the individuals in a household that we record when they join the comScore panel. That means we do not need to use the age the individual provides when they register at MySpace. Any accuracies inherent in that are not reflected in our data.

    Regarding the issue of “users” vs. “visitors”:

    * We use the terms interchangeably and do not mean to imply that a “user” of the site is necessarily a “registered user”.

    * As you rightly point out, our press release was talking about unique visitors. We anticipated there might be some confusion, so we made sure the headline clearly indicated visitors (“More than Half of MySpace Visitors are Now Age 35 or Older, as the Site’s Demographic Composition Continues to Shift”).

    * The data we highlighted in the release does not speak to engagement or intensity of usage — just visitation.

    Let’s put this whole story in context.

    More than anything, an aging visitor base speaks to the fact that MySpace has filtered into the mainstream. While older visitors may be less likely to be registered users, it’s still worth noting that they are being directed to the site one way or another:

    * In some cases, they are linked to people’s blogs at MySpace (especially from search results).

    * In other cases, they are being linked to videos. Our Video Metrix data shows MySpace is #1 in videos streamed in the U.S.

    * Or perhaps they are just curious to see what the buzz is all about and what their kids or grandkids or the media are talking about.

    We hope this clarifies some of the issues being raised here. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to email us at

  11. Irina

    heheh danah you are so hot that you can get a personal explanation by people from comScore! that’s awesome!

    So according to this explanation – lots of people 35-54 go looking through Xanga and Facebook (I wonder how many of them go to Xanga only to find a Xanga lock). Does that mean that Xanga has filtered into mainstream as well? Unlike the other three I would wager that LJ would be a more likely candidate for mainstreem than Xanga. Ok… I am harping on Xanga here because it’s the most extreme in the batch. However, I think the explanation above does not work for this example, why should it work for the others?

    Oh also, did the sample match at least the age distributions of the general Internet user population that Pew reports (at least)? or the General Social Survey? Do 35-54 year olds really make up 40% of the Internet population?

  12. zephoria

    Michael – thank you for commenting but you did not address my primary concerns.

    1) How do you guarantee who is logged into a particular computer when they visit any of these social sites?

    2) Why are 40% of all of your visitors in the 35-54 age range?

    3) Why are you emphasizing MySpace? Your data shows that ALL of the key teen sites are primarily visited by 35-54 when that makes absolutely no sense.

    4) You work in marketing. When tech companies talk about “users” they are talking about people who actively participate on the sites. When it comes to any social site with a login, this means people who actually login. Why do you conflate these terms if you anticipated confusion? It’s a press release.

    Basically, i don’t believe that the visitor base on ANY of these sites is aging and i have major concerns about your methodology. As a participant in the tech industry, i want to know how much i can trust you. Not a single one of these companies believes that this data is true. Not a single one. I do not believe that parents/grandparents are logging in universally to Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster. I am not surprised that they are more likely to login to MySpace but you’re showing ridiculously high numbers across the board. It sounds to me as though you’re spinning a story that isn’t real.

    If you disagree with me, can you please articulate your methodology in detail? How do you *know* that these visit are 35-54 and not just teens on a parent’s computer?


  13. Nick Lothian

    There’s just no way Comscore can accuratly give us that demographic infomation – especially in the 11-17 age group.

    I’ve blogged about it some, but the important thing is that ComScore’s own privacy policy forbids them directly surveying people under 18. That means they must rely on “the ages of the individuals in a household that we record when they join the comScore panel” – and the ony way that the under 18 year olds vists will be recorded is if they are using a shared computer which their parent installed the ComScore software on. That cuts out a HUGE proportion of MySpace visitors, and brings into question how they know when a 11-17 year old is using a shared computer.

    Also, most colleages and schools regard the Comscore software as spyware, so no vists from schools or colleages will be measured.

  14. Paul DiPerna

    Danah, the point about ID’ing each panelist at login is a good one. I think we take a different tack however.. I want to give third party tracking organizations the benefit of the doubt until evidence proves otherwise. But this debate is a good one for all of us learning about these sites and their organizations.

    Because of the now very public controversy, we definitely need a thorough explanation of comScore’s ID of a given panelist within a household.

    Yesterday I conveyed the following on Stutzman’s Unit Structures, but I think it is relevant in this space as well. These are my summary observations of the past week–

    *** comScore may have slipped a bit by interchanging “users” and “visitors” in the press release. But I don’t think this was anything sinister or that misleading. I thought it was pretty clear they meant the latter and not the former, all the way through.

    These distinctions really matter to academics, but for better or worse, it is less vital to others “out there”. I think we have to remember this point about the researchers’ bubble.. and not hold people or organizations to those standards we apply to peer-reviewed research. at least initially 🙂

    I guess I’m trying to be realistic, which people are free to call naive.

    *** The A-list reporting really got this off-base as they went much further in their own interpretations. As a result we have misinformation floating out there.

    *** The press release was about demographics, not behavioral trends.

    This was a 30,000 ft from above bird’s eye view, so to speak – not an analysis of in-depth behavioral trends like intensity of usage or networking patterns – so this is just a “visits” analysis… again, for better or worse.

    *** There are reasonable explanations to describe the graying demographic changes in “visits”.

    Danah and others mentioned some of these, such as parents checking on kids. (but not registering or setting up accounts..) — especially these last few months as mainstream publicity is rising for sites like MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook. (even Xanga, too)

    I agree w/ Michael that the surging popularity for MySpace Blogs and MySpace Videos, with the increased spread of external feeds, probably explain some of the changes as well.

    Why is it hard to imagine people in their 30s and 40s (or older!) viewing blogs and videos?

    This is actually a very good broad empirical question. We shouldn’t rely solely on anecdotes and interviews.

    *** This is where I have to really (respectfully) disagree with Danah and others relying on interviews with websites and their employees… I think our inclination (not without a little skepticism) should be to consider the reporting by third party tracking organizations, like comScore, Jupiter, and Nielsen, rather than the website organizations themselves.

    Why is this? My experience with some of these social networking website companies, especially the younger startups, is that they don’t have good protocols and metrics (if any at all) for evaluating their users. This is eerily similar to my former work doing educational research analyzing achievement of schools and school districts – data collection and self-evaluations present big big problems.

    So I’m still believing comScore on “visits” rather than what these companies would say to us… Most of these social networking organizations have very crude ways of looking at their users. (most at no fault of their own, just lack of resources) comScore and Nielsen at least have had sampling methods that have been tested and re-tested over the years.

    It’s also likely to be in the social networking companies’ own best interests to maintain the conventional perception of the kinds of visitors or users on their sites..

    My hunch is that if a lot of MySpace teens found out that they represent only 15-20% of who are on MySpace, that would be a turn off, and they might want to go to a majority teen site. I don’t think MySpace would be thrilled about such a development.. especially if a higher proportion of the teen cohort is registered compared to the older groups.

    Yikes, this is long. Sorry.

    This is a good debate across the blogs, and I think a great thing for future research and news reporting.

    Danah, thanks to you and others for doing a nice job bringing attention to the reporting issues.

    – Paul

  15. Catana

    During the short time I was a member of Myspace I gave up finding anyone in my age bracket simply because so many people lie about their ages in their profiles. This almost seems to be part of the Myspace culture. There’s nothing like doing an interest and forties or fifties age bracket search and getting almost nothing but teens. I believe this is pervasive enough not only to skew any attempt at demographic studies, but discourages older people from joining.

  16. Dossy Shiobara

    I’m surprised that the average age of MySpace users is so low. Given the large number of 40+ year old pedophiles that must trawl MySpace … of course, they’re putting “16” as their age, probably. Bet that skews the metrics.

    Also, there’s all those 10 year olds who are saying they’re 15 … skews the metrics in the other direction, too.

  17. Joseph Hunkins

    Danah –

    It seems to me that the following likely scenario would reconcile most of your concerns:

    * Youth spend 10x the total time at Myspace as the 35-54 bracket.

    * Age brackets visit Myspace as indicated by Comscore.

    Thus at any given moment online you’ll have far, FAR more young people on Myspace. However, a simply tally of visitors where time is not material will show comparable visits.

  18. Michael Rubin, comScore

    Danah —

    Thank you for allowing us the opportunity of addressing your primary concerns. I’ve left your questions and comments as you wrote them, and highlighted our comments with hash marks (>>>).

    1) How do you guarantee who is logged into a particular computer when they visit any of these social sites?

    >>> Here is an outline of one of the proprietary methodologies we use to identify who is using a computer at any point in time.

    * We obtain explicit permission from our panelists to observe their Internet behavior, and we have the ability to see what they do from the beginning of a session until the conclusion of that session.

    In the vast majority of these sessions, there are behavioral indicators (e.g. a username, an email address, etc.) that allow us to passively identify the user and match that user with the specific individuals in the household according to the information provided by the panelist when they first joined the comScore panel.

    * For those sessions in which there is no indicator, that data is not included when compiling our age-based data.

    * Since we have more than 2 million Internet users in our panel who each engage in dozens of online sessions per month, we have a large sample to report accurately on demographics — even after excluding those sessions from the data set that are not individually identifiable.

    * As an ultimate validation of whether or not individuals are being identified correctly, we tabulated our data for single-person households only. The single-person household data revealed an almost identical visitor penetration and page usage pattern for among older age segments as we saw within the multiple-member households, confirming that any potentially inaccurate identification of individuals within multiple-member households (even if it did it exist, which we believe it does not) is not a factor driving the older profile. >> More methodology:

    * Every month, we run an enumeration survey based on a random sample of the U.S. population to determine the demographic characteristics of the Internet population. As is done in virtually all sample-based studies conducted in the market research industry, these enumeration data are used to calibrate the comScore panel to ensure it is demographically accurate.

    * Our enumeration surveys show that that nearly 40% of the U.S. Internet-using population is in fact between the ages of 35-54.>> Part of the reason why we issued the press release is because the data are so fascinating. It certainly runs counter to the previous conventional wisdom that it’s primarily teenagers who visit MySpace. In this case, we have evidence to illustrate that visitors to social networking sites are actually older than one might expect. We emphasized MySpace because it is the biggest and most newsworthy site.

    * Please note that our recent release focused on visitation, and did not comment on usage intensity. In fact, our data does show higher engagement numbers (i.e. higher number of page views) among the younger demos. >> There was no intent to conflate the terms “users” and “visitors”, but now recognizing that there could be confusion we acknowledge that this is a valid critique and something we will be more careful with in the future. Please look at the media coverage this story has generated and for which comScore offered commentary. We have been crystal clear on the distinction between “visitors” and “registered users”. >> Danah, comScore’s methodology has remained consistent, so we believe the age shifts we’re seeing are accurate. Even so, we’ve made sure we did our homework in validating the data before issuing it.

    I also want to point out comScore is not the only research company reporting that the MySpace visitor base is aging. In fact, eMarketer published an article today quoting NetRatings data as showing that 46% of the users are now age over 35, compared to 38% last year. NetRatings has a totally separate panel and a different data collection methodology from comScore. Bottom line, two independent databases are reporting that the MySpace visitor base is aging.

    We understand the nature of your skepticism, and have answered your questions in detail in an effort to bring more transparency to the situation. We welcome this kind of healthy discussion, and hope it has helped alleviate your concerns about the accuracy of our data.

  19. Christopher Fahey

    Dear comScore,

    It’s good that you pledge to make a clearer distinction between “users” and mere “visitors”, but unless you can refrain from misleading “analysis” like this (from your press releases), you will continue to perpetuate false information:
    – “ has the broadest appeal across age ranges,”
    – “There is a misconception that social networking is the exclusive domain of teenagers”
    – “ is most popular among younger teen”

    These conclusions might actually be true, but the data in your study does not support any of them. Your data merely shows that some older people have recently seen the MySpace web site, which does not in any way suggest that those people play any part in the social networking phenomenon, or that MySpace “appeals” to them.

    In short, while your data and methodology may be sound and accurate, your actual stated conclusions (which are, of course, the only thing that anyone will actually read and report about) are completely unsupportable. Mr. Jack Flanagan should learn to read his own data.

  20. facebook

    The Facebook and myspace are geared toward different ages which is perfect but the other social networking sites like xanga and friendster are fading fast.

  21. Simon Chamberlain

    Hi Michael,

    Kudos for the detailed response here. I have a further question. As far as I can tell from your comments above, your survey only included home computers. Isn’t it likely that many young people are accessing social networking sites from libraries, schools, universities and internet cafes, rather than solely from home? So wouldn’t your survey tend to underestimate these users?

  22. Chris H.

    I can across this web site while doing research for my Master’s Thesis. My topic is internet social networks, such as myspace, facebook, and xanga. I think the issue with the average age with myspace users is like other sites, the information is only as good as the users make it. While doing my research of high school students’ sites, I found that many high school freshman or sophmores have their age listed as 75…40…105. I found very very few that actually had real ages listed. Given the numbers I just gave, myspace would then claim the average age of their users is 73, which we all know is not the case. -C

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