Miles, Adrian. “Media Rich versus Rich Media (Or Why Video in a Blog is not the same as a Video Blog). Proceedings of BlogTalk DownUnder. Sydney, May. http://incsub.org/blogtalk/?page_id=74
Media Rich Versus Rich Media
Blogs are now a media commonplace with regular mentions and appearances in mainstream media and an apparently exponential rise in use within education, knowledge management communities, and various forms of Web based self publishing. While definitions of what constitutes a blog are, in the manner of all such definitions, problematic, videoblogs pose this problem afresh with recent and rapid developments in this nascent field.
My own views on video blogs are well documented, and have been for some time (Miles 2000). There are specific qualities or properties that a blog has which makes it different to existing forms of electronic writing and demonstrate that blogs are a medium in their own right.
For video blogging to be video blogging (as opposed to video within a blog), similar qualities or attributes need to be available to those who wish to make and view (or use) blog based video. A specific aspect of this is the granularity of blogs and ways in which we may conceive of video as being similarly granular – that video needs to be as granular as text. This hypertext essay is a discussion that has developed from an iterative theoretical and design project where video prototypes have been developed to explore and make visible the possibilities for alternative forms of video blogging practice.
The first prototype provides links to specific web pages with a combination of thumbnails and time based links, the second prototype begins to pose questions around quoting video within a video, while the third provides detailed commentary upon an individual, external videoblog entry.
Dave Winer offers a technical definition of a blog, where “[a] weblog is a hierarchy of text, images, media objects and data, arranged chronologically, that can be viewed in an HTML browser” (Winer, 2003). This is a patently poor definition, at it successfully includes the home page of most major news organisations, and probably any auction in ebay! While Winer also recognises the importance of a personal voice in blogs, that is “writing about their own experience” (Winer 2003) – which goes some way to possibly removing ebay from potential best fits – I’d argue that any compelling definition of blogs requires a combination of technical characteristics, embeddedness in a life world, and emergence.
The technical elements are reasonably clear (though subject to change as our systems continue to evolve), and involve the use of a Content Management System (CMS) to manage the administration and automate several key aspects of a blog. This includes the management of a blogroll, permalinks, date and time stamps, archives and categories. It also recognises that a blog consists of multiple posts that are displayed in reverse chronological order (most recent at the top), and that these posts are the basic, or primary, structural unit of a blog.
Embeddedness refers to the manner in which a blog is situated within the life world of its author (or authors). This is a stronger statement than emphasising personal experience, only because it moves it away from the presumption that personal may equal the subjective and intimate. Embeddedness, on the other hand, recognises that a blog is about what its author finds relevant in the world, that such relevance may have a very fine focus, (for example documenting an experimental practice or exploring parenthood), and that such embeddedness has consequences for the sorts of truth claims and discursive engagement that is common to blogs (Miles, 2005).
Finally, emergence (which in the context of this essay will not receive the attention it deserves) describes the patterns of connection that are produced, in situ, through the activities of blogging. These are the relations formed by the interconnections of blogrolls and the lattice of links between individual blog posts (something that the development of trackbacks have responded to as they are a simple way to make visible these interconnections). These form patterns of relations that build and vary over time which are unfixed, fluid and reflect vectors of interest. They are, in a nutshell, how blogs are small world networks (Watts 2003) where such networks express discursive communities of interest.
As a consequence of these features blogs exhibit very high granularity, and while we could argue forever as to whether such fine granularity constructed the medium, or if the medium occasioned the development of tools to support this piecemeal structure, it is obvious that it is these structures that allows blogs to be a networked writing rather than writing on the network, a writing that is porous to the network.
There are numerous ways in which blogs may be defined (see also Walker, 2003, and Wilkie 2003a, 2003b). However while the intricacies of definitions are useful for some scholastic exercises, what is of more contemporary significance is the recognition that blogs are now not merely a noun and a verb (I blog, I have a blog), but a medium in their own right.
This might be controversial – I don’t really know – however it is clear that there are now numerous sorts of blogs (diet blogs, war blogs, political blogs, research blogs, group blogs, and so on) and that as a concept it makes little sense to consider them collectively as a genre. We have genres of blogs, just as we have genres of novels, television, painting and cinema. Each of the latter are media, not genres. Each of these media support and allows an extremely diverse range of practices and expressions.
Blogs are at this point, which is a useful moment if only because it helps force us to recognise that the Internet, or the Web, is not a medium in the common held (pragmatic) sense, unless we want to consider paper as media. (Which it is, but I assume my point is clear.)
SPECIFICITY OF BLOGGING (DETAIL)
It is reasonable to approach the definition of blogs from two different views. One is, perhaps, formalist in its concentration on the technical or technological aspects and qualities of blogging. The other is more literary or otherwise post-something theoretical in its orientation as it emphasises the textual or writerly nature of blogs.
In the first instance, blogs tend to be defined by such features as the use of a Content Management System (CMS), and the presence of the specific formal features that blogs have developed as a genre. For example to consist of multiple posts which have a heading and time and date stamp, the presence of permalinks, blogroll, and support for comments and trackback. Several of these terms are neologisms that have developed in response to the need to define a blog nomenclature, that is they’re quite specific to blogs, and each in quite specific ways have helped to determine what a blog actually is.
The second approach accepts the presence of these technical aspects of blogging, but generally treats these as secondary to the primary qualities of blogs. This is much like a discussion that may wish to conceive of defining the novel (for example) where the material or technical elements of the medium, for example that it traditionally consists of printed marks on serially bound and numbered paper that is collected between two covers, is regarded as of less significance than the fact that novels are fictional, authored, and have a specific narrative structure. Such an approach, for example, is what we would ordinarily understand literary theory to be, which has of course produced numerous sophisticated, and valuable approaches and methodologies.
In blog theory this approach tends to concentrate on blogging as primarily a textual problem. This may be extremely broad ranging, and participates in a long tradition of textual or theoretical scholarship that continues the Platonic reification of print where the materiality and technical apparatus of the medium is considered secondary to its behaviour as discourse. However, it is clear that blogging as a medium has, like other media, developed via a sophisticated series of exchanges between the constraints and affordances of enabling technologies and the intersections of individual and collective desire.
Granularity is a term common to the hypertext literature (as any casual search of the ACM hypertext proceedings will show) and refers to the scale of the units used within a larger system. For example, the Web can be considered highly granular (in general) because it is made up of many millions of individual parts, each of which appears well suited to being interconnected in quite unstructured (non hierarchical and multilinear) ways.
Books, on the other hand, are not as granular as the pages within the book are generally designed to be used in a fixed order, and as an object you tend to have to connect (to use hypertext terminology) to the entire book when wanting to insert it into other contexts. (This is the role of footnotes and bibliographies, for example).
This difference is simple, but illuminating. In a page based essay I need to refer to the entire containing object, lets say the book, and the reader, if they wished to view what I am referring to are obligated to get all of that object. Hence we think of it as being not particularly granular. On the other hand, in a web based essay I may provide a link to the specific page from which I’m citing (which may be one page amongst many in a larger work) but there is no need for myself or the reader to have to get the entire ‘object’ for this connection to take place. Hence we think of this has being highly granular.
Text, as text, and prior to considering it in terms of genres or discourses, is highly granular, as is video ordinarily understood as consisting of narratives composed sequences, in turn composes of shots.
In the context of hypertext and multilinear, interactive web based material, a premium is placed on formats, genres, or systems that support a high level of granularity because such systems offer multiple possibilities for (or of) connection and reconnection.
GRANULARITY OF TEXT
Text is, by and large, granular. Pragmatically its lowest level of granularity is the letter (we even have a specific word indicating this property), and then it scales to words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and from there into a very wide range of discursive objects.
This is recognised (and taken for granted) in all our digital tools that deal with text – for example in any contemporary operating system there will be a series of default behaviours that apply to words – in OS X I can double click a word in any application and the word will be automatically selected. In Microsoft Word it is a given that letters are a major minimal unit, and so I can add, delete and manipulate them at this relatively fine level of granularity. The same rules more or less scale elegantly to larger constellations, hence I can also work easily on words, sentences, paragraphs and sections in Word.
Exactly the same holds for digital video, where minimal units (called shots) are combined into larger sets (sequences) which in turn are assembled into more complex units. Similarly, within the tools available for digital video production there is an implicit recognition of this granularity so that editing software is able to easily identify, manipulate and operate upon these minimal units. In other words you can split complete shots into smaller shots, address footage to an extremely high degree of accuracy via timecode and there will be tools to manage these shots as they intrinsically recognise shots as a meaningful minimal unit.
The profound difference in our understanding of granularity in text and video lies, however, not in our tools of production, but in our technologies of reception.
GRANULARITY OF BLOGS
Granularity is a common term in hypertext theory that is used to describe the level of detail that a particular object or element may have. Detail, in this instance, is if you like, a level of focus. When something is very granular it means it consists of small units (the literature refers to these units in various ways, including ‘chunks’, ‘lexias’, and ‘nodes’), and conversely something with little granularity tends to be a larger discursive object.
Hence, granularity does not refer simply to the size or scale of a unit but more significantly describes the minimal size or scale of a unit that retains discursive integrity. A clumsy term, but one that shows that the degree of granularity is not a measurement of quantity but of quality – a blog post retains this integrity, half a blog post doesn’t.
While it could be argued that our ability to reference individual pages in a book are also an instance of such granularity, this misses the specific nature of what is intended by the term. It is not that something may consist of smaller parts that can be identified, but that these smaller parts are suitably or wholly meaningful in themselves. In other words I may refer to a specific page in a book or essay, but there is a recognition that that reference is primarily to find the mentioned material, and to understand it appropriately its surrounding material (possibly the rest of the book) needs to be read. Certainly at least recognised as a more significant whole than the part which I have quoted or alluded to. This is not the case with blogs (and with web pages in general). The individual entry is written and designed to be a self sufficient utterance, by and large.
In relation to many other written forms, and here I have in mind particularly academic genres, blogs exhibit a very high degree of granularity. They are, to use the extremely apt and popular phrase of David Weinberger, ’small pieces loosely joined’ (Weinberger, 2003).
Blogs, as generally recognised, consist of short entries that are displayed in reverse chronological order. The blog is regarded as more or less the ongoing sum of these smaller parts. However, each of these parts is largely self contained, so that a reader can read any individual blog entry and in most circumstances understand what it is about.
This makes the blog highly granular because it is possible to link to individual entries within any particular blog. This is why permalinks as a convention developed – a permanent address was needed for an entry at the time of publication as the URL of the homepage of the blog is not the permanent URL of any individual post, yet it is posts, not blogs that need to be linked to.
It is this granularity that has been instrumental in defining blogs as a medium, and has enabled the development of technologies and practices specific to blogging. This includes the development of trackback, comment systems but also the rise of the convention of having named posts which are date and time stamped in some manner, as well as the application of categories to individual entries. Without such granularity, our blogs would merely be essays, diaries, or journals.
It is also this granularity that has allowed blogs to be woven by the network. A blog consists of multiple posts but also multiple links in and out. These links point to parts, not wholes (individual entries, not entire sites) and it is the presence and density of these links that are fundamental to blogs as emergent systems (Miles 2005b). The issue for a video blogging practice is to try to conceive of video as being similarly granular.
The first prototype developed for this paper consists of a simple QuickTime movie that contains three sprite tracks. Within this specific work the interaction is very simple, as the video plays (the content is me talking to camera about being able to quote networked artefacts in online video) time based links appear which, when clicked, pause the video and launch their relevant urls in new browser windows.
The thumbnails are derived from the web pages that are mentioned in the commentary, and have two ’states’. The first is when they first appear in the timeline, which coincides with their mention in my commentary. Prior to this point the user is not aware of their presence, and they don’t actually exist in the video – they are literally time based. (As a consequence this also means that the user does not know how many might appear.) During their first appearance, and while their context is relevant to what is being discussed in the video, clicking on the sprite will pause the commentary and load the target url in a new browser window.
The second state occurs after the link to the external site is no longer relevant to the commentary as something else is being discussed. Clicking the the thumbnail at this point returns the video playhead to the moment in the discussion where that particular external reference is first mentioned, giving the user the opportunity to retrieve the context of the quote in terms of the commentary. Again, clicking during this interval will pause the commentary and load the reference URL into a new browser window.
Clicking at this point could have simply paused the video, as in the first instance, and loaded the reference URL into a browser window, however a decision was made that the context in which the quote was made should take precedence over simply following the link. This is the case in print citation, from which this is more or less derived, since in print the source of a quotation (for example citation details in a footnote or bibliography) are always offered in the context of the original quotation – the quoted object is always intimately linked in its local context to its source. In print you cannot avoid the context in which the cited material exists, where context means the other material (let’s say text) that surrounds the quoted material. In effect the same principle is being applied here, so that the context of quotation is always recoverable.
This first prototype demonstrates that links within video can have such a level of granularity – the links can apply to discrete parts of the image, much like an imagemap, and they can be time based where their behaviour may vary over time. Such granularity within video is fundamental to any conception of video that is to be blog like, and assists us in beginning to conceive of possible models for how such a video practice may operate. For example, while this prototype provides a simple visual mechanism by which we can identify the presence of links, and make them available, it does not indicate the destination URL, and lacks many of the basic qualities utilised in a blog, for example a post title (whether of the videoblog prototype or of the linked URLs), URL, date or time information or even where in the video the links appear – the user must view the video, or use the scrub bar, to find the location of any links within the work. Finally, this prototype specifically cites networked objects realised as URLs within a video stream, whereas the second prototype begins to explore the idea of citing video within video.
The second prototype that was developed begins to utilise and explore more specific qualities and properties of a video blog practice where video from other videoblogs is included within an individual video piece a practice I have described elsewhere as softvideo (Miles 2003.)
In this work there is a commentary and video track of myself, discussing in broad terms the idea of being able to cite other video within a video work. Alongside this video pane there is a second video pane (or window) which will load the video blogs that are mentioned by me in my commentary. These will only be loaded if the user clicks while they are being mentioned, otherwise no other material is loaded and displayed in the second video pane.
Technically this prototype uses a feature of QuickTime known as child movies, a term that bears some affinities with hypertext theory’s use of similar terminology to describe hypertext structure (for example the use of sibling, parent, and child as common descriptors of hypertextual hierarchy). The prototype is the parent movie, so acts as a container for other content that resides outside of this individual movie. Such material may reside on a local drive, or in this case, elsewhere on the network. In this specific instance the only material being loaded from outside of the prototype are two other videos, one from the video blog of Eric Rice (2005), and the other from Jay Dedman’s video blog (Dedman 2005). These, as in prototype one, are only available when being specifically mentioned in the commentary, and require the user to click the quote mark icon that appears between the two video panes.
This user action will pause the commentary, and then load the mentioned video from its specific networked location, in this case from either of two other video blogs. What is important to note here is that this content is only downloaded by the client (user or reader) if they click on it, and that this content resides in a location which I have no control over. If the owner of that content removes it, or changes its location, then this work will be ‘broken’ in the same way that linking to an external page that is later removed (or moved) will generate a 404 ‘Page not Found’ error.
An advantage of only downloading this content when it is requested is to minimise the bandwidth demands of video quotation systems – if the user doesn’t want to view the mentioned material then it is not downloaded to their system. This saves bandwidth and time and minimises for the client, and the authors (the author of the parent video and the authors of the child content that is being quoted) the overheads that such a system may incur where child movies are not utilised. For example, if I had simply used QuickTime to copy and paste the other video into this movie, then the total file size would be dramatically increased, whether clients wanted to view the cited video or not. Alternatively if I had utilised some other strategy (for example preloading the quoted video in case it was to be requested) then the author of the quoted video, and the viewer of the parent video, would still be accruing unnecessary bandwidth charges.
If the user clicks on the quote icon when no specific video is being mentioned then a jpeg is loaded (again this is loaded from elsewhere on the network) indicating that nothing is being quoted at that particular moment. In addition a controller is provided for the second video pane so that the user has control over the playback of this second video.
There is quite a bit that this prototype fails to do, or does poorly. For example as with the first prototype it does not indicate the source URLs of the quoted video, or the blog pages where this video is located. Some access to the original material is important since in a blog it is an established practice to provide a link to another blog post when your entry refers to this content. In addition, the interface is not particularly clear, so it is not obvious to the user that they need to click the quotation icon between the video panes to load the external video. This is a legacy of my own specific creative aesthetic practice where I deliberately encourage users to explore a video to find what or how it may be interactive, an aesthetic that is not particularly amenable to a generic interface for video blogging.
However, the work does quote video within another video, it does provide commentary or comments that allude to this work in a manner that is sympathetic to blogging practice, and it does this in a manner that begins to indicate ways in which a blog based video practice weaves with video in ways analogous to how we weave with text. The third prototype begins from this point, and attempts to explore it more forcefully.
Prototype three extends the ideas sketched in the first prototype, and then developed further in the second. This work, the most complex of the three, involves the use of two child movie tracks and an interactive track that consists of fourteen buttons.
One of the child movie tracks loads a video blog entry by Michael Verdi, his “Vlog Anarchy” (Verdi 2005) . This is displayed in a video pane in the lower right of the prototype, and in the original prototype this comes directly from where Verdi has published this video. This video does not automatically play, which is the case with the second prototype, as in this example the video is quoted in parts, and not in its entirety. This is, in many ways, a stronger example of quotation than the second prototype, simply because in the second example the entire video work is played, or available for play, whereas the usual model for quotation is, of course, to only cite a part of the entire passage or work.
In this example quotation is performed by the user clicking on any of the fourteen available buttons. Each of these plays a specific section of Verdi’s video, and only that section, and once it has finished playing it then plays my commentary that responds to Verdi’s points or observations. These commentaries, which are only sound tracks (there is no video associated with my comments) are loaded as childmovie tracks, and so as in the second prototype are only loaded and heard if requested by the user.
The video windows that appear down the left side of the video are of me, and have no sound attached, they are multiple videos suggesting and proposing ways in which we can also recognise that video in these contexts is as much an act of assemblage (of montage and collage together, see Miles 2003) as it is of publishing a ’single’ window of audiovisual content.
This model is the most mature in terms of its consideration of video as granular. The parent movie, which orchestrates my commentary and the quotation of the specific passages from Verdi’s video, constrains which parts of the quoted material is available, so exhibits the idea of quotation as selection. In addition, my use of child movies to load the commentary means that the user, if they wish to view and hear section twelve, does not need to download and listen to commentaries one to eleven. Similarly a section can be easily reviewed and replayed by clicking again on the relevant button. Such random access, the ability to move from any part to another, is of fundamental importance to any system of quotation in time based media.
However, since Verdi’s video (which is nearly five minutes in duration and nineteen megabytes) is, in network and blogging terms, a large object, a major constraint in this prototype is that it cannot work successfully until all of this external video has been downloaded. This is for the simple reason that if the user selects a commentary button that refers to a sequence that occurs late in Verdi’s material this can only be played if it has been downloaded into the parent video – you cannot physically jump to a point in the data if this data has not arrived yet! As a consequence this work is scripted in such a manner that it cannot be played until all of this video has been downloaded and cached locally, which then allows the work to operate properly. A second version was also made, where I recompressed Verdi’s original 320 by 240 pixel video clip down to 160 by 120 pixels (which is the size of the video window I am displaying it within in the prototype). This has the benefit of reducing the file size to 5 megabytes, which means it loads and plays much faster, and also significantly reduces the processor demands of the prototype.
In other words, because Verdi’s work is, in many ways, ungranular (and to the extent it is conceived of as an entire or whole object it strongly mirrors most existing video blog practice) to quote it within another video requires the incorporation of all of this material within the prototype so that parts of it can then be viewed. This is a legacy of the technical infrastructure of the HTTP protocol, and of QuickTime, so that there is no easy system to deliver specified parts of a file rather than the file in its entirety (this is technically possible and available and is known as byte serving).
Text is granular. Blogs, as perhaps the first indigenous medium to have developed on the web, are granular. Video on the web generally is not.
In current practice videobloggers compress and embed their content into their blogs and this content becomes a closed object. It is assumed and expected that users will watch or listen to this material in its entirety, and is presented and constructed around these assumptions. This is, for example, why it is common for videobloggers to have opening and closing credits to their work – they assume that anyone will view the entire piece, and hence credit sequences are a part of this work. However, if we could quote just parts of a videoblog, just as we do with text, then obviously credit sequences are redundant. Furthermore, once we quote parts, not wholes, the assumptions that credit sequences rely upon become visible, and we will need to develop alternative methods for nominating such information within video. Just as we have for text.
Furthermore, this time based media, once published, is generally published in a manner where it has little awareness of its networked contexts. Such video does not automatically contain or embed, for example, its URL, time or date of publication, and other basic metadata. Current video architectures, existing and proposed (for example Apple’s QuickTime, and potentially MPEG21), can contain this information. Alternatively it could be embedded textually in a post’s metadata allowing it to be collected by existing blog systems. That this is possible, but not being done, is perhaps symptomatic of the manner in which video and audio is still conceived of as a ‘closed’ system, of finished rather than partial or fragmentary works. (Similar issues also arise with the duration of much work presented in this manner, their length makes them the equivalent of blogs posts that run to several screens – in blogging this is probably the exception rather than the rule, in podcasting this is the rule, rather than the exception, currenty videoblogging shows all the signs of following podcasting.)
If we use blogging as our exemplar, and if it is videoblogging then presumably the intention is for blogging to be the exemplar, then video in videoblogs should be granular in relation to the network. Furthermore it is reasonable that videoblogs should also exhibit the general qualities of what makes a blog a blog. Hence, blog based video would be made up of small parts, reflecting or expressing the life world of its makers, and an individual video blog would (much like television) become a serial form where the continuities and discontinuities between parts become important.
More significantly, however, video itself and not just its finished artefacts would become granular. For example, in my web browser when I am reading your blog I can click and drag my cursor over your text and copy this text for insertion into my blog post. However, in my web browser when I view your video I cannot nominate a passage of video to copy for insertion into my video post. Why not? The technology certainly supports this.
Similarly, if we recognise that a blog post is not just the text of the post, but includes its title, date and time of publication, trackbacks and possibly even comments, then a blog post is constructed of many parts and blog CMS’s have tools that recognise and can extract these parts in meaningful ways. In video and more specifically in video blogs, these parts also exist and can (or could) be extracted. For example a QuickTime movie can read an XML file and include within itself all of the above information. Futhermore movies could read this information from or about each other, and so exhibit the sorts of network awareness that characterise blog posts.
In addition, just as text is granular after its point of publication in a blog, so too can video. This refers to how we might use other video within our video posts, which is what this essay has concentrated upon. However it can also describe a method of working in video where we no longer conceive of video as being the production of something with a single image and sound track. This process, which has been elsewhere described as softvideography (Miles, 2003) lets us author video in ways that make it more comparable to text. Video in this model is always, even after publication, something that is constituted from parts that may or may not appear or be realised in the final work. It is, if you prefer, thinking of the video object as more like a blog so that just as a reader may only view part of a blog (indeed only part of a blog post) so too they may only view or listen to parts of an individual video entry. This change is a paradigmatic shift in what we think we are doing when we make a video blog entry, and a similar shift in what we think the role of the viewer or user of the video will be. It is a move towards a more active user, though I’d argue certainly no more active than what we expect the average blog reader to be. It does bear repeating that the change is simple, but deep, and is no more complex than recognising that our video can now be made of variable parts, just as our blogs are.
It is possible, though currently nontrivial, to treat blog published video as granular. The prototypes that have been authored to accompany this paper (which have all been published in a video blog) are early demonstrations of such a process. The first prototype shows a video file which contains partial time based links so that we might be able to imagine a video blog practice that lets users link to other networked items, just as we do with text.
The second prototype is a (rather dull) commentary that mentions two other video blog entries. When clicked upon during their mention, the commentary pauses and the prototype retrieves the mentioned video blogs and plays them within this movie. Such a video blog entry shows that it is technically possible to include other networked videos inside a similarly networked video, and helps to illustrate the questions that this raises.
The third prototype takes this a step further so that parts of an individual video blog (published elsewhere by someone else) is selectively quoted within another videoblog. In this example there are multiple selective quotations so that here commentary is woven around the originating video blog entry.
What each of these prototypes does not achieve is as significant as what they demonstrate. However, what I wish to emphasise at this nascent point in videoblogging is not what generic conventions or even practices ought to be pursued, but to observe that applications could be developed that allow us to work within video so that it retains its granularity after publication. Just as blogs have with text. This would be a hypertextual video, and much like blogs and their emergence, we do not know what such a practice will become. A blog, if printed, is no longer a blog, it cannot be a blog without its permeation by and within the network. If video in a blog can be removed and played, and is qualitatively no different, then it is not yet blog video. That difference requires invention. The architectures and tools exist, the hindrance is simply our prejudice, that is our horizons of understanding and expectation. This essay is an invitation to reimagine that horizon.
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