Archive for the ‘media’ category

RealClearPolitics: Winning the Digital Journalism Race

29, August, 2008

Not long ago I castigated Congressional Quarterly for presenting high-quality reportage on political polling via a blog. They’re missing a great journalistic opportunity–to present daily analysis of the latest state-by-state Obama vs. McCain polls in a way that takes full advantage of the interactive visual medium that is the new platform for journalism.

It’s a classic case of old media not understanding what to do with their great stuff. Failing to “unlock the value” of their work, as they say in the corner offices.

Anyway, I’ve since discovered that such a map–a dataviz, or datavisualization, in web argot–exists. Unsurprisingly, it’s the work of a new media firm unburdened by an analog heritage.

The map is produced by RealClearPolitics, an online-only political analysis operation.

The map is a thing of digital beauty, a tool that lets you dig into good polling data smartly analyzed and interact with it by imagining various scenarios.

What if current polling holds through November? [Results shown above, pre convention "bounce."]

What if Obama wins Virginia and New Mexico and the rest of the ’04 results are unchanged? [Obama wins by a hair.]

What if McCain sweeps the rust belt of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan? [McCain by a mile, even if he loses Florida, etc.]

You can base all of these scenarios on the latest polling data so you can see how realistic your own speculations are.

It’s great work, a simple dataviz that presents best-of-class information in a fully interactive way that delivers a very high level of public service. It’s “civic engagement” on a screen.

If old media doesn’t start winning this kind or race soon, there will be no doubt who will carry the contest for the media future.

No matter who the President is.

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DNC Exposes a Gap in the New Media Ecosystem

27, August, 2008

As part of my utterly ineffectual campaign to embarrass the journalism establishment until it capitulates to my irresistible wisdom, I’m doing my best to boycott mainstream media coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

There are 15,000 journalists in Denver. There are 4,000 delegates.

At a time when news leaders face the urgent need to reinvent themselves around crushing economic changes, they’re squandering precious journalistic resources earnestly covering an event that’s part infomercial, part pep rally and part goofball Americana parade. All right now, let’s listen to State Sen. Rhubarb Buttwhistle’s intro to Gov. Louis Meander’s tribute to Adlai Stevenson! Tough questions, you say? Tell me, Mdme. Janie, is this convention hat really from 1956?

Yo, journalists: Is this what you went to school for? Isn’t there a meth lab in a house jointly owned by a city councilman and a corrupt contractor catching fire back home or something?

So anyway, I figure this is a great time to check out the emerging media. You know, those bold, independent voices unfettered by the groupthink of corporate media and resistant to the virus of party politics.

I went looking for a source that pulled together an eclectic mix of the best independent voices from non-mainstream, non-corporate media. Certainly some new media visionary was at this task right now, mining the indie datastream for precious nuggets, producing a truly fresh, truly independent, crisply edited feed representing news and opinions spanning the spectrum of politics, age, gender, lifestyle, social class and headwear preferences.

Um, no.

I found four varieties of DNC blog aggregation going on.

Big Brands (Washington Post, The New Republic, Politico) These mainstream outlets simply have their staff use blogging software to get their content on the screen faster. Also saves money on copy editors. Independent? Not so much.

Digital Algorithmic Aggregators (DayLife, Topix) These wrap a skin of a harried producer’s choices around an armature of machine-generated content, usually from mainstream sources. Curated? Not so much.

Lefty Blogs (Huffington Post) and Righty Blogs (RedState). Interesting for three or four clicks. Then, very quickly, thin and stifling.

I spent well over an hour searching for a dispassionate curator who undertook the task of presenting an eclectic mix of high-value content representing a range of views, avoiding both mainstream news and an ideological filter. I searched in vain.

I guess it makes sense. Big media brands are invested in promoting their own folks. Lefties and Righties want to ventilate only the viewpoints their benefactors embrace. The machine aggregators just want to assemble eyeballs at the lowest costs.

All of this exposes an interesting gap in the new media marketplace. Lots of great independent content is being created from and about the convention. Nobody I could locate is making an intellectually honest attempt to select the highest quality stuff and make it accessible in a single place with a single RSS feed. If it included multiple media–pix, Tweets, videos, etc.–so much the better.

I know there’s an audience for this. I know there are people capable of producing this.

And yet. . .there it isn’t.

The digital media marketplace being what it is, I wonder if this task isn’t best suited to a journalistic foundation or university program. [This isn't a grant proposal, honest.]

Of course, it’s entirely possible that there is a politically independent, journalistically sound effort to curate the best non-MSM content produced by a variety of sources coming out of the DNC in something like real time.

If so, I’d love to hear about it.

It would make my pitiful solo boycott of MSM DNC coverage so much more satisfying.

Worst DataViz Ever: CQ’s Poll Tracker

13, August, 2008

I often write about great datavisualizations–applications that use interactive graphics to illuminate a database in inventive ways. A great dataviz explains stuff in a way words alone cannot.

Today I’d like to pay tribute to one of the worst data presentations of the political season: Congressional Quarterly’s Poll Tracker.

Let me say first that it’s a great idea to take the most recent state-by-state presidential polling data from the most credible sources and update it daily. Put some experienced reporters on it so they’re not fooled by bogus numbers. This will produce an electoral map showing the latest polls in all 50 states. What more could an obsessive horse-race watcher ask for?

Unless you decide to just report the data in a blog, without connecting it to a map, and just leaving it in the order that the data comes in. Here’s what you get:

I thought this presentation looked eerily familiar. Then I recalled the two-year mobile broadband service contract I signed over the weekend. You know the way they print out those contracts on long receipt tape? And they have to fold it over four times just to get it in the bag? That’s what the CQ “dataviz” reminded me of.

This is a classic case of journalists not understanding that how you present data is just as important as the underlying data itself. Stick that daily-updated state-by-state polling data on a map, float the data on flash pop-ups and you have a powerful application, a real reader service and eyeball draw. Leave it in a blog and all that reporting. . .turns invisible.

To be fair, CQ does have projection data on a map for House, Senate and Governors races. It doesn’t appear to take the most recent polling data into account, but it toggles neatly between current landscape and projected election outcomes.

Oh, wait, look! There is a “President” map that presents the latest polling data! My mistake!

Oh, never mind. . .that’s the results from the 2004 election.

Their mistake.

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Online Journalism Awards and The Audacity of Hope

6, August, 2008

When I first saw the list of the finalists for the 2008 Online Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Online News Association, my response was despair: Almost 100 finalists in 23 categories. My carpal tunnels began to swell shut just at the thought. This smelled to me of those contests where every entrant is declared a finalist in order to pack the awards dinner.

Well, questions of motivation aside, the list is full of spectacular stuff. I use the word “spectacular” to describe online journalism very rarely. But I clicked into the list with dread and came away surprised and delighted–and feeling something like hope–more often than not.

I won’t critique the list or pick my favorites, but offer just a few observations:

When a major news organization dedicates itself to telling a story with multiple media, it can create a thing of beauty and power. True to the claims of those who insist there is a future for capital J Journalism in the digital age, the projects often provide a deeper and richer and fuller journalistic experience than projects whose toolkit is limited to 26 letters. Just two examples: Reuters on 5 years in Iraq, Dallas Morning News on Unequal Justice, which investigates a scary pattern in Texas of murderers who are given probation.

Political commentary done digitally can be as incisive as the kind using words alone. Example: Beliefnet’s God-O-Meter, which does regular visual news reports on the spiritual tweakings and tinkerings of Barack Obama and John McCain:

At least some journalism students due to replace the legions of buyoutees in Ameica’s digital news operations are ready to take over. Witness South of Here, a collaboration between the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Facultad de Comunicación at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile. These kids have chops their parents often don’t.

On Digital Jouralism Worst Practices

Of course, I can’t let this opportunity pass without at least a brief mention of persistent Worst Practices in Digital Journalism.They are also frequently evident among Online Journalism Award finalists.

Segregating “video” from other parts of a package, or even labeling it as video. Media of all types should be integrated into a whole package. Calling out “video” rings of an anachronistic brag: “Hey, lookit, we did some video, too!” I demand this practice be stopped immediately.

Layering a show-offey Flash entry page above the package. Flash pages waste time, bandwidth and user patience. They add no value. They impress nobody other than their own designers. Stop it, I tell you, stop it!

Placing the whole 3-part, 120-inch wordroll at the center of a digital package. Long blocks of text work okay on paper. They deliver a lousy experience online. Keeping those wayback-style reports at the center of digital packages tells me the newspaper folks are still in control of the website, fighting the future, defending the interests of their print reporters and slowing the new organization’s transition to a financially stable future. In fact, how about this: Instead of sticking “videos” in the sidebar of an article, how about putting “articles” in the sidebar of a visually-driven presentation. ["Hey, lookit, we wrote an article about this too!"] Editors who take offense at that suggested inversion, I submit, may want to consider that next buyout offer very seriously.

The Feds and Social Media: EPA Goes Blogging

24, July, 2008

From the Who Knew? files: The Environmental Protection Agency has been hammering away at a group blog since April.

Don’t worry, it’s not the Bush hacks extolling the virtues of offshore drilling. Greenversations is written by a group of civil servants at the agency who explore greenish issues in a personal way. As they go, they often mention EPA services that can help you, the citizens of America, live a greener life.

Here’s Lina Younes, head of the agency’s multilingual communications office, on how the agency helped her fix her leaky toilet, in a manner of speaking.

I learned about the WaterSense program through EPA and found out that the new toilets with the high-efficiency WaterSense label were finally available in the Maryland area where we live. We studied various options. We considered the dual flush toilets that we’ve seen in Europe and more recently in EPA’s Potomac Yard green building, but we finally opted for single flush toilets that use 1.28 gallons per flush and we couldn’t be happier. They do the job and we’ve put a stop to those leaky toilets, finally.

The entries appear to be vetted by EPA staff. But I came across some useful stuff. In this entry about what to do with an old cell phone, I came a fairly cool federal publication on The Lifecycle of a Cellphone. It’s made for kids, but I learned a lot about the resource intensive manufacturing process of phones, and where the motes of deadly toxin are embedded.

The whole point of Greenversations is to “open up the agency to the public,” to digress into 2.0 communications vernacular, and “put a human face on the agency.” It appears to accomplish this. Yes, but will anyone read it? Hard to imagine someone engaged enough with environmental issues to read blogs would be attracted to this 2.0 public service announcement outlet, however well done.

Comments are moderated, as you might expect. But Greenversations has at least some tolerance for agitprop. A response to an EPA science writer’s introduction of a new regular blog item on environmental science:

Steve Holmer says:

July 23rd, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Rather ironic, but it is encouraging that EPA staff have not given up on science. However, reading today’s Washington Post about how Director Johnson repeatedly lied to Congress about the decision concerning the CA waiver doesn’t leave one feeling like EPA has yet turned the corner.

Looking forward to better times ahead,

Ah, yes, but now about the government has a database of people who have made comments critical of high-level federal officials! Is Mssr. Holmer safe from government harrassment, even under the provisions of the Patriot Act?

From the Frequent Questions page:

Why do you ask for my name and email address when I leave a comment? How do you protect my privacy?

Providing your name or email address is optional. We ask for your name so that it is easier to carry on a conversation, so we will publish it along with your comment. We ask for your email address so that we may contact you if necessary. We will not publish your email address.

To protect yourself, please don’t include information that identifies you in the body of your comment, such as email addresses or phone numbers. We don’t edit comments, so we won’t be able to publish comments containing such information.

Huh. I wonder of Mssr. Holmer included his real e-mail address. And if he did, whether he got a response “thanking” him for his “valuable comment.”

If any of this interests you, you can always follow Greenversations on Twitter.

But you knew that.

Very Short List: Like E-Mail, Only Better

23, July, 2008

If you haven’t had the pleasure of receiving the daily e-mails from Very Short List, I recommend you subscribe immediately. VSL produces one of the very few utterly unnecessary e-mails you will choose to read.

Very Short List is very short indeed: It contains a single item daily. It points to a book, website, idea, album, artist or. . .something that probably escaped your attention but shouldn’t. The items are often funny. Not ha-ha funny, but the-world-is-so-much-more-wonderfully-strange-than-we-realize funny.

Today’s e-mail features a website that features user-supplied examples of passive-aggressive notes posted in public.

Compared to Daily Candy, Very Short List is a double-espresso protein shooter, shaken not stirred.

It’s a model of brevity and usability. Its daily item is illustrated with a batty venn diagram ["Always Clickable!"] that locates the item culturally. It has intellectual roots in Spy, the brilliantly defunct fin-de-siecle magazine in which VSL co-founder Kurt Andersen was complicit. It’s funded by Barry Diller’s IAC, of all people.

VSL also raises the question for me about the future of e-mail–the one thing everybody agrees is the “killer app” of the Internet. A brief, focused, useable, brain-stimulating e-mail can accomplish a lot. Even if it’s supported by ads, as VSL is. Professional e-mail marketers often send out unfocused, joyless, self-promotional, rambling crap. It makes us hate mass e-mails.

E-mail isn’t the enemy. Bad content is.

Great e-mails–as 1.0, one-way, anti-social retro as the technology seems–may yet turn out to be one of the most powerful communication channels of the 2.0 era.

Five Lessons From a Year of Blogging

13, July, 2008

One year ago I launched this blog with a notion but no clue.

The notion was that I wanted to make sense of the baffling, bad but somehow occasionally powerful stuff that was emerging under the aegis “Web 2.0.” [It has lately been usefully redubbed "social media"]. I’d just left the employ of Steve Case’s $500 million scheme to reorganize the healthcare system, partly via 2.0 tactics. Before that I’d been an editor at The Washington Post, spending some of my time trying to help reorient the paper to the web.

So it was a good time to wrap my brain around this developing technology and figure out where it was headed, and where it might take me.

You can find a lot of lessons on other blogs about how to build traffic. You’ll find sociological treatises about what blogging means to democracy, commerce, media and the written word. This ain’t that.

Essentially what I’ve done here is whack the 2.oh. . .really? birthday pinata and pick up a few edible morsels that have fallen onto the floor. Following are five to chew on. They certainly don’t apply to all blogs, which have many different purposes, audiences and authors. So for what it’s worth, here they are.

A personal blog is as valuable to the writer as the reader. A near-daily obligation to write forces you to learn something new or create an insight about something you already know. Writing a blog lets you educate yourself in public.

Entry titles are as important as content. Titles should be dead-clear. Web users are brutally impatient prowlers, unforgiving of ambiguity and unlikely to hang around to figure things out. But provocative works too. Three of my more inane items scored big because their titles promised some mischief: Hillary Needs a Widget; Dilbert, You Ignorant Slut; and Dear Facebook: Bite Me.

Don’t expect your best content to be rewarded. Accept that blog audiences are so unpredictable and that some of your most valuable gems will stay buried. For instance, I remain convinced by my treatise Adsense? Nonsense! is a devastating comic romp that brilliantly lays bare the false premise upon which Google’s vast worldwide empire is founded. 34 people have read it. One of them left a comment as inscrutable as mental ward haiku. The alternative explanation for this lack of attenton is that the entry is full of crap. There’s a lot of that in blogging too.

Stand on the roof in a thunderstorm holding up a rake. You never know when lightning will strike, but you can improve your odds. When you write something really good, send it to other bloggers whose audience you’d like to reach. This will usually fail. But if you get a link from a big blog, bar the door. A link on Huffington Post drew over 10,000 readers to Al Gore vs. Drew Carey: Another Nail-Biter! A prominent link on Jim Romensko’s journalism news blog sent almost 1,500 angry journalists to Proposed: Death to Bylines. I’ve sent out dozens of notes to bloggers pimping other entries and gotten nada. You just never know.

Write short and use pictures. This one is straight from the “Duh” files. You should make regular exceptions, of course. But as a daily practice, short and visual serves readers well. Authors too. I wish I followed this one more.

Maybe next year.

Visualizing the Iraq War, and the Scary Future of Journalism

9, July, 2008

I’m not sure how I missed this wonderful act of journalism-by-data visualization produced by Mother Jones magazine.

Titled “Lie by Lie,” it’s the wayleft publication’s “history of the Iraq War.” The project was undertaken, the editors state, “to create a resource we hope will help resolve open questions of the Bush era. What did our leaders know and when did they know it? And, perhaps just as important, what red flags did we miss, and how could we have missed them?”

Why I love this work of journalism [my own political inclinations notwithstanding]:

1. It’s nothing fancy, hardly a data visualization at all. It’s essentially a timeline navigation of information on the Iraq War. The only visual grace note is the roulettey spin of the date slider as you move it around. But the tool is functional: It permits navigation of the same data by topic, tags or search. It engages and it works.

2. It is an aggregation of content reported by others. This is a great example of curation, of journalism by assembly. Clearly, smart people knowledgeable about public affairs paid close attention to a huge amount of information, made careful selections and used available digital technology to make it accessible and flexible in a way no print publication could.

3. It proves you can advance a political agenda with digital journalism just as easily as you can in the analog world. Edit, select, tweak, ignore. . .and you can assemble your own version of history, just as certainly as the wingnuts at The Washington Times or the pinkos at the New York Times.

4. By virtue of its form, it surfaces new understandings that a reader of the original reports would not achieve. For instance, noodle around with the “Dick Cheney” taq and you’ll discover, right at the top, this entry dated . . . over 15 years ago:

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, speaking to the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says the first President Bush was right not to invade Baghdad: “The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that…we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”–Aug. 14, 1992

But even as it offers a great example of digital journalism, “Lie By Lie” raises troubling questions about same.

Most of the information is drawn from reports that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Knight-Ridder, the New Yorker and many more. Yes, some bloggers made significant contributions. But it’s hard to imagine there would be much of a record of events to assemble without mainstream journalism’s (eventual! shame-faced!) commitment to digging for facts about the runup to Iraq.

The rub: This original reporting cost a fortune. It was produced under the old, dying model of journalism, wherein investigative reporting is funded by advertisements for cell phones, new subdivisions, mattress-chain mega-sales, designer clothing, and so on.

It’s important to remember that for all their swashbuckling highbrow bravado, the authors of New Yorker articles write on the back of designer vodka ads.

As Mother Jones has shown, people who are passionate about telling a story have powerful new tools at their disposal to do so. But without high-quality content–difficult, time-consuming, intellectually demanding, butt-numbing, sometimes actually dangerous reporting–the tools are just toys.

And who will pay for that reporting as we glide forward into the age of paper-free journalism?

Pour yourself a designer vodka and think about that one.

Journalism: It. . .Lives!

8, July, 2008

In the midst of a deep trough of bad news about the news business–the L.A. Times newsroom prepping for about 150 going-away parties, 60 folks heading for the emergency exits at the Baltimore Sun, 140 [40 percent of the news staff!?!] left stranded on Palm Beach–I received a link in my e-mail box that made me feel something like hope.

The Online News Association has relaunched something it calls Interactive Narratives. It’s essentially an gallery of good multimedia journalism, posted wiki-style by members of the Online News Association [conflict of interest note: I attended one of their parties once, but only coughed up membership dues a few weeks ago].

Even though it’s just launched, it’s already full of interesting stuff that demonstrates that at least some journalists have quit whining and are learning to tell stories with something other than 26 letters.

But this effort doesn’t suffer from the precious self-love of a juried competititon. These aren’t proclaimed the best of anything (though some have won various awards). Many are just pretty good examples that show what multimedia journalists are producing these days.

Take, for instance, Strange Genius: Tesla + New York, by the public radio station WNYC. It arranges on a Google map a collection of photos and sound clips that describe the electricity pioneer’s adventures around Manhattan. This is not prize-worthy stuff, but that’s the point. It’s workmanlike multimedia journalism, the digital eqiuvalent of the not-bad 45-inch feature story.

On the other hand, some stuff is so outre it’s hard to describe with mere words.

Take The Whale Hunt, for instance. It appears to be a week-in-the-life gallery over over 3,000 photos documenting a whale hunt. But it presents one of the most dynamic and intellectually demanding navigations I’ve seen. The photography is world-class. The design is remarkable. But the framework is so high-concept that you nearly get a nosebleed just trying to find a picture of a stinkin’ whale.

Perfect work? Once again, no. But a striking example of what happens when interesting minds interact with something other than words and paper.

Is the Andina [of Peru] multimedia package a winner? Hard for me to tell, since it’s in Spanish. But just clicking around, I’m guessing it’s a more culturally sophisticated and richly nuanced tribute to the potato than you’ll find in your daily paper.

Anyway, as the bad news mounts about pulp-and-petroleum journalism, it’s bracing to see the creative approaches to story-telling that are taking shape elsewhere.

Meantime, with so many journalists newly on the job market, it’s worth noting that the Online News Association is hiring.


Deadblog: What I Actually Said at a Web 2.0 Conference

26, June, 2008

Well, I’m done paneling at the Digital Media Conference. As expected the discussion didn’t go entirely as I planned. Which is good.

This is because for the panel, titled Social Media: What’s Next? , I shared the stage with a group of guys all demonstrably smarter (and considerably more stylish) than I:

  • Nick O’Neill, proprietor of The Social Times, the top social media intel blog
  • Greg Johnson, CMO of GGL, a booming gaming social networking site
  • Michael Chin, SVP of Marketing for KickApps, which sells social media software (and just did a major partnership with widgeteer Clearspring, creating a dominant force in the commercial widget-and-social-apps world)
  • Terry Farrell, Senior Product Manager for Microsoft’s Zune, which is using social media in ambitious ways to build the brand and user base of the way-behind-the-iPod MP3 device,

Our moderator was Rohit Bhargava, SVP of Digital Strategy & Marketing for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. He’s used all sorts of social media tactics to promote Personality Not Included, his book about how companies can lose their authenticity–and can get it back.

So here is my attempt at “deadblogging,” to coin a phrase–a recap, after two cocktails and a long day, of a panel in which I participated. [I'm not sure this is a good idea. But hey, it's a 2.0 world! We're all about experimentation and iteration.! Run with it! And, fellow panelists: If I've gotten anything wrong, please let me know.]

The major points I remember:

Nobody’s really sure how social communities can make money, but all of us are convinced they have value. Terry talked about an “exchange of value”–that the Zune community gets value from participants, who in exchange get value from the others. Since his community is designed to support a brand, and not directly bring in money, that exchange is sufficient.

It’s not enough for a network to be social–the real value is the context, which is to say, what the socializing is about and for. Michael talked about how the DIY (do-it-yourself) Network uses its software–instead of people just using a social network to goof around, they actually share an interest and can benefit from the other people’s attention. Greg agreed–his network is by and for gamers, and their shared interest creates the community.

There are too many social networks tugging at limited attention. The panel seemed bearish on the social-to-be-social networks like FaceBook and MySpace, and bullish on those dedicated to a specific purpose. Nick mentioned how a lot of social media tools are used outside of social networks proper.

Even though as someone who does not own or work for a social media company I have no skin in the game, I think I was the most bullish about the magnitude of the transformation social media is bringing to the culture.

It’s true that so many 2.0 gambits and tactics and businesses are inane and shallow–“toys for teens,” as they’re often dismissed. Twitter can be pointless, Digg a fool’s errand, YouTube an arterial bleed of American energy. Mainstream media embarrass themselves regularly by lurching blind into the social space. This not only gives me plenty to blog about. It makes it hard to see the larger patterns.

The Big Fact: Millions of  people worldwide have access to tools that allow them to communicate, organize, think, share, congregate and conspire, in near real time, with whomever they want, without the permission of established media, corporations, government or civic institutions. This transformation is fundamental, accelerating, irresistible and irreversible.

The political implications alone are huge. But so are the commercial and social. Non-adopters put their livelihoods at risk.

Web 2.0 is bigger than Web 1.0, though not as big as Gutenberg. [Or fire, for that matter.]

Mike said something interesting in response to a question about how people can make money from social media. Paraphrasing here, he said companies ought to go out and hire as many anthropologists as possible to try to figure out what’s going on with this new behavior–and then figure out how to make money.

After the presentation, a woman from Motorola came up and introduced herself, said she enjoyed the panel. She handed me her card. Her title read “Anthropologist.”

For real. Not a winky-funny-hip-corporate-title. Her actual job title.

Yes, Motorola has an anthropologist on the payroll.

I’m telling you, this thing is big.


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