Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Freaks

As so many of my blogging friends are involved in online giveaways or work as brand enthusiasts, is it becoming difficult to make jokes about these companies.  I have friends with “business” connections to vibrator manufacturers to Butterball Turkey to Kmart to Hebrew National Hot Dogs.  If I make a joke about one of these products, I might actually be hurting a friend’s livelihood, or at least a free trip to Disneyland.  I try to be respectful, although in my opinion, the personal and promotional go together as well as olive oil and cheez whiz.

On Twitter, there are these weekly conversations, called Girl’s Night Out, which are sponsored by a company.  A few weeks ago, it was a night of chatting sponsored by Crayola.  Every tweet had the hashtag #crayola, so my Twitter timeline was filled with #crayola hastags, even if the discussion at the moment was about something unrelated, like the latest episode of Project Runway. I found this incongruity funny, but when I made a joke about my own childhood experience using Crayola Crayons, no one seemed amused.  Why?  Because I actually talked about Crayola Crayons, not the point of the event, which was to promote some new for-school products by the company!

I understand the interest in working with corporate America, and not biting the hand that feeds you, but there is something wrong in the world when we become more respectful of a crayon company, at least in terms of humor, than the average person on the street.

I noticed this attitude  in many of the BlogHer recaps, particularly those written by corporate or PR bloggers.  The villains were always the trailer trash moms,  who threw babies against the wall in a rush to get at the swag, and never the classy marketing-savvy ones who fit a certain demographic, and were better connected to the bigger companies.  There was a great deal of humor made at the expense of these mothers, who would do anything to grab another freebie, as if they were shopping on the day before Christmas.

I was surprised how few people joked about the other side of the coin — the corporate circus, the companies all over the place, those who created the swag, sponsored the parties, built the huge statues of Ragu bottles in the dining room, or had the Michelin man tumbling around the lobby like a scene out of Ghostbusters.  I found that extremely funny.  But at the end, no one talked about the corporations, or the marketers, or the PR firms.  The laughing stock were the clueless “mommybloggers,” average women on a weekend away from the kids, who got caught up in the chaos, and now had to be reigned in under Integrity.

I was reminded of this experience at BlogHer when I read some of your Tweets about the immensely popular viral site, The People of Walmart.

Now, granted, Walmart is a “hated” institution, a symbol of America gone wrong.  Whether Walmart deserves this label is debatable.  There is evidence that, everyone’s favorite big-box store, Target, is not much better of a corporation, but just seems more sophisticated because they carry Michael Graves tea kettles.

What is interesting about this site, is that it isn’t about Walmart at all, or their corporate policies.  That would be too political, and would raise some uncomfortable questions that would affect all of us.   No, the site makes fun of the patrons — usually small town residents who have nowhere else to shop.   And not just ANY small town residents, but those crazy enough to walk into the store dressed terribly, or wearing Captain America outfits.  Basically, this site is making fun of poor, uneducated, and mentally unbalanced America in small town America with no other resources but to go to Walmart!

walmart

This is a much different take on “freaks” than the photos of one of my favorite photographers, Diane Arbus, who presented her subjects in with a loving, humanistic manner.arbus

“Hilarious”  “Funny”  “I love it!”  That’s what some of you had to say about The People of Walmart.

Rule number one of Blogging with Integrity:  I treat others respectfully, attacking ideas and not people.

Of course, it is OK to make fun of those at Walmart because most of them don’t have computers or blog or Tweet, so they will never know that we are laughing at their photos taken WITHOUT their permission and plastered online for our amusement.

Just as long as we don’t make fun of Kashi Go Lean Crunch! because a friend of a friend is doing a giveaway.

58 Comments

  1. I’m confused. Weren’t you making fun of these exact people on twitter the other night? Why the grand change of heart?

  2. Kathleen – No, I was saying the site was mean in spirit cause there is nothing particularly funny about someone mentally ill walking through a store in a superhero outfit.

  3. I must have missed it if you were making funvof these folks on Twitter the other night. I wouldn’t know about that.
    The first thing I thought when I linked to this site was,”What if one of these people saw their own photo here?” What if that was the worst night of her life? How humiliating for her, or for many of them, to find that photo on the web! I visited this site exactly once.

  4. I think I’m finally starting to get you, Neil. You’re one of those talk out loud, talk all around the subject until it finally makes sense people. I’ve had lukewarm brand interactions on Twitter. (with the actual brand or just a lowly PR rep that stalked me because of my negative comment and emailed me to try and please me or the one that publicly tried to make nice and did nothing in the end and I give up because I don’t think brands really care about anything but the bottom line.)

    Recent irksome thing for me, was the whole Seventh Generation buy our good for you unbleached tampons and btw we support Ovarian Cancer awareness and not kicking puppies in the face or somesuch thing. All the rambling just to say, I totally get you now and I’ll shut up. You’re right, it’s not so much the talking back to brands that’s verboten, but talking back to those talking FOR brands that is.

    re: the walmart thing…have you read David Denby’s Snark?

  5. I hate typos. Sorry. I’m using my phone.

  6. Here I thought I was the only one. I don’t find anything humorous about poking fun of wal mart customers either. I agree, strikes me as just being mean spirited.

  7. If there’s anything funny about this site it’s that the very people that find it amusing could easily be featured on it. It’s the largest retailer in the world. I have to believe that even the consumers that claim to be repulsed by it, stop in, on occasion, when it’s convenient, and if they happen to look like a slob it’s okay because it’s only Walmart… in fact I think that’s me in picture 1.

  8. Reason #??? why I like you. :) I think Heather hit the nail on the head with “Talk out loud, talk all around.. until it makes sense….” I love this about you.

    PS. I, too, love Diane Arbus.

  9. Neil, you might be amused to know that this blog is the my primary connection to the mommyblog scene.

    Participating in a conversation with “crayola” hash tags all over the place, and NOT being able to make a joke about crayons? Well, that’s no way to live. Pretending that there’s not a Michelin Man at a party WHEN THERE IS is possibly insane and definitely a waste of some good clean fun. And adult humans who stack Ragu into towers (outside the confines of a grocery store) surely wake up in the morning EXPECTING to be mocked.

    But I’m with you on People of Walmart, for sure.

  10. Yesterday, I picked up a little old lady who was hitch hiking and she kept swatting invisible things around her for the whole ride. She looked totally normal, and then presto, she was muttering weird stuff about alpine ski jumping and evil, and I was thinking how easy it would be for her to just strangle me.

    I have an adopted brother who was a crack baby. He’s 32 now, has the intellect of an eight year old, lives in a fantasy world, and likes to be called ‘Skull’. You can imagine the way he dresses.

    Mental illness is funny, from a distance. Up close, it’s scary, and sad, how normal someone can look (or not) and what a nightmare it must be to be locked inside of them.

    Still, I have to admit, I’m a mocker.

    Am I evil?

  11. this is one of the most intelligent posts on the idea of social networking and the integrity of kindness, that I’ve ever read.

    It explains the depth of your intelligence, really.

  12. There need to be more posts about negotiating the strata of social class. Well done.

  13. I’ve never seen that site and I don’t think it’s ever a good thing to make jokes at someone else’s expense. But there have always been those who try to feel better about themselves by making fun of others. Taking photos like that and posting them isn’t ethical. My own complaints about Wal-Mart have nothing to do w/ the people who shop there (as you said, most of them have no choice; my sister is one of those people who lives in a small town, where the nearest “city” is an hour-and-a-half away) and everything to do w/ the way Wal-Mart makes giant profits, yet pays its employees peanuts, with little or no benefits. Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart, would be appalled at what has happened to his company.

    As for BlogHer and the swag and advertising, it is over-the-top. I think the focus of any such conference should be more about writing and connecting and less about freebies and giveaways.

  14. Isn’t that the way it is– you stop blogging b/c you don’t understand the point, and when you force yourself despite the fact, the point comes out all by itself. *mwah*

  15. I’m with you on this on. I’ve seen the “People of Walmart” name batted around but I’ve never visited the site (haven’t set foot in a Walmart for ten years, ethical reasons) but from what I can tell by your post it’s abhorrent. (Also: can’t spell check on phone, heh.) I am highly sensitive to ridicule and bristle at it in all forms. I don’t like it when people make fun of other people, and it makes no difference to me whether or not those people will ever know it. In fact, that might be worse.

    I was also annoyed that the focus after BlogHer was on the poor desperate mommyblogger, as you described, and not the givers of swag. It’s a team sport and I’m not making a judgment on it but we are each responsible for our own character regardless of our title (blogger, mother, corporate representative, what have you.) Integrity is what it is.

  16. Thank you for writing this. It had to be said, and you did it right.

    I’ve been skirting the margins for a long time, and I see the possibility of myself in those pictures. Easy targets, cheap snark.

  17. I had a fleeting interest in going to blogher. The reason I didn’t go? Exactly what you just described above. I had vision of there being two classes of people. Every day bloggers, like myself, and those who once were…who have gained some sort of “internet acclaim” and now think they are better than everyone else. (whether they chose to admit it or not)
    I wonder how much flack I’m going to get from this comment.

  18. Great post, Neil! I totally agree. Those twitter conversations are one part annoying and ten parts stupid.

  19. That site is popular because it’s still socially acceptable to make fun of fat people and to snicker at the mentally ill. Except that it’s not okay, it’s not funny, and I’m really really glad you stood up and said it.

  20. So, does this mean we’re boycotting Crayola now? Is there a badge? I’d hate to miss a chance to advertise my integrity.

  21. Wow, what a great post. You summed up my feelings about the Walmart site and the BlogHer stuff quite well. Thank you.

  22. Neil, this is a fantastic post. I feel hypocritical for saying that… Because I am a blogger that works with corporations, but at the same time I try to live by my internal compass and by honest and my experience with them, and I am certainly will to bash companies if need be, and praise companies too – not just because I am working with them. To me, the relationships I have with corporations are value added to me blog and my life, but really don’t change the way I do things. And since I am back to ad free, there is more freedom with that as well.

    Next topic: I think someone said it above, but you are absolutely right – there is a MAJOR difference between making fun of or refusing to shop at Wal-Mart vs that People of Wal-Mart site. I don’t go to the store because I don’t like how they do business. I don’t visit that site because making fun of people in fucked up situations doesn’t interest me. Except for Go Fug Yourself, and those are celebrities who are totally asking for it.

    And I’m think I am going to have to do some real research and pie charts on the Target / Walmart thing.

  23. Ugh. Typing from iPhone there. TYPOOOSSS.

  24. “If I make a joke about one of these products, I might actually be hurting a friend’s livelihood, or at least a free trip to Disneyland.”

    I think you might have an over-inflated sense of your importance on that one, Neil :)

    IOW: mock away.

    You remind me of why I love the second half of any American Idol season and cringe at the first. Because the first half seems to celebrate mocking people who are either a) unattractive or overweight or b) mentally delusional. As AnnetteK mentioned above (and I paraphrase): These are the groups that it seems it is still OK to mock and disdain in this country.

    And I’ve commented in a few places that while I was disturbed by reports of swag mania, I was equally disturbed by the tone of classism that crept into some of the critiques I read. The whole, “People, how can you be excited about getting four months worth of *laundry* products?”

    Well, maybe because that will save someone a shitload of money, that’s how. Or help them recoup the non-trivial cost of attending a conference.

    Well, I started to continue to go on and on and realized: I have no grand resolution or conclusion, so I’m just going to stop now. That is all!

  25. I loved this post, Neil. You have such a way of saying what needs to be said, without getting inflammatory or poking fingers at a specific person.

    I agree with everything you said, including the People of Walmart site. I clicked over once, and never went back.

  26. Careful, Neil. You’re holding that mirror a little too close, and it’s kind of uncomfortable.

  27. I never commented before and now twice in one week. Anyway – I like what you are doing here. I like that you are thinking carefully about what other people are doing. You’re like the morality police. It’s a good thing.

  28. Emma – oh god no. I would be a very bad cop in the morality police. It is easy to talk on blogs and pontificate. When it comes down to it, I’m not the right person to rescue the person from the flaming building.

  29. good post, Neil. I’m not totally comfortable with people of wal-mart, either. I do most of my shopping there out of economic necessity and while you will often see some interesting characters there, I don’t think I’m really in a position to make fun of them since we’re shopping at the same place for our own reasons. one could argue that it’s the same as awkward family photos or look at this fucking hipster, but people of wal-mart just seems more mean-spirited and classist.

  30. you say it like it is, my man. and you say it so well.

    i seem to have stayed out of the circle of these certain bloggers somehow, and thank god. the freaks have always been so much more real than the others….and you are so totally right about the way some of the respectful corporate bloggers can turn so sharply against folks not if their ilk.

    i try to stay out of both stores just because we have very little money to spare, target is almost as bad as wal-mart with a population of suburbanite mamas wrenching tweens and toddlers around, stacking carts full of uselessly ‘useful’ items.

    neither of them really need to be laughed at, though. keep september coming….it makes my brain stretch to read here.

  31. If I ever found myself in the lucky position of endorsing someone, I would hope that I might keep the attitude of Patton Oswalt about it: Take the money, make the jokes anyway, and if someone has a problem with a joke, give the money back.

    As for PeopleOfWalmart, I laugh without shame when I see those pictures. I never considered the mentally ill aspect of it (and from what I’ve seen I don’t think they’re mentally ill, mostly just clueless or eccentric) but I think of it more as “Here’s something funny that I saw the other day and I got a quick picture of it.” No more embarrassing than taking a picture of a lolcat in a funny pose, these people are in public. We’re not spying on them in their homes, they’re walking around like that. They just happen to be in another state. Feeling badly for them smacks, to me, of a rather condescending attitude towards middle America. They are, I think, sophisticated enough to defend themselves.

    I know this may make me an unpopular entity on your site, Neil, but, as my father always told me: Joke ’em if they can’t take a f***.

  32. Chris – Thanks a lot for being the devil’s advocate. It is no fun without someone like you looking at things in another way. I think you might have a point, and this is me being a bit too PC, and even condescending to middle America.

    I think my own answer lies somewhere in that thin line between who is telling the joke and who is the audience. I enjoy Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck jokes, but I assume that he grew up in that environment and he is mocking with some sort of love. We all know Jewish and black and Latino comedians who can tell ethnic jokes about their own group, and make us laugh, but if someone from another group said the same joke, we would cringe. I did not get a sense that the Walmart site was a humor site for other Middle Americans or a site down with affection, with the message, “Look how freakin’ crazy we are!” Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am reading the wrong blogs. I was reading the blogs and tweets of people who just seemed to enjoy laughing at the expense of others a little too much, when they would probably sue the site if it were their photo posted.

  33. Well said, friend.

    I haven’t seen the site but admit I would probably laugh because hell, I HAVE WALKED THROUGH WALMART LOOKING LIKE SHIT.

    And I can laugh at myself.

    I wouldn’t ever laugh at a mentally ill person, no way. I’ve seen it up close and damn is it sad.

    But laugh at someone who wears a stained wife beater, pajama pants and mismatched slippers to WalMart?

    Yeah, I would. Because I have done it and wouldn’t blame one soul for chuckling at the walking cliche I present.

    I think my mocking comes from a sense of having been there (More often than I care to admit. heh) rather than laughing at them from a perch of elitism, but maybe it still makes me a douchebag, who knows?

    As for the swag and behavior. I was appalled by the way some people reacted because it was just bad behavior.

    I was grateful for the fabric softener. It saves me a ton of money. I am grateful for everything I received but would never push and shove and yell or try to blackmail a crock representative into giving me product.

  34. I cannot comment articulately or intelligently on this, but this post means a lot to me. Nicely done. I am not much of a Twitterer (Twat? Twit?) and I don’t understand hash tags and I don’t know a thing about event tweeting or corporate sponsoring. I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts around this for a while now, and reading this has me thinking deeper. I took my blog hiatus in July 2008 when, I think (?), the “corporate sponsorship” thing was taking off in a major way. I wasn’t around for it and to say I was taken aback when I returned to JN is an understatement. I like what Chris wrote above about Patton Oswalt’s comment.

    I guess I don’t know where I’m going with this. It all just makes me very uncomfortable, the whole corporate shilling thing, and I’m fairly certain it’s not a popular opinion to hold. I’ll just STFU now.

  35. I forgot to say- I’m totally against throwing babies against the wall in order to get Ragu sauce. If that makes me elitist, so be it.

  36. I had a huge long comment that veered into soapbox territory, so in the interest of not being extremely offensive, I’m going to leave it alone and just say DITTO to what Chris Hoke said.

  37. I admit that I laughed when I first saw the Wal Mart site but after considering how I would feel if I saw a picture of me or mine taken and posted without my knowledge or permission, be it at Wal Mart or anywhere else, I didn’t think it was so funny and deleted it from my Reader.

    That, I’m sure, is influenced in no small part by how jarring it was to have people avert there eyes and sometimes even overtly snicker when I was sick and had no choice but to get out to run errands, grocery shop etc. I looked like seven kinds of hell some days and well…you see where I’m going. Do unto others etc.

  38. This post right here is why I like you so damn much.

  39. About the Wal-Mart site, I tend to agree with Chris too. The site is not about Wal-Mart, but the people that are drawn there. I don’t know why we make the assumption that they are mentally ill. Being odd or eccentric doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Technically, I’m mentally ill, but I don’t bring a goat shopping with me.

    Is the site mean-spirited? Probably. Have most of us thought the same things when we’ve seen people like that? I imagine at least once or twice. I’m also willing to bet that the people in the pictures would fail to see what’s wrong with their t-shirt with the swastika on it or the bleached blond mullet. They are, in fact, going out like that.

    And I’m not all together sure that the pictures are being snapped without their knowledge. The site says to ask permission, several pictures are most certainly posed for and often people are looking directly at the camera.

    As for all that corporate stuff… I don’t understand the point of tweeting back and forth with a hashtag for a company and not even talking about their products. Beyond that, greed has a way of clouding judgement, just like any drug.

  40. Finn – all I know is that I would be pissed if someone took a photo of me on a bad hair day and published it online for a million people to laugh at me.

    I’m not big on paparazzi shooting celebrities either — like when they are eating hero sandwiches, and the shot is angled so we can see their cellulite, but at least with that, it is part of the game of being famous, which is their job.

    I hope that when this viral site starts to make money, the subjects will get residuals.

  41. I think it’s a little sad that it’s cool to hate Wal-Mart these days. Mr Walton is an American success story. The company isn’t perfect any more than the individuals who criticize it all the time are.
    That being said, I have 3 clients now who are suing them.

  42. Nailed it. Thanks, Neil.

  43. i take offense at your suggestion that the oddly dressed people in wal-mart are uneducated or mentally ill. apparently, you don’t have any lazy, procrastinating teens whose school project supplies you are ultimately responsible for obtaining. unfortunately, i could easily be the subject of a photo on that site.

    now, that being said, i TOTALLY agree with you, neil, and i read your follow up post first, and i don’t think you need to explain yourself (unless you were just taking the opportunity to use the subject for another one of your daily posts).

  44. The People of Walmart site is absolutely hilarious. Those people chose to dress like morons. If I thought they were mentally retarded, I might feel a twinge of guilt at laughing at them, but until I see proof other than their method of dress, I shall assume that they dressed that way of their own volition.

  45. I don’t like People of Wal-Mart for the same reason I don’t like STFU Parents. Both of them feature images or words of people who don’t know their images or words are being used to mock them. Until they happen to stumble across them. And if they get upset about it, well, sucks to be them. They should have known better than to go to Wal-Mart in a too-small tank top or update their Facebook status to say that their baby just had another diaper blowout (and yes, people have actually said that when I have complained about these sites). Wasn’t it fortunate that some cell-phone photographer or Facebook “friend” was there to take a picture or a screenshot and post it so that millions of other mean-spirited jerks could laugh at them?

    I have no use for sites like these. Although, oddly, I have more patience with the “overheard” sites… maybe because they’re funnier. Perhaps I’m a mean-spirited jerk too, but one with a higher humor threshold.

  46. I’m both upset and glad I read this post before I posted my take on the People of WalMart website – which I have not even been to yet – only having heart about it – I was all “I hate WalMart and I’m so going to write a post about how much I hate it!” but after reading this it made me feel bad and now, well, I’m not going to write the post. And if I do, it won’t be what I intended to write… but for the record: I hate WalMart. I can’t stand going in there. Everything about it bothers the crap out of me. I’d rather pay 4 bucks more for my shampoo. I just don’t have the patience for WalMart.

  47. Neil –

    This site isn’t about people going out looking sloppy or having a bad hair day. These are men wearing see-through white bike shorts with what looks like girls’ underwear underneath or a woman wearing bike shorts with a penis as part of the design in the crotch area or someone going out in public with a skirt that doesn’t cover their ass. None of these are things that would have slipped someone’s attention if they had passed a mirror on their way out the door.

    Making fun of a person for having cellulite is not OK, no matter who it is. That’s not something that is in anyone’s control. What you wear is a different story.

  48. I don’t get the appeal of the people of walmart site, as I said on Twitter a few days ago. It’s just not funny, plus the site design is crappy.

    I have an uncle who is mild to moderately retarded but it’s hard to tell just by looking at his face. Should someone post a picture of him because he’s overweight and will wear knee socks with shorts? You can’t assume someone isn’t retarded just because they don’t look retarded.

    Anyway, my problem with people of walmart isn’t all about whether someone is mentally ill or not. It’s also about a loss of humanity.

  49. In the last week on the site, I have seen a woman wearing the bicycle shorts that Finn mentioned, a woman wearing a skirt that doesn’t cover her underwear as well as a woman wearing a swastika t-shirt. The site isn’t poking fun of these people because they are fat, mentally handicapped or any other type of reason that I normally would rally against.

    I also don’t think this is a slap in the face of the social construct either. There are plenty of poor people who do NOT dress like some of these individuals and plenty of people with money who do. Also, there are people who are poor who refuse to shop at WalMart and those who have money who just love the store to death.

    I think, in order to be fair, we should think about those things. I’m in no way worried about ever having a secret snapshot of me submitted to this site because I would never ever ever ever wear the things these people do and again, like Finn has already said, nobody is going to take a picture of my bad hair day.

    With that said, I do feel bad for people because pictures of them are being put on a website without their knowledge however that is about the only negative reason that I can come up with.

  50. Always making us think, Neil, thanks for that, it hurts my brain a little. The Wal-mart site does make me uncomfortable, for the reason you suggest. These people don’t know they are being photographed and mocked. But, then again, I delight in TMZ, which is pure mean-spirited celebrity mocking. Does the whole “putting yourself out there” distinction work? I don’t know.

    I did feel uncomfortable about all the mocking of ‘greedy mommy bloggers’ at BlogHer and the (maybe slightly self-righteous) “I didn’t care about the swag” posts. I can say that because I wrote one and I wrote it from the heart. I wondered about what it would mean to cover the cost of a trip like that with gifts. To need to make up some of the cost.

    I’m rambling, but I appreciated this post.

  51. I totally agree with you Neil. I haven’t hit up the “People of Walmart” site, mainly cause it just seems cruel & unnecessary. I don’t really shop at WalMart unless I ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO for more than one reason.

    That being said, I’ve been known to snap a pic at work of someone dressed inappropriately and tweet it for my followers to see, so I kind of feel hypocritical for saying the stuff above. I just couldn’t see myself taking pics of people at WalMart and laughing about it.

    Excellent post, my friend.

  52. You are posting like a house on fire. How can I keep up? This post is my favorite ever. Yes, yes, yes.

  53. Wow, great post. I agree and think a lot of people are too quick to laugh at classist humor…

  54. I could kiss you on the mouth for this post.

  55. You’ve demonstrated one of the main reasons I love your blog – you poke fun at ideas or society but not people. It’s something I try to avoid on a daily basis when everyone around me is in full cynical mocking mode. It’s why I have that Vonnegut quote on my blog. I love this post.

  56. As someone who has vague hopes of shamelessly whoring out her blog in any attempt to score some free swag, I appreciate the view into how it looks from the outside. I’m the kind of person who’s always kicking myself for not being more aggressive and keeping my ‘eye on the prize.’ I’m usually the one standing there jealously watching some grabby whore turning their back on whoever’s clutches they just snatched their prize from.
    On the other hand, I don’t want to become boring, with shill after shill, with a pathetic and minimal attempt at a ‘review’: [3 paragraphs clearly copied from the sponsor’s jargon]… “and we really love it.”
    So far I’ve not been inundated with corporate sponsors (*sigh*) but a girl can dream!
    And sometimes it’s hard to resist… and just take a big chomp out of the hand that feeds you! My daughter seems to delight in it! But… erm… Kashi Go Lean is very yummy!
    Ludicrous Mama posted Operation- McDont!

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