Facebook and Your Friends

Over on Facebook I see a fair number of people linking to the story that although the average Facebook user has 155 “friends” on Facebook, there are also on average only four of those “friends” that a Facebook user would call in a genuine crisis, suggesting that just because you are “friends” with someone on Facebook, it doesn’t mean you are actual friends with them in the real world.

My thoughts on this:

One, hey, having four people you can reach out to in an actual crisis is a pretty good number;

Two, I’m not sure why this is at all surprising to anyone at all. Just because Facebook calls its connection mechanism “friending” doesn’t mean that everyone you connect with there are actual friends; they’re merely people who, for one reason or another, you’ve decided to connect with on a social media network. It’s not in the least relevatory to me that the number of “friends” one has on social media doesn’t make much difference to the number of people you consider actual friends, or the number of people who would help you bury the proverbial body.

Here’s a thing about social media, in my experience of it. The people (or entities) one follows on it tends to be part of three groups which overlap but are not exactly the same: The people one cares about, the people one knows of, and the people who one is entertained by. Only one group of these is properly friends; the other groups may or may not be acquaintances, and their presence in one’s feed comes down to the fact that most of us like to have a varied mix of things to look at when we sign on and scroll down. Someone does not need to be your friend to entertain you, either by telling you tidbits of their own life or by putting up links to material they’ve found online that they find interesting.

Can people you otherwise do not know become your friend through online interaction? Sure, although (also in my experience) eventually it helps to make an offline connection as well, to confirm that the comfort level you have with them isn’t just an artifact of online presentation and the fact that it’s mediated in a way that face-to-face encounters aren’t. I have a number of friends I’ve met online. I’m not going to rely on any of them to bury a body with me until we have that click in the offline world.

But then again, how many people do you need to be willing to help you in a crisis? Four really does seem sufficient in most cases. Likewise, if you have two or three dozen people you would call your true friends, well. That seems a lucky amount to me. That’s a person a day for a month you’d be delighted to hang out and spend time with and involve in your various shenanigans. That’s a full life right there, folks.

My personal Facebook feed has (currently) 641 people in it, most of them people who I’ve known personally (meaning, actual physical face-to-face time) at some point in my life, starting from elementary school and moving through my life now as a writer and author. Are they all my friends? Well, some were friends back in the day, and might be friends again if I got to spend face time with them in the physical world. Some are people I’ve more recently met who I would like think could become friends with me if circumstances allowed.

Not everyone of my Facebook Friends is a current friend, but the way I curate that list, the potential for friendship is there, at least. One of the reasons to connect on Facebook is to keep that potential humming along, through the exhibition of pictures and news about our lives. This qualifies as mutual entertainment as well; I like knowing about them and I hope they like knowing about me.

But I don’t expect the vast majority of my Facebook cohort to feel obliged to help me in a crisis. It seems a little much for me to pick up the phone and expect the guy I knew best when we were in elementary school to drop everything and tend to me. And maybe he would! But it seems a lot to ask. I save that for the few people that I already know are there for me in that capacity (and for whom I’m willing to serve in that capacity as well). It’s more than four, I’m happy to say, but not so much more than four that it invalidates the general concept.

The article I linked to above says “The results suggest that people with hundreds of Facebook friends are kidding themselves if they think they can maintain a network so large.” Well, no. They’re not kidding themselves if, one,and again, they realize that just because Facebook calls their connection “friending” it does not oblige them to actually be friends, and two, if they recognize that some people they’ve “friended” are there to be entertainment (and for whom they are likewise entertainment).

And there’s not a thing wrong with that! Thank you, Facebook friends, for entertaining me with your lives and links. I hope I do likewise. And don’t worry that I’ll send a message asking for money, or a kidney, or for you to show up somewhere in the middle of a rainstorm with a shovel and several gallons of lye. Most of you will never get that call. I think you’re happy about that, or should be, anyway.

56 thoughts on “Facebook and Your Friends

  1. I don’t think I’ve seen any evidence that anyone is under any illusions about what “friends” mean on Facebook. I think researchers are bored and like to assume people are idiots.

  2. It’s also a sort of weird presumption to think ‘Person I could call in a crisis’ is the only level of friendship.

    I think about this (mostly while procrastinating) and I could probably group people into a number of categories:

    Friendly acquaintance: Person I recognize and will exchange pleasantries with, not just because of social obligation.

    Friend: Someone I’d feel comfortable sharing a meal with alone.

    Good Friend: Someone who’d I’d be okay with crashing on their couch (and vice versa)

    Best Friend: They’re family by my definition. People I would let watch my cat.

    The latter three are all definitely friends, but they’re not all the same thing. Only the last two would be ‘call in a crisis’ friends.

  3. “just because Facebook calls their connection “friending””

    this really says it all. Question if I may: I’m sure everyone gets requests from friends on FB to like their page (their fan page, commercial page, not the personal one). How do you feel about that? what makes you decide to like or to ignore? Should it be quid pro quo or simply like it if you want but don’t expect a reciprocal like in return?

    #notsureImfromthisplanet

  4. .
    I think it’s trickier than that. Your total brand on Facebook plus Twitter plus GooglePlus plus Instagram, etc., gets analyzed by platforms built on top of those by Klout and the like.
    .
    Second, depends on your take on “Community.”
    .
    Are we a network of trust in Frontier ethos, pitching in to help each other through crisis, or not?

  5. Hear, hear, to all of this and pretty much all the comments.

    The people I have on FB are real friends (I am honored to have many real friends) who I’ve known offline for a long time. A few of them really are of the “I would help you move a body and never speak of it again” level–thankfully, I’ve never had to call in a chit that big, but good to know that I probably could. And there are many professional contacts who I like networking with because we’re spread all over the world and only see each other IRL once every year or two. And then there are zillions of people I keep around because they’re entertaining in one way or another.

    Managing one’s brand is a lot of work. But it doesn’t have be drudgery, either.

  6. Perfect timing! I’m attending a workshop on social media usability this evening! Your insights will certainly enhance my contribution to the evening’s activities. :-)

    Also, how many people you need to be able to call on in a crisis is partly dependent on whether or not you have local family. Since I do not, I make it a point to keep up at least a dozen strong friendships. That might seem like a lot, but people’s own family crises will (and should) always take precedence over mine, as just a friend. I would never expect someone to leave a sick child or elderly parent, or their spouse/significant other, to come and help me – hence, I just need more friends, which is not a bad thing at all. I’m so thankful for each and every one of them.

  7. Yes that’s truth.. While I was reading that was wonder how many I have got and how many people seen once in my life.. So I went on my Fb and there is 669 friends.. 3 of them are my real friends for good and bad times,some of them I’ve not seen since 1986 since we played together at nursery and my family decided to move to another town.. Do I ever going to see them again ? Probably not but they found me on fb and we texting time to time,some of them are people from work who just like to know what’s going on ( kind of nosey 😉 ) But it’s not bad to share some nice moments of Your life,passion or even thoughts.. I don’t mind ;-)

  8. “Friend” is a friendly non-scary term that was used on LiveJournal to the same effect; it’s marketing and they know where your soft underbelly is, socially speaking.

  9. I do not use Facebook. The only reason I have an account is because of an alumni group I wanted to join.

    Nevertheless, I have 26 friends: 6 family members, 1 non-family close enough that I’d call on them in an emergency, 19 other acquaintances, colleagues, etc.

    Not sure what that says — about me, Facebook or otherwise. If that proportion holds true more generally (a very dicey proposition from a sample size of one!), it suggests that a significant chunk of a person’s Facebook friends are there due to inertia, i.e., accepting friendship from people it’s just too much trouble to say “no” to.

  10. I love Face book. I know most of my friends, but some are friends of my friends. I don’t mind them commenting, or befriending my page on Face Book. I feel the more people, the more variety of content.

  11. Probably half my friends on FB are disability-related. Either we both share the disability, or their child shares the disability with me. Maybe a quarter are friends I haven’t been in physical contact with since elementary school, and we reconnected through the school’s FB page. The remaining quarter are ppl I first met through an online chat room, a lot of them started up LJ accts, almost all of them have since moved over to FB, which is why I got a FB acct. I have something like 250 FB friends, and I can confidently say I think I’ve only met a dozen IRL

  12. I deliberately do not use the term “friends” when it comes to people I’m connected to on Facebook, if only because it cheapens the word for me. I’ll usually pick one of the words from a Simpsons scene where Homer goes into Moe’s bar looking for his “soul mate”, and everyone in the bar uses a different term: chum, crony, acquaintance, colleague, sympathizer, compadre, associate, contemporary, and well-wisher.

    Yeah, I’ve watched way too many episodes.

  13. First line of linked article: “Facebook friends should be seen more like a ‘village’ of casual acquaintances rather than a close network of allies, say researchers”

    So, they are correcting a nonexistent problem, cause no one I know of thinks all the people they know of Facebook are part of a close network of allies.

    For their next topic, they should find out if unicorns are real like everyone believes they are, and if not, they should issue a correction.

  14. Four people whom you would call in a genuine crisis seems sufficient to me as well. Most bureaucracies (hospitals, employers, etc.) only ask for one, maybe two such people. Would these researchers define “friend” solely as one whom you would list as an emergency contact? Either they are misusing the word (likely) or they only have two or three friends (possible).

  15. This is not new. Social scientists have theorized for years that we have three levels of relationships with people: our small, intimate inner circle, upon whom we depend to help us fulfill a variety of our needs; a second, somewhat larger circle upon whom we may call if we need something specific; and a third, much larger circle of people we know. Think of them as “intimates,” “friends” and “acquaintances.”

  16. Part two (aka: oops): The reason for the different levels of connection should be obvious: intimacy takes time to build, and there isn’t enough time in a life to build intimacy with thousands of people. And, as Scalzi rightly points out, we don’t really need to be intimate with large numbers of people to fulfill our needs. Even with people sharing “intimate” secrets online, social media on the Internet have mostly substantially increased the number of third level acquaintances we have; our deepest relationships appear to require shared experience which (again, as Scalzi points out) need physical proximity.

  17. It also creates a strange divide that doesn’t cross over. What kind of crisis? I’m having a bad day and need someone to talk to? That could be someone a nation or 6 away. Someone to pick me up because I hurt myself skiing? That’s got to be a local person, no matter how much someone 6 countries away cares. Also there are some people who would get up at 3am and drive to pick me up (I rarely ski at 3am, but stick with me) who I barely know.

  18. A fair number of my FB friends are professional friends. I am a college professor in English lit. With an ever increasing emphasis on vocational skills and systematic underemphasis (and defending) of research, particularly in the humanities, having a community, even online, of like-minded people with similar interests is good, and in many ways necessary, in order to continue developing as a scholar. I get access to publishing opportunities, new research, conferences, and many other important materials that help me remember why I got in this profession when I am waist-deep in student papers and my ten-year-old office computer won’t load the forms I am told must be filled out online. I see these people at conferences, we have a great time, and then we have continued access to ideas and projects we discussed while together. We can share areas of expertise, mentor younger scholars and graduate students, and even get access to texts that are difficult to find. For me, at least, this professional circle of friends (the lines blur a little between professional and personal after awhile), has been invaluable to my professional accomplishments, and one of many reasons why I stay active on FB.

  19. I don’t Facebook, which makes me an anomaly in this day and age, and furthermore, I am under constant pressure to varying degrees to join in. There are many casual social media pages where my voice is muted because I can’t point to a Facebook account. I do, however, have a number of friends around the world who would be welcome to crash for a few days on my couch; I have spoken to them both on the phone and VOIP (TeamSpeak, Ventrilo, etc.) Most of them fall someplace between ‘acquaintance’ and ‘friend’, with the good probability they would fall firmly into ‘friend’ should I be able to spend any face time with them.

  20. Sometimes I’m the friend that someone needs . . . sometimes another facebook friend is the one I need. I’ve had acquaintances that became friends that talked me down from an anxiety attack through messages on FB. I have another acquaintance who became my friend and venting platform during my father’s cancer. I follow people and have people friended who I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with or agree with but keep because they’re family or acquaintances and echo chambers are dangerous things to live in for me. The people I know the best, and I’ve a whole group of friends I’ve only known online for over ten years now–they are friends of a particularly remarkable sort. They’ve seen me through meeting my husband, getting married and having my kids. They know me pretty well overall, and we enjoy each other’s digital company. I don’t worry beyond that. I know when people are friends and when they’re not and that’s fine.

  21. I usually only friend people I’ve actually met because it’s better that way. The exceptions are celebrities because even though me and Eddie Van Halen’s dog are friends on Facebook, I don’t think we are actually friends.

  22. Good article. Of my 30-odd friends, a quarter are family, a quarter are old friends from way back, a quarter are ‘good acquaintances’ and a quarter are members of the same club, with overlap, of course. I suspect each FB user has a different set of criteria for friending or accepting friend requests so it’s hard to draw real conclusions.

    I find it most useful for keeping in touch and passing along information. I generally don’t friend people who blather ;-)

  23. Studies like this always feel like a pooh-pooh to the younger generation that really doesn’t show a complete understanding of how most people actually use Facebook or other social media.
    I have used Facebook multiple times to *stay* friends with someone I would ordinarily have lost touch with, or to follow up on an in-person meeting with someone I want to keep the acquaintance with.
    It’s a fairly low-commitment way to let people know you’re still keeping an eye on them and you still care what’s happening in their lives, and when/if you have the chance to see them again, they know you have an idea of what they’ve been doing and you aren’t catching up from scratch.
    No one I know goes “this is the main way I make friends and interact with people.” It’s, as John noted, a way to keep friendship potential going, or a supplement to being in-person friends.

  24. As well as echoing most of the points made above (my Facebook friends include some close friends and a whole lot of extended family, former co-workers, people I went to school with, etc), I also think there’s a difference between people who are close enough friends that you feel comfortable calling upon in a crisis, and people who WOULD help out in a crisis even if you aren’t that close, and the latter is a lot larger than the former. I have generally found that online communities mirror real-life communities in that way — everyone won’t be good friends, no, but if you’re stranded at the bus station at 2 a.m. and need a couch to crash on, having a friend of a Facebook friend in the area might just do the trick, just like a neighbor might give you a lift to work or plow your driveway or whatever. You don’t have to be super-close friends with three hundred people to benefit from being part of a larger network of social connections.

  25. Just noticed there was a link in the post, and it referenced Dunbar’s Number…

    Yeah, it’s been that kind of day…

    *sigh*

  26. I have an assortment of friends and relatives on FB, some of each I’ve never met, but we share dna or a world view. I would say I don’t usually accept friend requests from people I don’t know, except for friends of my daughter or sister, and that crowd over in the UK. None are from my school days, I don’t know what that says about me. If they are strongly of the “other” political mind, I’m likely to unfollow them, if not unfriend. I post constantly on archaeology, genealogy, photography, politics, food, and my life, and I don’t think anyone has unfriended me yet. What did I ever do before FB? Worked, talked on the phone and wrote letters. . . .

  27. I get a kick out of FB when you “friend” or “become” a relative of someone and it tells me “your now…” I’m like “umm no I’ve been brother/sister/mother/friend for x years”. Friend/follower/whatever term that social media uses for electronically connecting has little meaning about my actual relationship to someone. I do find a number of people are confused by it though. I have over 1,000 “friends” on FB and people will contact me and expect that I know exactly who they are and what’s going on in their life. Same happens on other social media. Somewhere around 150-300 people I no longer knew everyone. Now across all media I’m around 4-5k “friends/followers”. Some I can quickly and easily place (mom) but the majority of my “friends” I need a reminder.

    All fit into parts of my support system. Some by the entertaining or thinky bits they post. Some because they will be there for me if I need help during a panic attack. Others if I need a ride to the ER or meals after I’ve gotten out of the hospital. Others I can share my dreams and fears with. It helps to have diverse friends around the world. Someone is always online when I need to talk and I’m always learning.

  28. A significant number of people who are in the group which is designated as my FB Friends I have known for a VERY LONG TIME. As in, we met (for various values of “met” in that sometimes we did so only in the virtual arena and never actually sat down over a cup of coffee face to face ) yeaers if not decades ago. I have people on my friends list who fall into values like Old Ex Bofriends With Whom I Am Sill In Touch, Schoolmates From Some Half-Dozen Schools I have Attended In My Lifetime, Colleagues Of Various Stripe With Whom I have Worked, Fans Of My Work (whom I may or may not know personally), People Of Whose Work I Am A Fan (and who have graciously accepted my friend request) , People WHo Asked To Be Friended (and got accepted because we have more than a dozen other trusted friends in common but whom as and of themselves I do not know), People I Met At The Last COn I Went To WHo Then Reached OUt To Me In Cyberspace, People WHo Happen To Be Married To Other Friends…It isn’t a monolith. It’s an interweoven organic thing and it doesn’t stay staic, it can change. ANd yes, there are people on that list to whom I would reach out in a crisis in a heartbeat, or to whom I would respond instantly if they reached out to me. But here’s thei thing about FB where I am concerned. For the most part, with very few exceptions, even the best “friends” I have on FB may live hundreds if not thousands of miles away from me. WHich makes crisis response kinda difficult. They are no less friends for all that. I mean, I was over on the east coast last summer and I stayed with somebody I’ve known for 20+ years (we met on Usenet, back in the dawn of the Internet) – someone I like very much and trust absolutely, who would be a crisis friend if such a thing occurred… but he is in New England and I am on the West COast. Crisis interactions are of necessiaty limited. If I ever put out a cry of “help me!” though I have no doubt that this frined and others like him would respond instantly in whatever way they could.

    Friendship is measured individually – and yes, FB might have put a “meaning” on that word that wasn’t necessarily completely there when the original noun was first defined. But a friend is a friend. I can lay claim to a number of CLOSE friends which are literally in single digits – but those are the really special people. Some of them don’t live in the same town, or state, or country, or even continent than I do. I still consider them my best friends.

    I won’t accept random friendings at FB without at least some sort of underlying connection – if they ARE asking because they love my books and I don’t otherwise know them at all and we have no friends in common, well, they’d better explain that because a random stranger is unlikely to make it into my “friends” circle.

    Social media weirds friendship :)

  29. “and their presence in one’s feed comes down to the fact that most of us like to have a varied mix of things to look at when we sign on and scroll down”

  30. And some of my closest and dearest friends aren’t people I’d call on for help in a crisis because they live too damn far away! My friends in Australia are wonderful, but I really don’t expect them to fly to the US when I’m sick.

  31. I’ve come to find that I use FB almost exclusively for people I have a personal relationship with. Twitter, on the other hand is 99% people I only know through online connections. I’ve talked to a few other people who have similar usage habits, so I sometimes wonder if other people tend to similarly split their online lives, or if they are consistent in their online usage?

  32. In the old testing-point sense of “it was entirely accidental, but please bring two bottles of relish to help dispose of the body” I simply don’t have any _Friends_ left. That goes with living to be 88 years old. I don’t even have any I can trust to pull the plug when it’s time to do that. So it goes. And FaceBook is no help whatsoever, or wouldn’t be even if my computer worked with it.

  33. Am I the only one that finds it disturbing that you directly or indirectly mentioned needing help to bury a body three times?
    Is it your writers brain at work or should people go over your lawn looking for mounds?

    Great post by the way, it reflects my position regarding to Facebook “friends”, I just usually refer to friends support in terms of taking care of my kids in a hurry or picking me up in a remote location if my car breaks down, the body dumping scenario never occurred to me. :)

  34. Just because Facebook calls its connection mechanism “friending” doesn’t mean that everyone you connect with there are actual friends

    Are you saying your 95K twitter followers don’t follow you around all day? Huh!

  35. Sorry – the quote formatting didn’t work, it seems. Some day I’ll learn to preview properly before posting.

  36. I start really wondering what’s going on when I see regular, non-celebrity people with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of friends. I have about 130 and I’d get rid of half of them in a hot second if I thought I could get away with it without catching crap from someone. I’m absolutely certain I couldn’t even NAME 500 people I know personally.

  37. Wow, you really kicked a hornets nest with this post. So many comments and explanations of FB use. Still, my favorite comment was:

    Tom Combs says:
    JANUARY 28, 2016 AT 3:50 PM
    Quit beating around the bush… where do you need me to help you dispose of a body?

    Ditto. :)

    Good article and Facebook on Garth.

  38. I’ve always thought of FaceBook as analogous to a cocktail party. I don’t “friend” anyone I wouldn’t invite to a cocktail party, and I don’t say anything there I wouldn’t say at a cocktail party.

  39. “I have used Facebook multiple times to *stay* friends with someone I would ordinarily have lost touch with”

    Yep. I moved across the U.S. after graduate school, so FB is pretty much the best way for me to stay in any degree of “touch” with friends, or enjoyable acquaintances, who were not family. FB means I don’t have to maintain an email list, I don’t have to make phone calls, I don’t have to care if anybody moves across town or to a new state – and neither do the people on the other side.

    And I’ve found that FB allows people to reconnect even if they had a falling-out at some point, with each person able to control the amount of engagement, which means people who disagree on some fairly fundamental things can avoid completely severing the connection with someone who is – for whatever reason – important to them.

    I don’t have a “brand” so that part of it is meaningless to me. :-) The majority of my FB connections are people we know from the ballroom dance world. These are largely NOT people we encounter in person, socially, or even at competitions – they are just people who for one reason or another joined the network and accepted the connection (in many cases *they* reached out to *me* even though I am basically a nobody and some of them are really Somebodies in this milieu).

    Very few of the people I have worked with in my “day jobs” are connected on FB. I attribute this to the high risk of having someone’s HR director do a sweep just when somebody unloads a big vent about their job. Basically, in my line of work, talking about work on social media is a good way to get fired.

  40. Great post. I only link with people I know. I was rasied to believe that not everyone we meet qualifies as a friend. Most people have hundreds of people on thier Facebook page they will never meet in person. Some people like a high number of so called friends to prove popularity.

  41. A good portion of the people I’m “friends” with on FB are either authors or musicians I’m a fan of. In that sense, FB lets me keep track of what they’re working on and their upcoming releases. I would in no way consider us friends, I am simply a fan of their work, but “friending” them is one of the easiest ways for me to keep track of what they’re doing professionally.

  42. First of all for me social media means , socialization between peoples in space only , not a truly socialism individually , so Facebook friendship for me , except who I know and a true friend of mine individually will remain my friend but who I never knew individually , can’t be true friend of mine. I’m only friendlier in social media networking not truthfully friendships .

  43. That whole line of thinking is … bizarre, at least to me.

    People I call in a crisis = family

    Fortunately for me, I am blessed with more than four people in that category. I’ve got friends I could call in a crisis, but I wouldn’t start with them.

    Facebook friends = people I enjoy keeping up with

    There is some overlap in these categories, but I personally am not confused by this overlap. I’m very aware of what

    Similarly, I have a couple of hundred contacts on my phone. Of those, six are tagged as “favorites.” It would be safe to assume those are the people I would call in a crisis. Significantly, of those six, three are NOT my friends on Facebook. They are part of my family, though.

  44. ERose’s comment is close to what I think. Actually, at least half of my Fbk friends are family members — almost all my family, including both my siblings and much more distant relatives, 2nd & 3rd cousins & whatnot, live hundreds or thousands of miles away; Facebook is how I keep in touch with them. But my son & his wife & my grandsons, who live only 20 minutes away, are also on my friend list, because it’s nice to have a sense of who THEIR friends are and what they’re thinking. I myself don’t post terribly often but when I do it tends to be political things I’ve read elsewhere on the Internet — or re-posting things my friends have noted. Then the rest of my friends are either old acquaintances or new ones. I don’t kid myself that all of them are somehow my soul mates or closest and dearest; but I’m glad to have a way of, at least, hearing about what’s important to them, and letting them know that I do care and think about them. So what does it matter that not every single one meets some guy’s definition of The Perfect Friendship?

  45. From my perspective, friends are people who drink espresso with me. The others are just acquaintances who work in the way as you described – forming part of the entertainment or potential friends for the future (if there is any). If someone believes that the number of his FB friends actually means something, he will probably regret it at some point – social networks don’t work this way, although they can surprise us once in a while.

  46. What is this Facebook thing of which you speak?

    Also, don’t forget work friends. I was happy to hang out with them at work, but I didn’t need to see them in real life.

  47. I have a relatively microscopic (to some people) circle of FB friends that number under 140. They’re pretty much divided between those I’ve friended for networking (writers mostly), those I’ve friended that I knew elsewhere from cyberspace, those I’ve friend through mutual acquaintance of other others, and those I’ve friended because they were former co-workers from long ago.

    About 98% I would not call in case of an emergency/crisis, simply because those 98% live some 200 thru 2000 miles from me. The remaining 2% I would give careful consideration, if only because they’ve proved to me over the years that actions growl louder than the whimper of words.

    In essence, while it’s great to have FB friends, it’s better to rely on the ones that you have face-to-face contact in a pinch than those you do not.

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