|(Relationship Equals Sum Media Use)
Examining Relationships as Media Ecologies
Oswego State University of New York
Presented at International Communication Association
San Diego: May 24, 2003
The traditional entry points to the study of relationships (individuals,
discourse, language, relational characteristics, and systematic combinations
thereof) might be usefully supplemented by another: media. This paper describes
the potential value of this entry point with an illustration of how different
media contribute to a relationship development trajectory. The theoretical essence
of the perspective is described, along with its methodological advantages and
a set of initial hypotheses.
Relationships and communication are inseparably intertwined (Montgomery, 1992).
Most of our communication occurs within the context of our relationships. There
would certainly be no relationships without communication. The study of communication
is marked by a wide range of disciplinary traditions, including (loosely following
the outline of primary theoretical traditions in Littlejohn, 2002) system theories,
theories of language, theories of discourse, theories of message production
and reception, and theories of social structure and cultural reality. It should
not be surprising, then, that the study of relationships within the field of
communication reflects this diversity with a similar range of starting points.
The most common entry point to the study of relationships before Duck (1986)
is the individual and their feelings about their relationships. At some risk
of oversimplification, other important traditions that have since entered the
mainstream of relationship research include language (Liska, 1998; Ellis, 1999;
Sigman, 1998), discourse (Conville, 1998; Rawlins, 1998), and relationship characteristics
(Sigman, 1998; Rogers, 1999). When these entry points are considered in combination,
the result is sometimes referred to as a systems perspective (McPhee, 1998;
Metts, 1998). None of these starting points for examining relationships should
be particularly surprising given the inseparability of communication and relationships.
Indeed, three of these starting points are suggested by Shannon's (1948) model
of the communication process (Figure 1), which itself is generally regarded
as a systems theory (Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 3). Individuals
are represented in this model as information sources and destinations,
discourse as messages, and language as signals.
All operate together as a system. Only relationship characteristics
have no obvious place in Shannon's model.
Figure 1: Shannon's (1949) Model of the Communication
The primary value associated with the Shannon model these days
is pedagogical. We continue to use it (often calling it an action model) and
others (generally the interactive and transactive models, and occasionally
a two step flow or gatekeeper model) in the early chapters of introductory
communication textbooks (for example, Adler, 1991; Adler, Rosenfeld, and Towne,
1996; Barker and Barker, 1993; Becker and Roberts, 1992; Beebe, Beebe, and
Redmond, 2001; Berko, Wolvin, and Wolvin, 1985; Bittner, 1996; Burgoon, Hunsaker,
and Dawson, 1994; DeFleur, Kearney, and Temothy, 1993; DeVito, 1994; Gamble
and Gamble, 1986; Gibson and Hanna, 1992; Taylor, Rosegrant, Meyer, and Samples,
1986; Wood, 2002). Our theory and research traditions have generally moved
forward from such "linear" conceptions of the communication process.
There may, however, still be theoretical value in exploring and improving
our communication models. A model offered by Foulger (2002), for instance,
offers a useful summary view of our communication structures, systems, and
processes that elaborates earlier models while avoiding linear data flows
and suggesting an additional entry point for research on relationships. A
variation of this model is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: A model of communication as a process of
co-orientation to messages that are created with language and enabled
by media. Adapted from Foulger (2002).
In the model of Figure 2, individuals (represented as both creators
and consumers who form relationships with each other)
communicate via a mutual orientation to messages that are constructed
with language and enabled by media. Several attributes of this
model are interesting in the context of relational communication. First, messages
are not something to flow through the aether. They are imagined, created, observed,
and decoded by people who attend to them. Messages in this model do not passively
arrive. They are actively consumed by people who learn and interpret the messages
they receive, the languages in which messages are encoded and the media in which
those messages are enacted and observed. This model is somewhat more explicit
than the classic model of our introductory communication texts in identifying
the principle starting points associated with current relationship research.
Individuals are represented in this model as creators and
consumers of messages, discourse as messages encoded
within flexibly interchangeable roles, language and relationships
are identified directly, and all operate within a system.
The model also identifies a fifth element that is structurally
relevant to the communication process: media. Others (Cappella,
1991; Foulger, 2002) have suggested that the concept of medium has been substantially
overlooked as a possible unifying construct within the field. Media, they suggest,
provide a substrate against which communication processes can be organized across
a variety of communication contexts, including the interpersonal, organizational,
and mass audience contexts. A medium, following Foulger, is "a system that
enables the creation and consumption (sending and receiving) of messages."
The characteristics of media can be used to describe and discriminate media
such that it is possible to identify a large number of distinct systems that
enable human communication. Foulger lists about 100 distinct human communication
media, including dozens of media that can be regarded as interpersonal.
This paper attempts to explore the ways in which the use of media
as an entry point might usefully extend the study of interpersonal relationships.
Relationships are enacted in media, including interpersonal media, much as they
are also enacted in language and messages. We meet people within the context
of media, expand our knowledge of them through shared media experiences, collect
shared media as our relationships grow, shed media as our relationships decline,
and negotiate which media we use for which relational purposes. Indeed, it may
be possible to characterize different kinds of relationships (friend, lover,
dating partner, spouse, parent, coworker, colleague, long distance) by the set
of media the relational partners use when interacting with one another and the
ways in which they use those media, including a range of interpersonal media.
It is hoped that this paper demonstrates the utility of exploring relationships
as media ecologies in which relational behavior is enacted.
Collecting media as our relationships evolve
Every relationship starts with an initial interaction. That interaction
could be as minimal as a shared glance across a crowded room that isn't expanded
on for weeks or months ("Haven't I seen you before?" is a common enough
line in a first conversation, and often a statement of shared remembrance).
In general, however, we wouldn't consider that a true relationship exists unless
and until there is some level of ongoing interaction. Relationships are enacted
over time in a large number of interactions, and that the resulting relationship
is a product of an emergent text of feelings, remembrance, relational rules,
and relationship practice.
The presumption, in much of the existing relationship literature,
is that this interaction is prototypically face-to-face. None of the collected
essays in Conville and Rogers' (1998) The Meaning of "Relationship"
in Interpersonal Communication discusses any variant of interaction but
face-to-face interaction, even when (as is the case in Rawlins essay) the participants
in a sample dialog make specific mention of the use of letters, telephones,
and postcards. This prototypic treatment may be reasonable if one remains focused
on the participants in relationships and the characteristics of relationships.
It becomes strained if one assumes that the messages and language of face-to-face
interaction will be invariant in other media. This is important, as this presumption
ignores a substantial reality of relationships that has been made particularly
obvious by Internet users: many strong and enduring relationships rarely if
ever entail face-to-face communication.
If, as McLuhan (1964) observed, the medium is the message (or
that there is, at the very least, a message associated with the medium), it
seems likely that relationships that entail little or no face-to-face interaction
will have a character that differs, in at least some regards, from those paradigmatically
correct relationships that use only face-to-face interaction. Indeed, on today's
Internet, it is hardly uncommon for relationships to unfold across a series
of media following a pattern that closely resembles the following:
- An individual "meets" someone who seems interesting in the course
of participating in an online chatroom, a computer conference,
a mailing list, a collaborative composition site, a bulletin
board, a multiplayer computer game, role-based interaction space,
or some other interactive online environment. Initial interaction within these
interactive environments is probably highly role-limited (following
Rawlins', 1992 stages of friendship). When interactants are interested in
moving beyond role-limitations and the relevant on-line medium supports it,
the move to friendly relations will probably proceed within that medium.
- A move towards friendship is made. While the invitation may well
occur in a public on-line venue like those above, enactment of the process
of getting better acquainted generally moves to a more private on-line venue.
Most commonly this will be e-mail, but other possibilities include
private chat rooms and instant messaging. Indeed, it will not
be uncommon, as interaction intensifies, to use two or more of these options.
- As the friendship becomes stronger (nascent friendship) and the desire
for immediacy increases, it will not be unusual to expand interaction to include
the telephone or other time synchronous media and start to express at least a desire for
face-to-face meetings. As interactants seek common ground and common
interests they may start to share other media experiences. They may share
pointers to web sites that are particularly interesting and then discuss
them. They may talk about movies they've seen, television shows
they've watched, books they've read, and music they've listened
- As the friendship stabilizes (stabilized friendship) the relational
partners will seek to create shared experiences. Telephone calls may
become more or less scheduled. There may be an expectation of particular kinds
of instant messaging or e-mail behavior. They may even schedule
what is now sometimes referred to as a "Bill Gates Date" in which
they agree to separately share the same media experience (go to a movie, for
instance, in different places at the same time) and then discuss it afterwards
on the telephone (this term refers to a possibly apocryphal story of the early
stages of Bill Gates relationship with his wife Melinda, in which they reportedly
scheduled "dates" while they were in different cities. These dates
took the form of going to the same movie in their respective cities and then
talking about it on the phone afterward).
It is entirely possible to achieve stabilized long-term relationships with
people one has never met face to face. Informal surveys of undergraduate students
invariably reveal students who have friends in other parts of the country and
the world with whom they have communicated regularly for months or years, but
whom they have never met (and in some cases never expect to meet). This should
not be seen as denying the centrality of face-to-face interaction in most relationships,
but rather to state that it is not necessary to the formation and maintenance
of strong and enduring long-term relationships. At least some level of face-to-face
interaction is necessary, however, if we are to move a relationship from friendship
to the intimacy of dating and marriage. Such intensification of a relationship
will be accompanied by additional adoptions of shared media, as illustrated
- If and/or when the relational partners do meet face-to-face with
the intention of exploring their potential to become a couple (e.g. if they
date), it is unlikely that their collection of shared media will end with
dyadic conversation. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that close friends
and even business associates will occasionally eat together in a restaurant
(adding, at the very least, meal selection rituals, the smells and tastes
of foods, and mealtime etiquette to the text of their relationship).
- Close friends and dating couples are likely to also add propinquitous and
synchronous media experiences to their inventory. They are likely to go to
movies, concerts, and other public entertainments together.
State and county fairs, school dances, amusement parks,
school concerts, and church socials, are but a few of the opportunities
close friends and couples have for expanding their shared text and exploring
their mutual interests. These public experiences will often be an opportunity
to add group and family interaction to our shared media experience.
Introducing a relationship partner into ones existing circle of friends and/or
family represents both a significant escalation of the relationship and an
important test of how well a relational partner fits with our existing relationships.
- By this stage in the relationship it will be common for dating couples to
have added holding hands, kissing, and other acts of public intimacy to their
behavior inventory in what might be more adequately described as the side-by-side
interactive medium. In entering our relational partner's personal space, touch
(and to some extent other senses) becomes an important element of our message
- Inviting our relational partner's into our homes reflects yet another such
escalation and a signal of trust. The act of creating a meal for another
person is a profoundly intimate one in which we are creating messages
not only in the modalities of sight, sound, and touch, but with smell and
taste. The act of working together, even when working on different
projects, or watching television together provides an opportunity to
extend our shared media space and our experience of the side-by-side
medium while testing our ability to share a common private space.
- If we seek to formalize our relationship (most commonly via marriage), we
will most often do so through a ritual ceremony and the execution of
- Finally, but hardly least important, is the escalation of a dating or marriage
relationship to physical intimacy.
The order in which relational partners share and collect media is not terribly
important. The above is a plausible sequence that has undoubtedly been followed
more than once, but it hardly matters if bulletin board interaction leads to
telephone interaction before e-mail, or a couple segues directly from e-mail
to intimacy. What matters is that, in the course of most relationships, we use
a series of media, each of which offers us new ways to explore and expand our
connections with one another. Our relationships are expressed, in a very real
sense, within an ecology of media. While it seems likely that some kinds of
media are likely to be collected before others, a relationship can start, at
least in theory, in any medium.
There is nothing new in this. Internet media are hardly necessary to the escalation
of relationships through shared media use. Propinquitous interactive environments,
including classes, games, parties, teams, the workplace, bars, club meetings,
and neighborly conversation, have always provided opportunities to advance from
role-limited interaction, through friendly relations, to moving
towards friendship. Sharing a phone number or an address to which mail can
be sent in the course of a face-to-face interaction provides opportunities to
escalate a relationship through the collection of new shared media, starting
with a letter or a telephone call. There is no requirement that a "Bill
Gates Date" be negotiated and/or completed via a telephone call or that
the shared experience be a movie. Indeed, the long-standing prototype for this
kind of relational discussion of a shared media experience is sending our relational
partner a book we've just read and then discussing it in a series of letters.
Relational Media Ecologies
This notion of building relationships by collecting media is central
to the concept of relational media ecologies that is expressed in the title
of this paper and in Figure 3. The equation, as it stands, is a purposeful overstatement.
A relationship is many things, including the shared perceptions of its participants,
a set of relationship characteristics, and a text composed of language and messages.
One might, with equal hubris, state that a relationship is the sum of its messages,
the sum of its shared language conventions, the sum of its negotiated scripts,
or the sum of its characteristics. Just as a relationship is more than the sum
of its participants, it is also more than the sum of its messages, its language,
its relationship characteristics, or its media. There is value in viewing a
relationship through the perceptions of its participants, as a transcript of
its messages, or as an enumeration of its rules. There is also value in viewing
a relationship as an ecology of collected media.
Figure 3: A Relationship can be described as the sum
of its media, where R is a relationship, M is a medium, and U (use)
is the extent to which the medium is used.
As stated, however, the equation of Figure 3 is a little more
complicated than simply aggregating the list of media that is used over the
course of a relationship. A relationship (R) is the sum of the media used (M)
and the way that each media is used (U). A simple treatment of U might sum the
number of times a medium is used or the amount of time for which a medium is
used. A more elaborate treatment assumes that we use different media in relationships
for different purposes, that those purposes vary in their importance to a relationship
at a particular point in time, and that those purposes are at least as important
to understanding the value of a medium to a relationship as issues of repetition
or aggregate usage time might be. Consider:
- Some media take on additional weight because of their primary role in the
initiation of a relationship. A couple that meets in a chat room may remember
the chat room fondly for the rest of their life, even as they transition their
relationship to other media, and even if they never use the chat room again.
The medium in which a relationship starts has a primacy which may give it
a weight that is disproportionate to its continuing use.
- Some media take on additional weight because of social pressures and expectations.
Legitimized physical intimacy and the formation of a family unit are an important
impetus to entering a marital relationship. Considerable social pressure is
sometimes applied in encouraging couples to refrain from such intimacy until
after marriage, but additional social and relationship pressures often push
the other way. These pressures may magnify the importance of physical intimacy
as a defining medium within a relationship, even when (and perhaps especially
when) the medium remains one that is anticipated rather than shared.
- Some media are sufficiently repetitive in execution and mundane details
that it is particularly easy to adopt relational schema that fully script
interaction. As an example, consider preparing and sharing a meal within a
relationship. It is fairly easy to fall into patterns in which each relational
partner takes ongoing responsibility for different parts of the preparation
and in which the transitions from one part of the preparation and meal to
another follow a specific script of words and actions. Highly repetitive use
of the medium may magnify its importance in defining aspects of the relationship,
but highly scripted interaction may reduce its ongoing impact on the relationships
This is just a sampling of conditions that, at the very least, might be expected
to introduce some level of error into simple measurements of a an individual
medium's use, or of a relationships overall media ecology. Such errors should
not be considered problematic, especially where a study is able to examine the
sources of error. Even where it is not, measurements of our shared media use
offers advantages relative to the measurement systems normally associated with
existing entry points to the study of relationships:
- Measurement of relationships from the perspective of individuals is, in
general, restricted to self-reports of who they are, how they feel about themselves
and their relational partner, and similar measurements of the self and its
orientation to the relationship. These measures most often take the form of
either interval level data whose meaning is often ambiguous and difficult
to compare across studies, cultures, and time, or descriptive data (from interviews
or open ended survey questions) that requires considerable thought and analysis.
- Measurements of relational characteristics often have similar problems,
with relational level measures often generated by systematically combining
individual level measures. Neutral observations of relational behavior can
provide a useful alternative to such measurements, but relationships exist
within relational participants, and the error variance associated with neutral
observation cannot be underestimated, especially when, as is often the case,
interval level measurements are used in assessing isolated relational episodes
within a single medium.
- Measurements of relational messages, discourse, and language provide even
more fundamental difficulties. Observation of even short relational episodes
within a single relationship requires effort that typically exceeds the length
of the episode observed by several orders of magnitude. Rawlins (1998) analysis
covers 12 minutes of a conversation between friends. Generating the transcript
alone probably took hours, and subsequent analysis almost certainly entailed
days or weeks of effort. The article alone is more almost an order of magnitude
longer than the snippet of conversation it analyzes. Such analyses are unlikely
to ever provide a detailed view of the overall interaction within even a single
relationship. It is difficult to imagine applying such methods to large samples.
The point, in this discussion, is not to criticize these approaches to the
study of relationships or the methods that are generally associated with their
use. All have demonstrated value in elucidating the nature of relationships.
Still, each approach has limitations. The same will be true for the measurement
of relational media ecologies, which almost inevitably entail a grosser level
of analysis than would typically be associated with any of these existing approaches.
The study of relational media use is limited to showing, in effect, the contexts
within which a relationship is enacted rather than the messages and other behavior
that are the enactment or the individual perspectives on the relationship that
result from and influence those messages. There will certainly be no direct
indication of what behavior within a medium, or use of the medium itself, means
to a relationship. The best we will be able to say is that some media are more
useful for some purposes than are others, and what those purposes are. The reader
should note, in this, the applicability of Uses and Gratifications (Katz, Blumler,
and Gurevitch, 1974) and related mass media research traditions (Littlejohn,
2002, Chapter 15) to an Interpersonal Communication problem. A relational media
ecology describes, as a side effect of the collected media, a set of relationship
needs that are satisfied through the use of those media.
The methodological advantages offered by the study of relational media ecologies
- The use of media is relatively easy to measure. Most people can report whether
or not they have eaten a meal at a restaurant, talked on the telephone, sent
or received a letter, or had a face-to face conversation with a particular
person with a high degree of accuracy, even when asked to remember back over
the course of a week, a month, or longer. While reporting on one's use of
what could be an inventory of several hundred media might be tedious, few
people have difficulty remembering the various ways in which they shared time
with their relational others. Profiling the range of media that are used within
a relationship should be fairly easy.
- Ratio measures of media use are fairly easy to obtain. There is a considerable
literature demonstrating that people have little trouble making ratio estimates
of real world experience with log scale accuracy. Measurements of media use
via log scale time measurements (for instance, Foulger, 1990, Chapter 22)
have demonstrated that such measurements are robust, highly discriminating,
and comparable across time. As an example of log scale measurement, one might
ask a person if their telephone conversations with a particular person over
the course of a month entailed seconds, minutes, tens of minutes, hours, tens
of hours, or days. Ratio measures can also be used for estimating the number
of times a medium is used. As an example, one might ask a person whether they
talked to a particular person on the telephone once a month, twice a month,
weekly, a couple of times a week, daily, or more than once a day.
- The range of media that people use can be observed with far less effort
or intrusiveness than would normally be associated with ethnographic methodologies.
Relationships in a work place, for instance, might be readily observed through
some of the same kinds of methods that are sometimes used in network analysis.
Phone logs, e-mail logs, web logs, computer conference contributions and logs,
meeting schedules and other archival evidence of relational media use can
be used where media that leave such archival trails of interaction. Other
relational media use might readily be obtained through an "observation
by walking around" in which a casual observer sampled the constellation
of meetings, lunch conversations, doorway interactions, and other face-to-face
interaction environments that do not leave such trails.
- Because measurements are easy to make, it is possible to apply relational
media profiles to relatively large samples such that a wide range of different
relationship types can be usefully discriminated. Note, however, that the
effort associated with generating a comprehensive media profile for a specific
relationship by any one individual will probably remain substantial (comparable
to filling out a longish survey). Hence relational media profiles are unlikely
to usefully extend network analysis methodology unless archival or passive
ethnographic methods are used.
- Since the meaning of these measurements (either a binary description of
whether a medium is used, or a ratio measurement of the extent to which a
medium is used) is straightforward and consistent, media profiles should support
typological comparisons between relationships and across relationship types.
It seems likely that different types of relationships (for example: friend,
acquaintance, coworker, superior/subordinate, marriage (and within marriage,
following Fitzpatrick, 1988, traditional, separate, independent, and varieties
combinations thereof), will have distinct media profiles that meet specific
variations in relational needs.
- A media profile should, for similar reasons, enable media use comparisons
between cultures. It is likely, given the global digital divide, that there
will be strong differences in relational media use between different cultures.
E-mail will not be an option for many people in countries that lack effective
Internet infrastructure. Telephone use will be problematic for many people
in countries in which telephone adoption rates remain low. Even the use of
letters will prove challenging for many people in countries that have low
literacy rates. While such variations may have implications even at the level
of the kinds of things relational partners think they need, it remains the
case that relationship types and needs should remain at least somewhat constant
across cultures. Variations in media profiles across cultures and relationship
types promise to yield interesting insights about the different ways in which
we can combine media to meet essential relationship needs.
- Media profiles should also be amenable to time series analysis. It should
be possible, by measuring a relationship's media profile at different points
in time, to track changes in the relationship, the needs the relationship
is satisfying, and perhaps the needs that are not being met. Indeed, if one
can reasonably assess the strength of a relationship by its growing profile
of shared media use, it may also be possible to track the decline of a relationship
as shared use of media declines. It should also be possible to correlate of
media profile data with significant events in the course of a relationship
(e.g. living together, engagement, marriage, the arrival of children, demands
at work) with resulting insights regarding the course of a relationship.
No approach to the study of relationships is a panacea. Still, these methodological
advantages complement those associated with other entry points to the study
of relationships in ways that these descriptions and the model of Figure 2 only
partially suggest. Measurement of relationships from the perspective of participants
inevitably focuses on feelings and perspectives. While those perspectives are
inevitably a product of communication, they are ultimately a matter of cognition
and social psychology rather than communication. Measurement of the characteristics
of relationships most often draw on the cognitive intersection of multiple participants,
and it is hardly surprising that measurement remains focused of the individual
as we explore the interaction effects between their feelings and perspectives.
Observation of messages and discourse takes us down into the details of the
behavior from which perspectives are drawn and in which feelings and perspectives
are enacted. It gives us access to the raw, unfiltered nutrient on which relationships
feed, and it should not be surprising that its digestion entails considerably
greater effort than the creators of those messages used to create them or the
consumers of messages used to process them. A focus on language gives us a usefully
abstracted communication view of a relationship in which we can remain focused
on the behavior of relational actors but do practical theoretical comparisons
of how different kinds of language are used in different kinds of relationships
in different cultures. A focus on media adds another layer of abstraction. ...
A generalized view of media as an entry point to the study of relationships
suggests ways in which other entry points m might be usefully extended: by using
media other than the face-to-face medium to study language and discourse. The
language associated with such media as e-mail, instant messenger, chat rooms,
and computer conferences is already distinctive in obvious ways (the use emoticons,
for instance). The media are already widely used by friends and other relational
partners in both long distance and propinquitous interaction (students are readily
observed instant messaging each other in computer labs even as they chat out
loud. Instant messaging should be particularly interesting to those looking
for transcripts of relational interaction, as it is trivial for participants
to capture and save a time-stamped transcript of their instant messenger sessions.
Conclusion and Hypotheses
It may be interesting to suggest (Cappella, 1992) or propose in abstract terms
(Foulger, 2002) a theoretical perspective that might provide continuity between
such diverse traditions as interpersonal communication, organizational communication,
and mass media. It is probably more useful, however, to show how application
of the theoretical perspective can help to clarify issues within one or more
of those perspectives. It is hoped that, in showing how relationships may be
characterized and shaped by the media in which they are enacted, that this paper
has made a practical contribution to future research. This exploration of how
media might elucidate the nature of relationships is, at best, a starting point.
Real research will be required before it can be known if the perspective will
bear its promised fruit. Towards that end, we close by posing, without additional
discussion, a set of testable hypotheses that have been suggested here:
- It is possible to characterize different kinds of relationships by the collection
of media the relational partners share and the ways in which those media are
- Different stages in the evolution of a relationship can be characterized
by the collection of media the relational partners share and the ways in which
those media are used.
- The collection of media associated with a relationship should grow larger
as the relationship intensifies.
- The collection of media associated with a relationship should shrink
as the relationship wanes
- Relationships need different kinds of media at different stages of development.
- Specific kinds changes in a relationship's media profile can be correlated
with significant relational events, including living together, engagement,
marriage, and the arrival of children).
- Media that meet the same relational needs can be substituted for one
another without harming the relationship
- There will be cultural variations in the collection of media associated
with different kinds of relationships based on the range of media available
and variations in the needs that media are used to satisfy.
- The importance of a medium to a relationship is dependent on the purpose
it serves or served in the relationship and other issues, including primacy,
repetition, and the use of scripted behavior.
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