What is a selfie?

Did you see SELFEED yet? It’s an art project by Tyler MadsenErik Carter, & Jillian Mayer, that quite simply displays a live feed of the recently posted photos tagged #selfie that are posted to Instagram. Here’s an animated gif showing a random selection of just a few of the selfies that came up when I watched it this afternoon:


My first thought on seeing it was that the images are much more different from each other than the images in Manovich’s Selficity.net project. Here are some of the Selfiecity images:


On checking Selfiecity’s methodology, of course I remembered that they deliberately only looked at single person selfies:

We randomly selected 120,000 photos (20,000-30,000 photos per city) from a total of 656’000 images we collected on Instagram. 2-4 Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers tagged each photo. For these, we asked Mechanical Turk workers the simple question “Does this photo shows a single selfie”?

We then selected top 1000 photos for each city (i.e., photos which at least 2 workers tagged as a single person selfie).

You can say a lot about the methodology of this kind of research, and especially the biometric analysis that follows (Terri Senft called it a kind of phrenology ;), but obviously if you’re trying to understand selfies and eliminate any images that show anything but a single person you’re ruling out a lot of images. The self-described selfies that the Instagram #selfie tag shows are an interesting counterpoint.

So what is a selfie? Is it what the person taking the photo says it is in the hashtag, or is it what Selfiecity – and, I think, mainstream media – say it is?


16. April 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

Why people say they take selfies

I’ve been collecting reasons people say they take selfies, much as I’ve previously collected blog posts about why people blog. Of course, there are hundreds of media articles about why people take selfies, many derogatory – instead I wanted to read what selfie-takers themselves write. It’s a potentially skewed methodology because most people who write about why they take selfies (especially in a society where selfies are so often mocked) are writing justifications and defenses. To hear from people who take selfies despite not really feeling good about taking selfies I would  need a different method than searching google (interviews, perhaps), but given how poorly represented the justifications and defenses of taking selfies are reported in mainstream media I think it’s valuable to really look at them.

So many people taking selfies argue that they are able to see and believe in their own beauty due to taking photos of themselves. The beauty blogger Elle Sees writes movingly about how she has received comments about her nose making her ugly since she was in fifth grade (and even as an adult), and it was only after taking selfies for her blog for a few months that she has felt comfortable with her appearance. She writes:

You must be conceited if you post them, right? I lose followers whenever I post a pic of myself. But I don’t see it as conceited when I post them. I see it as a victory. (Elle Sees, “On Why I Take Selfies, and 3 More Beauty Things I’m Not Apologizing For“, Jan 15, 2014.)

This is almost exactly the same rationale given by Woman Verging in her Tumblr post “Why I Take Selfies (and why you can f-cm yourself).

Elle Sees clearly manipulates her selfies, both by intentionally blurring or adding filters, and by using carefully planned makeup specifically for photos. Amy Palko writes in more detail about how manipulating her selfies is important in her selfie-taking practice. It gives her distance, she writes: 

I started taking selfies last year. I wasn’t really sure why at the time. It started as a daily practice. A way of exploring self-image, something that I, like almost every other person I know, have a complicated relationship with. Using Pixlr, I began adding layers, textures, colours and frames. It gave me distance. I was no longer playing with a self-portrait. I was playing with line and form. I found that I could appreciate the finished creation in a way that I couldn’t always do when I looked at the image reflected back to me in the mirror. (Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)

Palko also separates her reasons for taking a selfie from her reasons for sharing them:

And yes, I totally get that some might look at the practice of creating selfies and assume that I’m completely self-absorbed, and that by sharing them I’m looking for some kind of validation. But that’s not it. That would be to miss the point altogether. When I share the selfies, it shifts from a practice of self-discovery to a practice of vulnerability. I often feel incredibly tender when I share a selfie. It’s not easy to share these images. It wasn’t when I started. And it’s still not now.

So why do I take selfies? I take them to heighten my own self-awareness and to discovery new sides of myself.

Why do I share them? To create breathing space in the experience of vulnerability. And to give you permission, should it be needed, to start a similar practice. ((Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)

Finding self-acceptance is a commonly expressed reason for taking selfies, and there are a number of online courses that emphasize selfies as a method for self-improvement and self-acceptance. Palko, cited above, offers coaching and business guidance. Stephanie Gagos is a life coach, and emphasizes similar reasons behind her own self-portrait practice:

It’s not about vanity, or being conceited. One might think that if you look at my Instagram feed as I post many of them there.

It is about witnessing my own beauty, understanding who I am beyond the face, growing more and more in love with who I am as I age, learning to work with what I have and seeing beyond the flawed and broken human being I’ve always thought myself to be.

It is an act of coming home and reclaiming my SELF. (Stephanie Gagos, “Why Selfies Heal“, Oct 30, 2013)

Self-discovery and self-acceptance certainly aren’t the only reason to take selfies. Jenelle Dufva writes that she takes selfies for entertainment or because she’s bored, but mostly for memories:

I take selfies because I think it’s entertaining. I take selfies because I like to write stupid captions underneath my photos on Instagram. I take selfies on days when I feel like I look really nice and maybe I want other people to see how cool my eyebrows look. I take selfies because I get bored when I’m alone all the time. But mostly, I take selfies for memories and I think that’s something that really gets me about people hating on selfies all the time. My opponents reading this are probably like, “What? You like to remember how your own face looked on a certain day?” And my answer to you is yes, opponent. Sometimes my lipstick looks nice and I want to remember that. Me taking a photo of my face is not a political statement (it can be though – I’ll get to that later), it’s a simple photo that I wanted to put on the internet for that reason, and for that reason alone – because I wanted to. And that should be okay because it isn’t up to anyone else to decide what I put on the internet. It’s my decision. (..)  If you don’t wanna selfie, you don’t gotta selfie. But don’t judge people that do because it’s just a fucking PHOTO and it’s not your life. (Jenelle Dufva, “Whatever: A Short Analysis of the Selfie“, Jan 29, 2014)

Boredom is also one of Jessica Isme Yoga’s key reasons for taking selfies, and she also notes that selfies of herself with her dog have become important to her after the dog came into her life, and she imagines that parents feel the same urge to have photos of themselves with their children.

Remembering a moment is obviously also an important, whether it’s a moment with a friend, lover, pet or child; a moment where you’re happy with the way you look or your new hat or hairdo; or a moment in a place you want to remember or doing something you want to remember. Tracy Antonioli, who blogs at The Suitcase Scholar, decided to summarize her year of travels by posting a selfie for each month, and explains:

I take selfies not because I think I’m beautiful (I’m not, as I will prove more than a dozen times below), but because I often find myself in beautiful locations and I want to capture a moment of my own joy in said beautiful location.  Thus, my selfies are often (nay, only) taken in places that I love. (The Suitcase Scholar, “Travels in 2013: The Year of the Selfie“, Dec 28, 2013)

The personal and the political can certainly mix in selfies, whether through campaigns where people share political messages by posting a selfie with a certain gesture, hashtag or poster (a visual petition – selfies are today’s signatures) or as a personal act of affirmation or rejection. “stavvers”, who blogs at Another angry woman explains that she has been photographed against her will, by a male abuser and by the police, who she says use photographing suspects as a means of power, and she relishes the selfie because she is in absolute charge herself:

I suppose I started taking selfies when I realised there were some things that words couldn’t articulate well, and what I needed to say was best said with my face and body. When putting a webcam or a front-facing camera in front of me, I can see exactly what I look like, and make sure, before taking the snap that I look how I want to look and I am communicating what I want to communicate.

And that’s why I take selfies. Because it’s me presenting myself to the world in the way I want to be presented.

The self-acceptance that Elle Sees and Amy Palko write about in the quotes in the beginning of this post becomes far more explicitly political in the #feministselfies movement that developed in response to Erin Gloria Ryan’s firmly anti-selfie article in Jezebel last November, where she sees selfies as “a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative.” (“Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.”)

When you take, and post, a selfie you are actually doing something radical, you are saying I like myself enough to let others see me. Imagine the entire industries that would vanish overnight if women started liking themsves? It would change the nature of advertising, and close the Daily Mail! Jemima2013, “Rebecca, Celebrity, and Selfies“, Nov 22, 2013.

For people who are not white, thin and young, the abundance of selfies also quite simply allows us to see more images of a far wide range of people.


Because, as Jemima2013 writes, selfies show that “‘ordinary’ looking women are worth photographing and looking at.” And you can look “ordinary” in many, many, many different ways.


14. April 2014 by Jill
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#dayofDH2014 3: Technological bias and cultural filters

I kept writing and reading instead of doing the more DH-specific data visualization I was intending to do. But it’s so interesting! I’m writing about filters, you know, Instagram style filters, but I’m extending the notion of filter by seeing technological and cultural filters as basically the same thing. I talk a bit about that in the presentation I did a couple of weeks ago, and am working on writing that out properly so it makes sense.

But one example of how cultural and technological filters mix is the skin-tone bias in photography, especially 20th century photography, although today’s digital cameras aren’t perfect either. Early photographic colour film was designed to show white people’s skin in detail, but did a terrible job of representing a person with darker skin – especially when people with very different skin tones were in the same image. There were complaints from parents – for instance at poorly lit children with darker skin in diverse school groups – from the 1950s on, but it wasn’t until the 70s that Kodak actually did anything about the problem, and then only because companies wanting to sell dark woods and chocolates wanted film that would show the detail better.

An older "Shirley card" for skin tone and colour calibration of cameras.

An older “Shirley card” for skin tone and colour calibration of cameras.

Recent, international calibration image.

Recent, international calibration image.

Lorna Roth, who wrote an interesting article about this history (“Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity“, 2009), notes that an important reason there were no real campaigns for film producers to create film that did a better job of representing darker skin tones was our general assumption that technology and science are objective – we thought photographs just were that way. But “[h]ad NASA, the U.S. intelligence service, or meteorological scientists already completed their research on photography of low-light areas at the time of the popular development of still photography, the evolution of film chemistry might have unfolded quite differently,” and it could certainly have changed once those developments were in place.

Sylveeta McFadden’s article in Buzzfeed, “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin“, is a very interesting personal take on this. And the comments on the Jezebel article about the same topic are wonderful explanations of how disgust at how badly conventional photography represents darker skin is a pretty common motivation for taking selfies:

Her piece is beautiful and I struggle with this thought ALL the time. Growing up all of my girlfriends (and immediate female relatives) were white. I would watch them effortlessly take a photo or get their photo taken and in return get an image that looked just like them. I never really felt that way. I still don’t – unless I take my own photo. And people call it vanity but really I just want to be able to see myself in a picture. I don’t see myself in other people’s photos, I just don’t. 

And another:

Ive alwaaays felt this way too. Some people laugh at me for wanting to take selfies rather than have someone take the photo but I’ve always felt kind of shitty pre smartphone era when the photos would come back developed and I just woudnt look like me. I think there is a features proportions issue as well as skin colour issue. – Ive felt like its not just me but other black people I see in photos too .

McFadden writes the same thing at Buzzfeed:

I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself. Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way? (..) I started taking pictures to self protect. I just couldn’t bear seeing anymore shitty pictures of me. I didn’t want know what I wanted these images to say, but I knew I could make something beautiful.

I’m going to be using this case in talking with students about how technological determinism, cultural co-construction and how technology encodes cultural biases, that’s for sure.

08. April 2014 by Jill
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More forms

I’m a PI on an exciting. grant application led by Raine Koskimaa which would offer a training network for 15 PhD candidates in Transmedia studies, and it’s due tomorrow so I’m supposed to log into the EU submission site and add my stuff – but of course the login didn’t work the first time. I do feel like a lot of my day goes in this kind of failed logins and forms.


08. April 2014 by Jill
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#dayofDH2014: travel validation signature

It’s the 2014 Day of Digital Humanities, and digital humanists around the globe are writing about how they spend their day. I made a blog for it at Day of DH 2014, and of course I’ll cross post here too.

First item of the day: picking up my J1 scholar visa form which needed a travel validation signature so I can leave the US to go to Canada (to Jeremy Hunsinger‘s university, Laurier) on Thursday to give a talk with Scott on our visualizations of the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. I suppose I don’t need the signature to leave the country, but I certainly will for them to let me back in.

travel-validationGetting signatures on forms isn’t digital humanities, just one of the not very exciting admin tasks that all scholars have to attend it. And that reminds you that your presence in a country is potentially precarious. I actually had to have Steve Jones, the lovely head of the Communications Department, sign a different form approving my going to Canada as relevant to my research so I could get this signature on the form I need to keep with my passport. Luckily Steve let me go, with a laugh and raised eyebrows at the government requiring his giving me permission. Nothing like a little governmental paternalism.

08. April 2014 by Jill
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: My Talk at UIC

me-prepping-UIC-talkI’m writing a book this semester about how we see ourselves through technology, and today I presented the project to the Communications Department here at UIC, where I’m a visiting scholar this semester.

Of course I forgot to press the record button on my phone, so don’t have the audio track, but the talk was recorded on video so at some point it will be online, I’m promised. Here are the slides.

Slideshare apparently no longer displays speaker notes, which makes the slideshow rather useless unless you already know what I intended to say about each image. Here’s the same slideshow on Google Drive – if you follow the link and click the little “settings” cogwheel at the bottom right you can open speaker notes and read a short version of what I said.

I’ve structured my book project around three modes of self-representation that I argue are important in our culture right now: textual, visual and quantitative. During the presentation of this talk to the communications department at UIC, someone asked about musical self-representation, and what about dance? There are probably other modes of self-representation I could look at, though I think these three are the most important online at the moment. Certainly curation should be seen as a fourth mode of self-representation. Steve Jones noted that Will Straw had written interesting things about self-curation in relation to record collections. Certainly Pinterest and Tumblr and various other media set curation as key.

13. March 2014 by Jill
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Upcoming talk on my book

I’m going to present my research on digitally mediated self-representation here at UIC’s Department of Communications on Wednesday March 12 at noon. If you’re in Chicago, please come! It’s in room 1169 in the Behavioral Sciences Building, the one that looks a bit like a spaceship.


07. March 2014 by Jill
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Celebrities’ self-presentation (notes on a paper by David P. Marshall)

Notes on Marshall, P. David. “The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media.” Celebrity Studies 1, no. 1 (2010): 35-48.

Marshall has previously written extensively about traditional celebrity, and starts his argument by reminding us of the educational function of celebrities in the representational culture of mass media. Celebrities were how we learnt about the latest hairstyles or what to wear. The “pedagogy of the celebrity taught us consumerism: “the individual had to be taught how to consume and to recognise the value of consumption for their own benefit”. Celebrities have always had a parasocial function: we gossip about them and can assume that our friends “know” them, although this relationship is of course asymmetrical: they do not know us.

Marshall characterizes today’s social media world as a “presentational culture”, in opposition to the representational culture of mass media, and describes how celebrities today maneuver between three ways the self is presented today:

  1. the public self, which is the official presentation, often managed by publicity assistants.
  2. The private public self, which is, in Marshall’s words, “a recognition of the new notion of a public that implies some sort of further exposure of the individual’s life”. The private public self is often managed by the celebrity themselves, who may find it empowering to wrest control of his or her self-presentation from the studio, much as in the 1950s when the film star rather than the studio became central.
  3. The transgressive intimate self is the third way in which celebrities are presented, and includes personal, often emotional items that should perhaps not have been shared but that become widely spread on the internet.

Marshall only writes about traditional celebrities and their use of social media, and doesn’t talk about bloggers who have become celebrities due to their blogging or about ordinary people who are “famous to fifteen people”. I wonder whether there might be something between the private public self and the transgressive intimate self, especially for non-traditional celebrities. And how does this transfer to ordinary people? What about people using Facebook to communicate both with friends and with strangers? Can there be an intimate, public self that is not transgressive? And can the importance of pedagogical celebrity in the last century explain our love of fashion bloggers?

Related work includes Alice Marwick’s Status Update and Terri Senft, both on micro-celebrities in social media.

06. March 2014 by Jill
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What if the Greensboro 4 were on Twitter?

One advantage of being on sabbatical is that you learn things and meet people you wouldn’t have if you’d stayed home. This week I was lucky enough to go to a talk by Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal at the African American Studies Department at UIC. This is a part of American culture we don’t learn enough about in Norway, and I’ll certainly be showing many of Neal’s examples to my students when I get home. (Probably they’ll get more of the hiphop references than I do.)

Oliver Wendell Jones from Bloom CountyNeal began by showing us a picture that looked ever-so-familiar but that I had forgotten: this is Oliver Wendall Jones, the computer nerd from Bloom County, a cartoon I loved in high school – back in the late eighties. “Oliver Wendall Jones is the black patron saint of Twitter,” Neal said, and continued by tearing apart that piece in Slate a while back about “How Black People Use Twitter“. “The author might as well have been referring to dogs,” Neal said. What’s really going on, he explained, is that African Americans use Twitter as a global instant messenger. It’s kind of like fictive kin, where you “you acknowledge other black folks wherever they are in the world even if you don’t know them.” The birth of black social media in the US was  actually on plantations, Neal said. African Americans have a long history of communication with a broad public in ways that would not be seen as subversive. For instance, singing on the plantation about “go down Moses” sounds innocuous but might actually directly instruct everyone to meet after work at a nearby place known as “Moses”. This is a culture that knows how to obscure the publicness of their conversation. This creates a community, a “Black code” or “Black imaginary”, and Neal showed a quote from Elizabeth Alexander on the screen: “Tapping into this Black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex Black selves, real and enactable Black power…”

Other early forms of social media used by African Americans includes the mimeograph – which is what the Greensboro 4 actually used – and the mixtape, which was an important way of spreading Black music, which was not played on the radio most places as late as in the 1980s and 90s.


The next part of the talk was devoted to a series of examples of how African Americans have used social media for community building and political purposes.

Phillip Agnew runs the civil rights group Dream Defenders and was scheduled to speak for two minutes at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but apparently other people overspoke their allotted time and his two minutes were cut. So Agnew set up his camera and gave his speech. The speech itself is moving, but the key point for Neal is Agnew’s initial request to his listeners: record YOUR two minutes, share it. Agnew crowdsources the revolution.

Neal almost apologizes for the next example, because it certainly isn’t grassroots activism: it’s a video of Obama brushing off Hillary Clinton’s attacks during his first presidential campaign. But this, Neal says, is the single moment that won Obama the hip hop vote: he makes an unspoken reference to Jay-Z’s “Dirt off my Shoulder” by brushing his shoulder to show how he’s not affected by negative publicity. This is an example of Obama using “Black code”.

Neal then moved on to showing how community is developed through social media, although there may not be clear victories. He showed us a really interesting video where 1hood media (I think, can’t find the source) made a short, fast-cut visual and spoken documentary arguing that Troy Davis was innocent, giving new words to what Neal (a hiphop scholar) called the quintessential mourning song of hiphop culture: “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)“. Neal calls the social media activity around Troy Davis’ planned execution “this generation’s first vigil”. Davis was eventually executed, but there was a 2-3 hour stay of execution. In a way this fight was a failure since Davis was executed – but the effect of was that when Trayvon Martin was killed, there was a context to build protest that got Zimmerman to trial, which was the real victory. Every victory comes after many defeats.

The digital divide isn’t that black folks don’t have access, it’s that access is different, Neal said. More than 50% of blacks who access the internet do so on their mobile – far more than whites. For many African Americans, their only internet connection is through a handheld device. It’s difficult to fill out a job application on your cellphone – we need broadband in the ‘hood.

Neal’s talk ended with an opening up towards less obviously productive forms of engagement in social media, like #rachet, which is “this alternative black twitter” that is “a challenge to black respectability”. A young woman in the audience asked Neal what he thought of worldstarhiphop.com, a site that as far as I can glean is clearly “rachet”. Neal states unequivocally that the site is “incredibly dehumanizing of the black people.” He wants it gone. The student countered, “Well, it’s black expression.” Neal had a quick answer: “It leads people to say “But if they do it to themselves, why should we be upset other people are doing it to them? Is it middle class black folks mocking lower class black folks?” Neal’s not too worried about adults viewing it, but says that a good part of the audience is young children, pre-teens, and that the idea the site gives them of black culture is incredibly harmful.

Mark Anthony Neal has of course written several books, but also writes for The Huffington Post, is on Twitter as @newblackman (also the title of one of his books) and runs a weekly podcast titled Left of Black. So plenty of ways to follow his work.

05. March 2014 by Jill
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An online selfie course for academics

Terri Senft is also working on selfies, and started up a Selfie Research Network on Facebook the other day. The group already has 180 members and is a very active site of sharing and conversation. There’s a Zotero bibliography and a shared Evernote folder as well, and a database of people is in the making, so feel free to join if you’re interested.


One of Terri’s questions to the group was whether we should submit an experimental session for AoIR in Bangkok  in October, and lots of great ideas come up. Me, I want to do an online workshop. Ideally for AoIR, perhaps for my students next semester, but definitely building on the way that the online self-portrait courses I’ve taken are structured – so requiring participants to share images – but also thinking about ourselves as scholars and researchers. Really, every piece of scholarly writing is a selfie, of sorts, more or less obviously. As we study visual, networked culture, we need to be thinking more about how we ourselves develop and communicate ideas visually, and a workshop where we actually create images and think through photography would be really interesting.

Foucault talks about technologies of the self, and about ways in which different cultures have seen it as necessary to cultivate (and discipline) the self, and that self-care for the ancient Greeks was seen as a pre-requisite for self-knowledge. Self-portraits and blogs can be a very deliberate form of self-cultivation, as the title of the book Blogging for Bliss suggests, and in addition to books there are online courses you can take in order to become a happier, more confident person through self-portraits, blogging or scrapbooking. I’m currently following Becky Higgin’s Project Real Life, and last year I followed the NOW YOU self-portrait course.

These courses are all about empowering women – always women – to see beauty in themselves and their surroundings. They can also be seen as a way in which women are disciplined, much as women’s magazines, as Angela McRobbie notes, have been “instrumental in the training of middle class young women,” from “cleanliness, hygiene, and the whole business of good housekeeping” to “fashion, beauty and rituals around the social calendar and courtship”.

I don’t have clear assignments in mind, but I’d like at least something that is very concrete and specific and that has participants actually taking photos. I’m not sure how far to delve into taking conventional selfies.

  • Photograph workspace, or self doing research (writing? reading? in café? at desk? in bed? interviewing informants? thinking?)
  • Everyone analyses the same selfie or case study (e.g. a celebrity’s selfie) together
  • Everyone finds an example of certain kind of selfie (pregnant selfie, selfie with friend, selfie with children, selfie alone, sad selfie, funeral selfie, silly selfie, sexy selfie etc) and shares that image to the private group with a brief analysis. We see what happens when you read all the individual images and analyses together.
  • Take photos of various research related items and create a collage. Write, um, something.
  • Take a photo of an accessory, gadget or piece of clothing that helps you feel confident as an academic – for instance when presenting at a conference. Or that doesn’t help you feel confident.
  • Creating academic memes, like Talan Memmott’s for electronic literature, or the ones Leonardo Flores has his students create.

I’m sure there are better ideas, this is just a start.

You could take something like this in many different directions. You could certainly do a sort of leading people through finding themselves as researchers through photography and writing thing. But I think what would be more interesting is if we can find ways to cultivate thinking visually as researchers.

Any ideas?

10. February 2014 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized, Visualise me | 2 comments

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