Ethical Food Reviewing (aka Don’t Be a Jerk)

The internet. The world wide wonderful web. The excellent computer box. It’s a place where tremendous things happen, opportunity is spawned, communication is easier than ever. Love flourishes. Dreams are realised. It’s a place where we can all have a chat, share our stories and get along nicely.

50 per cent of the time, at least.

My love/hate relationship with the internet machine knows no bounds. Much like the joys of sending daily ugly snapchat selfies to my best friends the internet has, in a lot of cases, been good to me. Opportunity, communication, education, employment fit for a Young Creative™. I’m sure many others can relate to me on this happy internet friendSHIP.

The other 50 percent of the time… well. Despite the internet providing a beautiful soapbox for worthy voices it has also conveniently placed a loud unwarranted megaphone in the hands of any person with an entitled attitude. After starting a new job in social media within the ~food biz~ and becoming more involved in food/interior photography therefore meeting more and more restaurant owners my anxieties surrounding said amateur reviewers are beginning to worsen. I’m not sure where to begin but I’m going to try because we should open more dialogue about the internet; an unregulated wonderland used for both good and evil.

Anything anybody writes on the internet is deemed as publishing. Whether you, professional writers or traditional printing houses like it or not this has become a new truth. The moment somebody hits publish or submit on a CMS of any form the words are essentially set in (online) stone, forever cached somewhere in the internet air buzzing all around us. If you strip back website layouts, logos and author credit a piece of text reviewing an establishment looks just as official as the next. And herein lies the problem.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: food bloggers aren’t professionals and I understand that. They don’t need to be food experts. There are so many lovely blogs who are very kind in documenting what they eat around town (Vegetaraian’s post Is Loving Food Enough? is a good read on this). This is not a hate post to all the review blogs out there, because I enjoy 95% of them; this is a post outlining where I feel some troubles lie and both bloggers and reviewers may not realise the potential harm they may cause with even a couple of stray, reckless yet unintentional words. This issue is relevant to me because I see it happening on a mostly daily basis as part of my job.

What I’m about to say refers to people who have either transcended the positive hobbyist (whether they realise it or not) or those who just love to have a bloody good whinge on the internet (boo; these guys can be simply summed up in example 2). This post is directed at the at those causing a ruckus on the amateur review scene, food bloggers with (sometimes unknowingly) harsh tongues and entitled complainers of the nation. Here are three personal eyebrow raisers feat. relevant examples indicative, in my eyes, of an unjust review.

Example 1: Fact checking / Assumptions
Owners of an establishment I’m working with at the moment mentioned, amongst all the wonderful and positive reviews of their business, somebody had mentioned one of their side dishes contained too much sugar and they should fix it. In actual fact their dish contains no sugar and the sweetness derives from slow cooking the veggies until completely caramelised. It’s ok to write without being an expert but in this case this sort of assumption is not kind to the owners. Furthermore, another food review said something to this effect when writing of a restaurant I’m also involved in “… don’t be surprised because you might be maybe waiting for a take away coffee for up to an hour”. Might? Maybe? Did you actually wait for an hour? No. Stop that.

Example 2: Don’t write what you wouldn’t say in person
I read a review based outside of Sydney which described a situation wherein a staff member had spilt food on a customer and reconciled the accident with free drinks. They were not satisfied with this outcome. The blogger then went on to say they did not want to make this known at the time or in person but instead felt compelled to write about their discontent in the blog post as the right thing to do. There’s a lot wrong with this and I feel most people who make unwarranted complaints on UrbanSpoon and Eatability etc easily fall into this category. If you can’t say it in person don’t publish it on the eternal book of the internet. That’s what I like to call straight up internet cowardice.

Example 3: Writing critically does not make you a critic
I came across this particular food blog review at work whilst researching what people had to say about the establishment. The blogger was estimating prices (much higher than the actual cost) despite having attached the receipts to the end of the post and constantly made (in my opinion) snide remarks about the smallest detail in almost every dish. After reading around the entire blog it seemed to be this blogger’s “thing”. Cool story bro, and this goes for everyone; unless you’re trained in the culinary arts I’m not sure it’s fair to be making calls like this on absolutely every morsel you place into your golden mouth hole.

As we all know there’s a great difference between the amateur food reviewer and the professional food writer and it seems, unfortunately, the most overlooked attribute is thus; professional food writers are held accountable for their words whereas amateur food reviewers are not. This is a big deal. And as aforementioned, strip back a website to just the text and a review will look just as legitimate as the next (typos not withstanding). If Terry Durack wrote an uninformed review about a new up-and-coming establishment he would be crucified whereas an amateur foodie, despite having published the same hypothetical piece to a similar audience, glides on by. We are in a position where hiding behind the guise of “amateur”, “foodie” or “honest review” is no longer legitimate. Dude, you just published a really negative review, would you say this to the face of the chef and all of the staff? Would you really tell the head chef his canapé needs less batter? Would you get up off your seat to tell the barista to use different beans? If the staff member was as nonchalant as you say to the point of wanting to say something about it shouldn’t this matter be resolved in person? Now the whole internet can read it and anytime somebody googles “[restaurant]” these potentially detrimental words are available for all to see in glowing, web standard font. The owners will read it and if your review was unfair they will be incredibly hurt. We don’t know their situation, they could be struggling, it’s a tough economic climate. We should be supporting small businesses as best as we can because, as we know the rent is high here in Sydney, times are difficult and restaurants are closing here left right and centre and it’s a damn shame. Yes, the service may not have been great, one of your coffees wasn’t perfect. They might have a staff shortage that day, something in the kitchen might have broken. You just don’t know what could be happening in the background.

Online reviews are now such a big deal the Restaurant and Catering Association have today called upon the ACCC demanding further accountability from sites like UrbanSpoon, etc (relevant article here) and, in my opinion and the opinion of some restaurant owners I’ve spoken to, it’s only a matter of time before blogs are brought into the spotlight. I foresee defamation cases in the not-so-distant future. I am not accusing you, dear reader, of restaurant trollin’ but am instead encouraging others who review towards the negative side to check themselves. This is classic Internet vs IRL disconnect applied to food blogging; one negative comment can ruin the chef’s day, the owner’s day, the social media monkey’s (hello) day. Speaking up at the time of issue seems to be a lost art thanks to Dear Internet.

So, the point I’m trying to make here is before you hit publish or submit on a review or comment, before you head to that Facebook page to voice your concerns very publicly, just think; is it really necessary? Is this the type of thing you would outwardly shout to room full of head chefs and staff without filter? Don’t be critical for the sake of wanting to be a critic, ensure your food facts are correct because you’re writing to an audience of impressionable people and what you say could be detrimental to both a person’s business and livelihood. Yes the internet is unpoliced but that is exactly why we have a responsibility to treat social networking with respect and not exploit the privilege of freer-than-ever speech.

And, if your experience really is that bad you can’t possibly give them the benefit of the doubt, speak with the establishment directly, privately and in person rather than shouting it across the online seas for all to see and hear. I know they’d appreciate the (IRL) feedback.

  1. vegeTARAian’s avatar

    Great post Alana. I think it’s really important to read and re-read before hitting publish. And think about how YOU would feel if someone said the same things about you. It’s also good to check yo self and remember that even though we are just small fishies in a big pond, being accurate and kind are still as important on the computer box as they are IRL.

    Reply

    1. Alana’s avatar

      Thanks Tara and of course thank you for the nudge of inspiration from your Is Loving Food Enough post. I prefer to think we’re all excellent fishies in a very diverse pond. :)

      Reply

    2. Lau@corridorkitchen’s avatar

      Hang on Alana, so you’re not a food blogger anymore?!

      “…ensure your food facts are correct because you’re writing to an audience of impressionable people and what you say could be detrimental to both a person’s business and livelihood.” Yes, absolutely. I believe blogs are published works we should be held accountable for and that we should all check our facts.

      However, I don’t think that everything always has to be resolved in person/face to face, because I don’t know that you’re really reviewing a place if you pretend an experience that was kind of lame, was actually awesome, or if you let staff know you’re reviewing the place in advance. If someone burns your toast, that should be in the review. Yeah, you should send that toast back to the kitchen, and if they burn it again, well, that’s not a good sign. If they fix it, great. But all that should be in the review!

      If anything, I find a lot of bloggers gloss over the really negative experiences they have or omit things that I know actually happened. While I completely agree with you that we shouldn’t be critical for the sake of being a critic, we also shouldn’t be overly positive for the sake of promoting someone’s business or making someone happy. We should be honest, and polite, and do your best to check facts as thoroughly as possible.

      Fantastic, thought-provoking post.

      Reply

      1. Alana’s avatar

        Aren’t I? But, but, I have a food blog (kinda)! I’m posting on it right now!

        Point taken, everything should be considered and thanks for sharing about pals glossing-over-the-negs, I’ve never witnessed a cafe visit transformed to blog post first hand so this is good to know! Overly positive for the sake of, well, who knows (freebies maybe?) aren’t ideal either like you say, this opens a new can of worms for me about original and interesting content. A fluffy review won’t hurt any restaurant owners but it doesn’t make for very good engagement online.

        Polite is definitely the key word. Thank you for your thought-provoking comment!

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      2. Tina @ bitemeshowme’s avatar

        Couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said Alana. A well written piece that has definitely covered all points across the board.

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        1. Alana’s avatar

          I’m so glad you agree, Thank you Tina! PS. I recently ended up at Manmaruya in Campsie on account of your blog, I wouldn’t have known about it if it weren’t for you. An excellent dinner was enjoyed by all (well, my mancandy and I anyway)!

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        2. Ramen Raff’s avatar

          I’m with you in this Alana! I simply don’t review a place if I don’t like it. If I don’t like certain dishes, I don’t say anything about it and just mention it (coz maybe someone else might
          end up liking it). It is someone else’s livelihood and as bloggers we should be careful how we review this places. The slightest non-constructive criticism could make a big negative impact on that business. Well written.

          Reply

          1. Alana’s avatar

            Again, I’m so glad you’re feeling me on this one Raff, it’s funny (and sad) how one small comment can ripple into a plethora of problems for a business these days.

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          2. Phuoc'n Delicious’s avatar

            Well said Alana! We live in a world where it is easier to make a complaint than a compliment about something.

            However, in saying that, as I’m currently working in a cafe, there are some people who make really stupid complaints. I will never forget this incident, a lady eating at the cafe wanted to know whether the ocean trout in this dish we had was farmed or free-range, she ended up ordering the dish but when I gave it to her she questioned if I had given her SALMON!! SALMON!! People need to get off their high horses and think before they speak/write/publish..

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            1. Alana’s avatar

              So well put! I bet cafe and restaurant staff across the nation have some spectacularly amazing stories like this one, I’d imagine you guys probably see the worst of it first hand.

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            2. Ai-Ling@blueapocalypse’s avatar

              Great post Alana!

              You have provided some great examples of problems with food blog reviews and I agree with them.

              The other problem is that a lot of food bloggers base a review on just one experience. If they are going to write about a restaurant and give a comprehensive and more accurate account of the experience, it would be better to make a judgement on more than one outing. Sure food bloggers have to pay for their own meals so they might not be able to go to a place a few times but it all comes down to the responsibility that food bloggers can no longer remove from themselves as nowadays people do pay attention to blogs and use them as a source of information. If you are going to base a review on one experience and have a bad one, it shouldn’t define the restaurant. I don’t like the reviews on when a restaurant has just opened and the blogger complains about this and that, and it’s like they just opened, give them some time to settle! In this situation it would be much better to give the feedback IRL.

              It’s about how you write and portray the experience too, you can be critical but not negative about an experience.

              I think Lauren has also raised a good point, while there are negative reviews out there, another problem is the overly positive fluffy reviews that have no substance.

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              1. Alana’s avatar

                YES! I completely forgot to mention the one-visit-defining-review issue. There’s a good reason why “best out of three” is a common averaging standard; of course this isn’t feasible to the everyday food blogger but it should definitely be taken into consideration especially if an establishment has just opened, as you say. Thanks for your comment Ai-Ling, I always enjoy your thoughts.

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                1. Simon Food Favourites’s avatar

                  Keep in mind i’m pretty sure some well-known food critics/journalists would be guilty of the one-visit-defining review as well within only weeks of opening. i think the restaurant industry is moving so fast it’s hard to do a best of three visits and still keep ahead of the others but it’s an ideal to aspire to. i have some 3-5 visit reviews in my backlog but just haven’t had the chance to write them up and they’ve been mostly good experiences with plenty of great dishes to recommend.

                  Reply

                  1. Alana’s avatar

                    Yes but the difference is professional food critics generally have the sensibilities to appreciate newly-opened-restaurant syndrome, amateur food reviewers not so much; especially those who love being critical for the hell of it.

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                  2. Anna @ The Littlest Anchovy’s avatar

                    *Golf Claps*
                    Such a good post Alana – I am glad that someone has spoken out about this. People need to chill out and realise that they are not necessarily the authority on food and dining. I love a review that talks about the overall experience, maybe highlights a few key dishes and inspires me to go and try it for myself.

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                    1. Alana’s avatar

                      Ah the golf clap, the most refined of claps! Thanks Anna, “not the authority on food and dining”, I love that.

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                    2. Simon Food Favourites’s avatar

                      I think most people don’t believe they are the authority on food and dining but they do know what they like and don’t like. many times it comes down to personal taste and has nothing to do with if the chef cooked it right. some people like their steaks medium rare, some people like it well done. if you give that person a well done steak and they love it then does that mean they’re wrong when the chef would recommend it be cooked medium rare? of course not.

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                    3. Max Brearley’s avatar

                      The main thread of don’t be a jerk and say only what you’d be prepared to say to someones face should be the tenet that anyone works by whether occasional commenter, committed long form blogger, Twitter addict or professional reviewer. I have at some point been in all of those camps and hope that I’ve always been fair. Truth be told I’ve probably not. The anonymity of the internet (in name or distance) allows some to be brave where they don’t necessarily have the confidence to speak up. This can be a good thing but equally can also feed the snide side of many.

                      Reality is that it’s an environment that those in the business have to get used to. They need to learn how to react and where necessary join the conversation without being too defensive or in cases abusive. Dealing with critics at any level is a part of doing business – any business – but more so in food.

                      In reviewing at any level we should always remind ourselves of the words of Theodore Rossevelt (that’s the Prez not the Chipmunk):

                      It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

                      The truth is, we all think we know better, but unless you’ve actually been the person in the arena, you know much less than you think and as such you should as you say – think before hitting publish and not exploit the privilege of freer-than-ever speech.

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                      1. Alana’s avatar

                        Hey Max, it’s true we all think we know better and for all I know people are saying the same of me right now; getting on my high horse about what should and shouldn’t be said on the internet, gosh! Thanks for taking the time to comment, internet anonymity is both a beautiful and disgusting thing. In my experience restaurant owners have been excellent in dealing with such comments and this makes me all the more sadder they’re forced to spend time engaging with snide when they should be in the arena gettin’ dirty, as old mate Theo describes so eloquently.

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                      2. Simon @ the heart of food’s avatar

                        Good post Alana and one that should be given due consideration.

                        I agree with a lot that you’ve said, particularly in the area of personal accountability. A person should be held accountable for anything that they say and they already are to some degree as there are a number of cases around the world where bloggers have been sued, rightly or otherwise, for comments that they’ve made on their blog. It seems to be less so for short-form reviews like on Urbanspoon and the like but good luck chasing down every one of those comments.

                        However, I repectfully disagree with your assertion that you should only write what you would say to someone’s face. The fact of the matter is that we are dishonest in person so often that it’s unreasonable to ask everyone to hold themselves to such a standard. For instance, when asked the question “How was your meal?” or equivalent by restaurant staff, how often have you responded “Fine” when it really wasn’t? How often have you walked away disappointed for the meal you’ve had but paid for it anyhow without a word? How often had you felt like complaining but either didn’t have the time to deal with the issue and potential conflict, or didn’t due to consideration for the dining company you’re with? We tell white lies all the time and for many different reason. However, this doesn’t mean that what we say online is more honest either. Then there is the issue of whether or not the restaurant is receptive to such criticism, which is another matter entirely.

                        In the case of a lot of bloggers who are identifiable and have a means by which to be contacted, when criticisms are made, we are in a way I would assert, making these criticisms to a restaurant’s “face”, particularly if there is the option for the restaurant to have a right of reply in the same forum in which the information is presented. In such instances we can be held accountable, not just because the restaurant or other consumers have the option to present their side of the situation but also if someone is a known troll or in unreasonable with their complaints a lot, people are able to find this out and can deal with it accordingly. I mean how many people do you know who read only one food review and base their judgement solely on that? People tend to read at least a few or read the ones of people that they feel are credible so I would think that issues such as negativity, exaggerated statements and such end up as anomalies over time. They also tend to be pretty savvy and are able to spot BS, particular in the light of multiple reviews.

                        For me, the true issue is anonymous criticism, as it’s very difficult to hold such a person to account for their words. I feel if you choose to be critical at all, that you do so knowing full well that you can be identified and held accountable for your words.

                        Reply

                        1. Alana’s avatar

                          Thank you for respectfully disagreeing Simon! I’m not the most eloquent of people but I enjoy a good discussion. It’s a really interesting point you’ve raised about bloggers being accountable in comparison with the anonymous (I agree, they are the worst). I understand people generally read a few pieces about an establishment but in this day and age, unfortunately, I feel a negative sentiment can often override 10 positive ones.

                          I still strongly believe if any concerns weren’t important enough to raise when somebody asked “how was your meal?”, or when paying for the bill, or at the time of incident they shouldn’t be raised publicly. If somebody doesn’t have the time to deal with the issue then again it shouldn’t be raised publicly. And, if there’s a concern about how the staff/chef/whoever will take the criticism I don’t see how voicing it online is any better because they’re going to find it and read it eventually; in my eyes it makes the situation worse (and more awkward). So I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one!

                          Anonymous whiners are definitely at the bottom of the food chain and the top of my hit list, the absolute worst. Down with keyboard warriors!

                          Reply

                        2. milkteaxx’s avatar

                          very great post alana, i couldn’t agree with you more. im only an amateur food blogger and i use my blog purely to share what i’ve eaten, and express my opinions on it, but its nothing critical.

                          Reply

                          1. Alana’s avatar

                            Why thank you and I’m so glad you agree! Sharing is so important and that’s what makes the internet so great, when people turn a little nasty the internet becomes… not so great.

                            Reply

                          2. angela@mykikicake’s avatar

                            Very good read, and I agree with you. I share my foodie experiences on my blog for the pleasure of other people to see what food is on offer and what the atmosphere is like. I love food, but it is not my place to comment on it like a critic.

                            Reply

                            1. Alana’s avatar

                              Thanks so much Angela, sharing really is the operative word here!

                              Reply

                            2. bob’s avatar

                              “hese potentially detrimental words are available for all to see in glowing, web standard font. The owners will read it and if your review was unfair they will be incredibly hurt. We don’t know their situation, they could be struggling, it’s a tough economic climate. We should be supporting small businesses as best as we can because, as we know the rent is high here in Sydney, times are difficult and restaurants are closing here left right and centre and it’s a damn shame. Yes, the service may not have been great, one of your coffees wasn’t perfect. They might have a staff shortage that day, something in the kitchen might have broken. You just don’t know what could be happening in the background.”

                              I’m sorry but I had to stop reading here.

                              Reply

                              1. Alana’s avatar

                                Why’s that Bob? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

                                Reply

                              2. Simon Food Favourites’s avatar

                                if you burn my coffee i’m going to have a crappy day too. if it’s really bad i’ll actually tell them in person, and have done on two occasions, which then identified bad beans and bad processes which they could fix without spoiling other peoples coffee.

                                Reply

                              3. Winston’s avatar

                                This really clears up a lot of things for a lot of people, including myself, A dawg. You really are wisdomly…wisdomful…wisdomest beyond words! I really do agree with you 100% on what you’ve shared. Prolly that’s why at the end of the day, I try to make it clear that food blogging/writing is a hobby for me, and I’m sharing thoughts to the every day person, from an every day person’s point of view. I hope no one misconstrues me for anything but. Cause that’ll make me very sad. For most people like me who don’t treat it as a profession, we shouldn’t try to project ourselves to be anything but that unless we’re thinking of making that next step? Even then, like you’ve said, there’s actually a lot to learn and know in the bizz. Gee wizz

                                Reply

                                1. Alana’s avatar

                                  You’ll always be one of the good ones Winceeeee! Always and forever.

                                  Reply

                                2. Barrister Barista’s avatar

                                  A great post and a fence I sit on regularly as a coffee blogger in Canberra. My best successes have been in recording my negative experiences in milder reviews that invite comments. If other customers agree with my negative experience through comments, I feel less like a troll, eg here http://thecanberran.com/2012/11/15/coffee-at-cream-of-the-crop-in-civic/. Your comments also echo something I read once by some food critic (Simon Thomsen?) about giving new venues a break in their first few months. Giving in to the temptation to write ‘shiny new cafe, awful service, shit food’ is what gives bloggers a bad name. Try again in a few months, and above all, as Corridor Kitchen says, be polite.

                                  Reply

                                  1. Alana’s avatar

                                    Yep being polite is key, it’s just way too easy (and common these days) to slam a brand new restaurant which is super unfortunate. Good example and interesting point which is something that should be mentioned in this discussion, if a few people are saying the same thing about a certain establishment then generally it’s fair to say it’s the restaurant with the problem.

                                    Reply

                                  2. Ev @ Noisy Noodler’s avatar

                                    Nice post, Alana! I agree with a lot of your points, particularly around just not being a jerk. My parents are restauranteurs, and it’s absolutely true that we are writing about people’s livelihoods. They invest their blood, sweat, and tears into their businesses, employ lots of people both front of house and in the kitchen, and they don’t need one nasty and scathing review to ruin everything they have built up.

                                    I don’t agree with visiting a place 3 times before we should write a review, nor that we shouldn’t write reviews on bad experiences, as some have suggested. The truth is that most of us are doing this is a hobby, not a profession, so we can’t be reasonably expected to fork out our own money to visit a place 3 times before we write. Also, most of us are writing because we want to catalogue or share our food experiences with others, and the reality is that not everyone will love a restaurant or cafe, so it’s important to have a balance of reviews about an establishment. If only gushing reviews existed for a restaurant, you would question whether this place could pull off perfect experiences for everybody, every single time. I do agree that any criticism should be polite, fair, constructive, and balanced, and preferably, if the writer felt that they could give the feedback in person, then they should.

                                    Finally, are we really arrogant enough to think that our reviews, good or bad, or enough to change the tide of opinion for one restaurant? If a restaurant was actually good, one amateur blogger writing a jerk opinion piece is probably not going to ruin their business. Perhaps I’m just being naive? However, if a place was genuinely god-damn-awful, don’t we want to tell people (in the most polite way possible, of course) so they can make an informed decision about whether they should spend their hard-earned money there, or somewhere else better?

                                    Reply

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