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Goals for "Off-Topic"

We'll be asking for your help on a number of closing issues, but this post is focused on how we can improve "Off-Topic" closures.

Don't worry, we plan to keep on closing, but want to identify improvements that optimize for:

  • clarity- we want to make it as clear as possible to the OP exactly what makes their post off-topic to minimize frustration and reduce the misperception that they’re just being “picked on for being a noob”
  • improvement - we want the language and workflow to encourage editing wherever possible (and in particular, to make improving a post seem more logical than arguing that it shouldn’t have been closed.)
  • accessibility - we need to convey that information with as little dependence on other sources (FAQ, etc.) as possible

Is this even necessary? What's actually not working today?

To be clear, closing questions as Off-Topic, exactly as implemented today, is doing a hell of a lot of good. Big picture, it's a huge success, and one of the key things separating us from Whoopie! Responses.

And we're mostly doing a good job closing the right questions as off-topic. But...

We can do a much better job helping posters to understand why their question is off-topic.

Consider a question like this one, from our programmers site: How do I review my own code?. Now, to be fair, this particular question wasn't asked on SO first, but we've all seen ones like it asked there.

Put yourself in the shoes of the poor fellow who might happen to ask that question on SO. It's promptly closed (as it should be), but here's the message you get back:

Questions on Stack Overflow are expected to relate to programming or software development within the scope defined in the FAQ.

Hmm... how is a question about code review not related to programming or software development? The message doesn't just fail to make the user understand their mistake, it actually makes them more frustrated, as it reinforces their perception that it meets the criteria.

But wait a second. Is it really so unreasonable to expect them to ignore or get over that conflict, and go read the FAQ - there’s a link right there? That's a question for another day, but let’s say they actually do that. It’s still hard. The first thing you see on the FAQ is the list of questions that you should ask here. Guess what’s on it?

if your question generally covers …practical, answerable problems that are unique to the programming profession… then you’re in the right place to ask your question!

“How do I review my own code” still seems to meet the criteria.

And if you soldier on, you'll find the two additional relevant sections in the FAQ (that are initially hidden) which you might think would help - one is on what NOT to ask, and another is on question types that probably belong on another site, but neither of them actually eliminate this question.

So, imagine you’re this user. You post a question that sure seems to be about programming, but it’s closed because this site only accepts questions that “relate to programming or software development.” You get over this seeming inconsistency, go to the FAQ, where you find another indication that your question belongs here, and no indications that it doesn’t.

Now, we can improve the FAQ to cover this, and we are planning a number of FAQ enhancements, but that’s more like treating the symptom than designing a cure, and it's dependent on getting them to go somewhere new to learn more about what they did wrong.

So, the question is this:

Without lowering our standards, how can we make the system convey what specifically made a closed question off-topic, with as little navigation as possible?

If we can answer that, people still may not like having their questions closed, but they'll be less likely to incorrectly assume they're "just being picked on" or make the same mistake again, and some may even be able to edit their question to fix the problem.

Part of the close reason rework project:

  1. Changes to "close as duplicate" (part deux)
  2. Help us make "Off-Topic" close reasons clearer to the OP
  3. Help us make "Not Constructive" and "Not a Real Question" closures more effective
  4. Every "close" has its thorn: replace "close" with "on hold" for the first five days
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Are there any stats for something like the top 5 off-topic close reasons on SO? That might help focus the discussion on what is really needed. Also, is this only for SO? I imagine what needs to be done might need to be customized per-site. (Or maybe there isn't enough of a problem for lower-volume sites, but surely SF & SU at least could benefit from better close experience.) –  Mat Mar 2 '13 at 16:40
    
@Mat Top 5 off-topic close reasons? There's only one off topic close reason. –  Yannis Mar 2 '13 at 16:42
    
@mat, the solution needs to work on all sites. SO was just an example here. As to data on the top OT reasons, as Yannis said, there's no way to track in the database, as you currently just pick "Off-Topic" or "Migrate". –  Jaydles Mar 2 '13 at 16:43
    
Resisting the urge to close "How do I review my own code?" just to troll @Jaydles –  Yannis Mar 2 '13 at 16:46
    
@Yannis: I know. But I thought some analysis would have been done (or would be interesting to do) to see the main reasons why Qs are closed as such. i.e. see what are the most common misconceptions about the scope of a given site. I know that's probably impossible to do automatically. –  Mat Mar 2 '13 at 16:46
    
@Mat, we could definitely employee/mod turk that if doing so would help with a solution - anecdotally, I do think that most OT posts on most sites fall within the top 5-10 "sounds right, but actually not allowed" categories (whiteboard questions on SO, mac programming on Apple, recipe requests on Cooking, etc.) –  Jaydles Mar 2 '13 at 16:49
    
List/recommendation/shopping things is probably high in there, although those do get "not constructive" often enough. I'd really like something stronger in the FAQs about those we could point users to. –  Mat Mar 2 '13 at 16:53
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Let each community come up with their own, let's say five boilerplate reasons to choose from, and whenever somebody votes to close as off-topic, they'll have to choose one of these reasons, or write a custom comment, much like the "reject" feature for suggested edits. For example, on Super User, that could be off topic » shopping recommendation, or off topic » programming question , et cetera. If the question is closed, list the chosen reasons below the question and the "closed as off topic" message. –  slhck Mar 2 '13 at 17:02
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@slhck, that sounds suspiciously like the core of an answer... –  Jaydles Mar 2 '13 at 17:11
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For inspiration for auto-comments or supplemental close reasons for SO: What Stack Overflow is Not. –  Mat Mar 2 '13 at 17:21
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@Mat deleted, so 10K only. 52 answers and 263 upvotes, but not reference material. –  Kate Gregory Mar 2 '13 at 17:37
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in this particular case, I'd just say "Stack Overflow pretty much only accepts questions with source code in them these days". Your question had no source code, therefore it doesn't belong on Stack Overflow. That was not the original intent of the site, but that's how it has evolved. Pretty easy to understand, at least. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 13 '13 at 9:18
    
@Kate, Mat's point in linking to that isn't to say that the page itself is good reference material but that some of the points it makes could be adapted to fit our current needs for auto-comments and the like. –  Kyle Strand May 1 '13 at 20:54
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7 Answers

up vote 45 down vote accepted

Each site needs their own reasons for closing questions as "off topic".

The main problem is that each community has different reasons for closing questions as "off topic" (if they aren't otherwise not constructive, too localized, or not a real question).

However, from all those reasons, the most obvious should already be in the FAQ, and well known to most members.

It's just a matter of finding out which ones are good candidates for boilerplate close reasons. This could be done, for example, by polling on Meta, or through discussions amongst the moderators and the community team.

Once a number of predefined "off topic" close reasons has been chosen, anyone voting to close as off topic may now use these reasons for clarifying their vote. This is much like the rejection feature for suggested edits, where the most common problems with edits have been made bullet points (e.g., invalid attempts to reply, vandalism, …). The suggested edit rejection dialog also works very well for tag wiki edits, where different reasons are used (tag wiki not helpful, …).


Example Dialog

On Super User, questions closed as off topic are often shopping recommendations, or questions about anything other than computer hardware or software. To specify that, the close dialog could look as follows:

If any of the predefined options doesn't fit, the user can add their own custom reason for closing the question.

Once the question is closed, it'll show the chosen reasons below the "closed" message. For example, the following question is about fixing something with a Nokia phone, which is not a computer for us, and therefore off topic:

If there had been a custom close message, this would be displayed in the same list.


Of course, the messages in my examples could be refined and definitely have to be chosen with caution so as not to change the scope. We wouldn't want to offer users new reasons to close questions that would otherwise be fine to stay on the site.

The benefit of using boilerplate reasons is that closing can still be kept efficient (think about sites with lots of traffic), and at the same time as verbose as it needs to be, since custom messages can appear in the list below the question.

The list can (should?) of course be kept anonymous, include counters that indicate how often a sub-reason was chosen, et cetera.

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I don't think free-form close reasons are a good idea. Choosing which one to display gets problematic when users vote for different reasons. It also makes the custom reason appear more official than it actually is, if it appears inside the close reason explanation. –  Mad Scientist Mar 2 '13 at 18:07
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I think close-voter-written rationales (the empty text box) are a good recipe for more arguments about closing, not less. It's far too easy for that to become "closing as off topic because i dont like ur question". Perhaps mods could get that field, though, in order to provide more precise guidance. –  Josh Caswell Mar 2 '13 at 18:07
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@JoshCaswell I agree that putting in a custom reason like that of course isn't constructive. The question is whether forcing the users to pick from a fixed list doesn't create more confusion though, as it simply doesn't work for all cases. The question is: Have edits ever been rejected with a custom reason of "I don't like ur edit"? To my knowledge that system worked quite well and allowed for much more fine-grained feedback. –  slhck Mar 2 '13 at 18:12
    
But of course, if a free-text form doesn't work out (and if there are really enough >3k users who don't understand how this is supposed to work, which would be sad, but imaginable), it can always be made mod-only. –  slhck Mar 2 '13 at 18:13
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I don't like the idea of these being purely ad-hoc. We have comments for that; IMO (as in my answer) close reasons should still be pre-defined, though I think each site should have custom ones, editable by either moderators or the community (though to prevent abuse/mistakes, funneling it through moderators seems sensible to me) –  Ben Brocka Mar 3 '13 at 1:07
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@BenBrocka Yeah, of course the option can be removed if it doesn't appear to be constructive, however I'd still give it a spin. Remind you that with these sub-reasons there's no "off topic" without a sub-reason anymore, so you can't just vote to close saying, for example, the question's a shopping recommendation, and then post a comment, "Actually I voted to close as shopping recommendation, but instead I meant it's …". I'd find that confusing. –  slhck Mar 3 '13 at 8:56
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I admit that "i dont like ur quetsion" is extreme; in fact, it's not even a good example of what I'm concerned about. I posted a bit too quickly, so let me try again. Even a well-intentioned closer may be under a misapprehension: "questions about git aren't programming problems". I think having an explicit list of close reasons is important to keep the process unbiased. –  Josh Caswell Mar 3 '13 at 19:42
    
On the other hand, we'll almost certainly need to keep the generic reason. If this field were extremely short (30-50 characters) and under the generic reason as just "Subject of this question", I could see it maybe being helpful to the asker. –  Josh Caswell Mar 3 '13 at 19:42
    
Purely ad-hoc does provide a useful mechanism for seeing people who probably shouldn't be allowed to moderate. –  user255546 Mar 17 at 5:03
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There should be a second, more detailed level of close reasons beneath each main reason (OT, NaRQ, Not Constructive, etc.) this second level should be curated by the community, separately for each site.

If we had that, we could have explanatory paragraphs that address why a question was closed much more specifically - shown to the OP and maybe even to the outside world. A template for these paragraphs could look like this:

What happened to this question?

Your question was closed. 5 members of the community thought it is not a good fit for Stack Overflow in its current form.

A closed question can no longer be answered, but it is not deleted. You can edit your question to improve it. If you edit your question, it will be automatically nominated for reopening.

Why was the question closed?

(INSERT EXPLANATION OF SPECIFIC CLOSE REASON HERE)

What can I do?

(INSERT EXPLANATION OF SPECIFIC IMPROVEMENT POSSIBILITIES HERE)

If you feel your question was closed in error, you can flag for moderator attention or ask for support on Meta Stack Overflow.

This is frustrating. Why aren't questions just left alone?

A closing does not necessarily mean your question is bad, and it should never be taken personally. Stack Overflow has a very narrow scope, a high standard of quality, and expects questions to be very specific. We know dealing with this can be frustrating at first - but it's worth it! We believe this strictness is part of the site's success, and makes it a more useful resource for all.

For Off Topic, I can think of the following specific situations that need to be addressed:

  • is not related to programming
  • is a shopping recommendation question
  • is a "gorilla vs. shark" type question
  • is a law question
  • is a career question
  • is a code request (if we want to include that in OT)
  • is a plugin request
  • is a subjective / discussion question

For shopping or buying recommendations, the specific paragraphs could look like this:

Why was the question closed?

5 community users think your question was asking for a shopping or buying recommendation. There is nothing wrong with such questions, but they are not on topic on Stack Overflow. Experience has shown that they tend to attract low quality content over time, and create other issues. You can read more about the topic here.

What can I do?

You can edit your question and try to make it more specific. Add details about your requirements and your specific situtaion. In short, try to turn your question it into something more substantial than just "what is the best xyz?" If you are looking for a market overview for a certain type of product, consider searching Wikipedia which has lists for many categories.

(the "what can I do" part is a bit weak becaust to be honest, I'm not sure what to recommend! I'm not sure whether Jeff's advice from the blog post would really help an OP to get their question reopened - at least on Stack Overflow.)

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Is this the kind of input you're looking for Jaydles? I'm happy to work out concrete suggestions for the other OT items too if there's a chance they get used. –  Pëkka Mar 2 '13 at 18:57
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Great. I'd like to add a note of caution about "is a code request". I appreciate that gimme-teh-codez needs a strict hand, but "is a code request" could be easily reinterpreted to apply to any question where code is a necessary part of the answer. I worry that there'd be a gradual change where people read this as a close reason and begin to outlaw larger and larger classes of questions. This is a minor point. Your suggestion is strong. –  AndrewC Mar 3 '13 at 21:47
    
@Andrew that's a fair point - "code request" would have to be re-worded to make it clearer. –  Pëkka Mar 4 '13 at 9:32
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Brilliant answer. Covers all the aspects the community needs but also handles it in a friendly manner so the closed-question-OP is less likely to get all overwrought at the closing. –  GlenH7 Mar 4 '13 at 16:12
    
This is really the best answer. The template has all the information that I would like to get if one of my questions was closed and clearly explains why as well as what to do. –  hlovdal Apr 2 '13 at 22:46
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Well the obvious "leave a comment" solution simply isn't sustainable, and from a system perspective it's a cop-out, not a solution (just let the users do it!).

Off Topic is unfortunately really something that's defined by the site. Career Advice is Off Topic on Programmers, even if the career is Programming; there's no generic close reason that could ever hope to convey that.

What I think could work are Custom, mod-editable sub-close reasons for each site. Instead of "Off topic, see the FAQ" you might see "Off Topic: Questions on career advice are considered blah blah blah". Possibly with a direct link to a relevant section of the FAQ or Meta post.

Being able to link directly to further explanation would make it a lot less painful, so if mods can make close reasons, I think including links would be a good way to go about it. Linking directly to the "let's go shopping" blog post would be a lot more helpful than the age old "yeah we don't like shopping requests here" comment (WTF is a shopping request? I just ask if jQuery is better than kQuery!)

I'd imagine the sub close reasons could just be a list in the Close box after you click "Off Topic", sort of like the question list after clicking duplicate. You'd get the option for all custom close reasons, plus the generic one. The generic close reason should probably be kept in addition for when posts are just blatantly off topic as well; sometimes "questions should generally be about X" really does cut it when someone asks how to work their graphics card on User Experience (it's happened).

For general awareness mods should probably post a Meta thread about a possible new sub-close reason, sort of like we do in the FAQ, to introduce them to long-time users who don't have the new close reason.

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Yes. Keeping the generic close reason is far better than having a blank text field. Perhaps mods could get the "custom close reason" box, but not just any user. –  Josh Caswell Mar 2 '13 at 18:02
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@JoshCaswell I rather meant mods would pre-bake close reasons everyone could use, not just make them up to close posts on the fly. That way we could agree on a new off topic sub-reason and everyone can use it (and the most agreed on sub-reason gets shown to the user, I guess) –  Ben Brocka Mar 2 '13 at 18:04
    
Yes, didn't mean to be confusing, I was sort of commenting on your post to point out the contrast with slhck's, which I read first. –  Josh Caswell Mar 2 '13 at 18:09
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jQuery is most definitely better than kQuery. –  Second Rikudo Mar 3 '13 at 22:25
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As already mentioned, to make the off-topic close reasons easily understandable without requiring users to dive into the FAQ will require customized close reasons for each site.

We still need one generic off-topic close reason, for all those cases where users ask some blatantly off-topic questions, but the problematic parts are those off-topic cases that are not obvious just from the site name.

There is no way to formulate them in a general manner for all sites, the reasons are just too different. Some examples that would require custom close reasons are

  • Skeptics: The question is not about a notable claim
  • Arqade: Game identification questions are off-topic
  • Arqade: Game recommendations are off-topic
  • Biology: Personal medical advice is off-topic

But we have to limit ourselves to the most important close reasons, those that are not obvious and that happen frequently. We can't and should not cover every corner case, or the close reason list will get too long.

The close reasons should be either mod-editable, with the understanding that only the major cases get their own close reason, or the suggestions should have to be approved by SE. I think allowing mods to edit them should work, if we make sure the mods are informed on when another close reason should be added.

As already suggested by SE staff and some users here, the best fit would be an off-topic sub-reason, this would prevent the inital close reason list to become too intimidating.

The close reasons could also contain links to relevant meta posts for more background about this specific aspect of the site scope, but they should also be able to stand on their own.

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Provide us with the tools to create specific off topic messages. Allow each community to use their meta to work out what the messages should be and let the site moderators to manage them. I guess that's the easy bit, deciding which message to use could be trickier possibly just extend the voting to it with a simple majority or mod trump winning.

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When applicable, the off topic message should link to the StackExchange site where it is on topic.

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The initial messages for P.SE had ones that suggested such. It resulted in fewer correct migrations and more crossposting of the questions. Suggesting a 'belongs on' in a close message is much worse than closing as off topic and flagging for migration. –  MichaelT Sep 20 '13 at 1:19
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Personally, I've been hit by the NARQ and OT responses enough times that, for now, I'm done asking questions on SO or anywhere else on the StackExchange sites (motto: "Your problem is not my problem" -- and I don't really mean that; I'm just really frustrated).

Why? Because the OT and NARQ responses are un-helpful. To me, help means providing guidance, not just information--as in a direction in which to head.

The canned responses are useful, but not helpful. Even with the milder language that advises how to write questions gooder. (/s) Some questions are just not "right" for the site in which it is posed, no matter how it is phrased. The canned responses explain themselves very well; they just don't help me know where I should have posed my question.

To be clear: I'm very glad that SE tries very hard to keep the sites useful. I agree with the notion of closing responses as OT or NARQ.

By the way: before you ask, I have tried to Bingle my questions to see on which SE sites my kinds of questions show up on. 99.9% of the time, it's SO. But 80% of those times, those questions are closed as OT or NARQ. So much for THAT idea!

My recommendation is that before a question is closed as OT or NARQ, the person closing it should guide the poster towards one or three sites that might help.

Yes, I'm aware that you don't want to make site-specific references because each site has their own narrow definition of what is on topic and what constitutes a real question. Are you aware that your denial of the existence of other sites is a little off-putting?

Nevertheless, I'm very sure that people who vote to close questions as OT or NARQ have some idea of where such a question might be better served.

I feel pretty certain that most OT or NARQ questions asked on SO can probably be directed towards only a handful of other SE sites (like programmers, or serverfault, etc.) or, heaven forbid! some other sites on the Internet that might actually provide answers to question like "Would you please recommend some books on X?".

The list of other recommended alternate sites might be tied to the reasoning for the OT or NARQ closure, or maybe just a link to a page that shows common OT or NARQ question types and the recommendations that accompany each type.

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NARQ does not exist anymore. OT is significantly changed from what it was before. Suggesting reposting on P.SE or other site is not a good thing as it often leads to the question getting closed there (Too Broad and Primarily Opinion are network wide - and just as applicable on P.SE as on SO. If something is too broad on SO, its likely the case too on P.SE). –  MichaelT Sep 20 '13 at 1:20
    
So, in essence, you are telling people with questions which are deemed Too Broad or Primarily Opinion that you want them to just not ask those questions, and you don't really care where they have to go, as those kinds of questions are not welcome anywhere you know of. Am I right? Because that's my takeaway on this whole thing. Why can it not be more helpful? That's not a rhetorical question. –  Alan McBee Sep 20 '13 at 1:33
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Questions that are too broad cannot be answered reasonably. "How do you write a compiler" is too broad - there are entire multi hundred page books on the subject. Narrowing it down may result in a good question. It requires some work by the person asking the question to refine it. Primarily opinion questions like "what is the best chair to sit in" is an opinion. I like my Aeron, thank you - but other people have different opinions. There cannot be an answer to the question and thus isn't a good fit for the Q&A format - some people like using quora for this, others ask /. or reddit. –  MichaelT Sep 20 '13 at 1:42
    
You know, if this exact phrase: "There cannot be an answer to the question and thus isn't a good fit for the Q&A format - some people like using quora for this, others ask /. or reddit." were put into the OT response for the Too Broad or Primarily Opinion reasons, it would go a very long way towards being a helpful response instead of a "stop asking us stuff we can't answer" snappish response. –  Alan McBee Sep 20 '13 at 4:52
    
Nobody is addressing the basic problem. All the SE sites are very SEO optimized (yes, I know it's redundant). In fact, they are TOO optimized, because they draw in top hits for questions which have been closed as OT (or whatever). As a result, I am somewhat reluctant to click on the SE links at the top of the search result. I know SE and SO cannot be all things to all people, but neither should it be The Final Arbiter of what should or should not be helpful to people with questions that don't fit your specific mission. There's a ton of experience with other sites here; share it!! –  Alan McBee Sep 20 '13 at 5:01
    
(Not to beat a dead horse) I Binged this question "best book on WCF" not caring where it takes me. (bing.com/…) Bing lists SO in the #2 spot, after Amazon in #1. It takes me to stackoverflow.com/questions/870997/…, which is closed as NC, but it DOES have a good answer, as was upvoted by several people. That's useful! But NC and OT responses make it seem like it was viewed as so much spam. –  Alan McBee Sep 20 '13 at 5:05
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There is a chicken and egg problem here too: Why should Stack Overflow recommend any site over another? That's just an opinion as well; "What is the best site to ask subjective questions". New visitors are given lots of chances to learn about what is suitable here. Why is it suddenly SO's fault if they don't listen and stubbornly keep posting bad questions? –  Martijn Pieters Sep 21 '13 at 18:28
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