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Part III: Future of Metaverse Governance: Some Lessons from the Past: The 1990s

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

Source: Image by Merlin Lightpainting from Pixabay

This period was an exciting one for the development of the metaverse. The book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson came out in 1992, in which he first coined the word “metaverse.” There were other books before this (like Neuromancer in 1984), which fuelled the idea of virtual worlds and real worlds colliding. In the 1990s, movies about virtual reality captured the public’s imagination ending the decade with the Matrix (1999). During this period, infrastructure, hardware, software, entertainment content improved drastically backed by massive amounts of funding. We moved from LAN parties (single-player gaming on centralized servers) to internet games, decentralized servers and larger ‘client’ populations. Players were allowed to co-create content and new virtual worlds. Business and education began advertising in these spaces, and cyberconferences, performances, parties, and reunions were held there. I have actively referenced some wikis, fandom archive pages, old magazines and blogs. Some may not exist in the future – we really need a better archival record of the internet! All the links worked as of 1 December, 2022.


The 1990s

In the 1990s, technology further improved, moving to 3D graphics, better graphical interfaces, internet connectivity, data transfer, and consoles. In 1993, CERN released the World Wide Web software into the public domain with an open license. This action allowed the internet to flourish. Versions of the browser were available for PC and Macintish. In this era, data was stored on floppy disks. An open-source operating system (Linux) was built in 1991, and the first SMS was sent in the same year. Mosaic was a popular browser introduced in 1993 (becoming Netscape). In 1993, there were about 500 known web servers, with www accounting for 1% of internet traffic. By 1992, 170 virtual games were operating in 19 different languages! Many of the early games required dial-up modems for the internet. But this number would grow. Nvidia began in 1993, working with Sega and in the 3D graphic space. In 1994 Amazon started, eventually creating AWS in 2006, the first cloud infrastructure when they decided to build an e-business service to help other merchants with their online business in 2000. 1995 was also the year when the Windows 95 desktop became dominant.

Standards were being set in WiFi, data transfer, etc., through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (1963). Apple became the first major company to offer WiFi connectivity for their laptops in 1999. The 4th generation 16-bit-era game consoles was released in the early 1990s. In 1995, Sega released games on CDs rather than cartridges. Ultima One was released on the internet as a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), so this was a massive shift in accessing games. Games began their reincarnation as movies - Super Mario Bros (1993), followed by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat as examples. These innovations and more focus on public entertainment facilitated the growth of this industry.

Figure 17: Website Browser running on NeXT computers

Source: CERN (1993)


The first-person shooter game Doom was introduced in 1993. The company, id Software developed a 3D game engine that allowed the player to “see” the environment as if immersed in it. id Software can be considered as an early entrant into the field of engine licensing. Within two years, more people had played the game than those that had installed the new Microsoft Windows 95 operating system. It had graphic depictions of blood and gore and was considered violent. Part of the source code was released to the public to modify graphics, and after the engine was five years old. The game (and others from id Software like Quake (1996) were released free as downloadable shareware versions, but if the player wanted to play more than the first level, they had to pay. The 1990s also had many combat games – like Quake, Street Fighter II, and Mortal Kombat.

Figure 18: Doom

Source: Britannica


WorldsAway – introduced barter and also avatars (1995). The technology would only allow six avatars on screen at one time, but the rest could be present in ghost mode (without a body) and represented as a cloud or an eyeball. The gender and body types were fixed for avatars (male or female, and thin, fit, or heavy-set), but there was a choice of 100 heads for customization, and you could purchase a paint can to color your outfits. It was released by Fujitsu Cultural Technologies (a subsidiary of Fujitsu). You paid a subscription (for example, for a game like WorldsAway, you paid US$4.95 an hour for the CompuServe, which later became a monthly subscription fee. You also earned 60 tokens per hour, which you could use to pay for services like renting an apartment. These tokens could also be bartered for items in the virtual world. The software was sent on CDs to the clients. In 1997, WorldsAway moved away from Compuserve to the internet and began charging a monthly subscription fee and separate worlds emerged, including an adult world.

Figure 19: Worlds Away (1995)

Source: Benj Edwards


Alphaword (1995) was one of the first 3D virtual worlds created at that time; with 15 cities and four fictional nations, it had over 190,000,000 objects, and the virtual area was equivalent to 400 square miles. Alphaworld used prefabricated materials to help players create their world. It was the beta version of ActiveWorlds.

The ActiveWorlds IPO SEC filing states:

Our library of thousands of building objects contains the necessary materials for constructing a home, store, convention center, car, maze or any other kind of building or structure. Citizens, but not tourists, can customize their buildings with signs of all shapes and sizes. Visitors have placed more than 40 million virtual objects and structures in AlphaWorld, our most popular world, and they have created virtual towns and cities, complete with traffic signs, community artwork and parkland, in which visitors (through their avatars) can stroll, explore and interact with other users…..Our most popular world is AlphaWorld, a community which consists of virtual real estate on which visitors can create virtual structures from our library of more than 3,000 computer objects and textures. As of December 31, 1999, users had placed more than 30 million building blocks on AlphaWorld. Other worlds are based on specific themes or commercial applications, which are selected either by us or by our licensees.”

Figure 20a: AlphaWorld (1995)

Source: DigiBarn Computer Museum

Figure 20b: AlphaWorld (1995)

Source: DigiBarn Computer Museum

Figure 20c: AlphaWorld Map (1998)

Source: AlphaWorld (1998 from Source:

ActiveWorlds (1995) was a 2.5D world. Eventually, it was listed on NASDAQ in 1999 after a reverse merger with Circle of Fire (the content-creating arm which bought their customer in 1997) and Vanguard Enterprises Inc in 1999. As a citizen of this world (for which you paid a fee), you could co-create (and these creations persisted). But, of course, coding was far more complex in those days (more here – note the author Shamus Young died on June 15, 2022 – if you wish to support his sites for posterity, more here).

The game introduced warp and teleport (1995), a menu bar, and an early choice of 8 avatars (1996). It moved from an 8-bit to a 16-bit display in 1996. It also introduced “dynamic downloading” with timestamping in 1996, which meant it would automatically download material from the web server as the players interacted in the game. You could send telegrams, similar to SMSs, to other citizens, mark your coordinates, invite people for a meeting, and chat in real-time using text or VOIP.

The world size was dependent on servers. Many places had “public buildings” for bots and avatars to enter. Caretakers managed these sites (reducing the work for administrators). The places had ratings (a document dated 2014 here, links to maps to explore places in AWI). One experimental community project in AlphaWorld– the Sherwood Forest Community Project (1995 beta program) documents several acts of vandalism. The 10,000 population was “individuals working at home, specialists in industry, researchers from universities, and the staffs of companies and government institutions.” They had a town charter, and the “mission of the Consortium is to develop and promote contact, culture and community in digital space.” They had their first eviction from a singles-mixed party that 400 people attended. The problem they faced were party crashers, rude gestures, and interruptions when people were reading poetry. Later they were hacked by a gang called “anarchy” in 1997.

Figure 21a: Sherwood Forest Community Project: Map


Figure 21b: Sherwood Forest Community Project: Screenshot of evidence of inappropriate behaviour


Figure 22a: ActiveWorlds (early graphics)

Figure 22b: Activeworlds (2D/3D)

Figure 22c: Activeworlds (2D/3D)

Source: MobyGames

When real-life and online-life intersected

ActiveWorld had the first 3D virtual wedding in 1996. More details are archived here. The bride and groom met online via their avatars (one lived in Washington DC and the other in Texas). Tomas wooed Janka in a park he had landscaped with flowers. They married online on May 8, 1996, and Tomas moved to Washington a day later. They communicated using the phone and a chat called Powwow and subsequently first met up in Texas.

Figure 23: Wedding of Tomas Landhaus, 27, and Jeanette (Janka) Stanhope, 31, in custom-made avatars (AlphaWorlds): May 8, 1996

In 1994, a chat room called The Palace was started by Time Warner Interactive and opened to the public in 1995. It used avatars, and you could show emotions (9) – perhaps the first emoticons? The server software was free and the program ran the user’s PC. You could sign into the site without any personal information. An ethnographic study of online networks by now Prof. John Suler, called “The Psychology of Cyberspace”. He focussed on many topics; here is one on The Palace. Newbies were identified by their standard av (short for avatars), highlighting that they had not paid for customization.

Faces were used to send messages; he gives an example: “On one occasion, I witnessed a male come on to an attractive female member wearing a real face prop. When her attempts to brush him off failed, she flashed a nefarious-looking skull at him. He quickly backed off. Some people may use evil or aggressive avatars as a way (consciously or unconsciously) to alienate or "put off" other people. This might indicate their anxiety about intimacy and being vulnerable.”

Suler highlights another example of thieving:

One evening when I entered Harry's Bar, the social center of the Main Mansion site, I immediately was warned by a friend, "Watch out! Nightmare is stealing props." I quickly noticed that all the people I knew were wearing the generic smiley faces rather than their favorite avatars. Except Nightmare. He wore River's idiosyncratic avatar, which, for a second, disoriented me, then made me angry. I switched off my own primary avatar, the gray owl, and automatically defaulted to the generic smiley. But it was too late. Nightmare had already captured my owl and put it on. I added my annoyance to those of others in the room. We told Nightmare this was unacceptable behavior, that people took their avs seriously, that what he was doing amounted to stealing. Our concern didn't seem to have too much of an impact on him. Adding insult to injury, he duplicated my owl and spread copies of it all around the room. With the "clean" command, I erased all the loose owl props, but later on I found others in the Armory. I indeed felt that something important had been snatched cavalierly from me - that my visual territory, my IDENTITY had been violated.”

Inappropriate behaviour was context-driven. Suler relates another example:

Some avatars are designed specifically to snuggle, piggyback, or somehow interact with other avatars. One member, for example, has a pair of upside legs that he inserts down the cleavages of unsuspecting women, giving the illusion of the rest of his body being inside their dresses. This typically is a harmless prank played only on people he knows will enjoy the joke. The correct response, one female member informed me, is "oooh, that tickles!!" or Worlds chat or Worlds chat (previously known as Gamma) was an online virtual world based chat program introduced in April 1995 (and was spun off as Worlds Inc). It had about 20 rooms, two worlds known as "sadness" and "glee," and 14 avatars. It introduced flying, teleporting, and customizing your avatars. introduced the concept of virtual rooms, as mentioned by Bruce Damer in 1996, “For the first time, there was ‘space’ in cyberspace and ‘visiting a place on the internet’ began to have real meaning.” You could whisper to someone (DM). To introduce the next version Worlds Chat 1.0, where after a free demo, users could pay US$32.95 for a “Gold Version”, they held an “End of the World party” on September 1`3, 1996 known as the patch “major trauma” (a massive event in those days).

Figure 24a: Worlds Chat (1995)

Figure 24b: Worlds Chat (1995)

Figure 25: Early Advertising across platforms


Everquest (1999) was an interesting game (preserved as Project 1999). It was a 3D fantasy-themed MMORPG. Previous games were single-player or text-based games. Developed by Verant Interactive and 989 Studios for Windows PCs, but released in North America by Sony Online Entertainment in March 1999 and in Europe by Ubisoft in April 2000. Revenues increased through expansion packs that added new features and areas to the existing game. By 2022 there were 25 expansion packs. Everquest inspired games like World of Warcraft.

Figure 26: Everquest

Ultima Online

Ultima Online (1997) was a fantasy MMORPG that incorporated new game mechanics and could be played from the internet. It expanded from a single world to other worlds through expansion packs. The development budget was massive - US$2.5 million. Ultima Online began with a theme, story, and quest, and it was designed to support more players online. They created an AI to affect animal behavior, but the processing speed was not fast enough “We thought it was fantastic. We'd spent an enormous amount of time and effort on it. But what happened was all the players went in and just killed everything; so fast that the game couldn't spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin. And so, this thing that we'd spent all this time on, literally no one ever noticed – ever – and we eventually just ripped it out of the game, you know, with some sadness.” Users paid US$9.95 a month to play the game, and by 1998 there were 100,000 subscribers. The female player base was 20-30% by 2001.

Suler chronicles aberrant behavior: pranks, flooding (dumping content on the server so it slows down), blocking (getting too close to someone’s personal space), sleepers (walking away from the computer – in those days, only six avatars could be on a screen), eavesdropping (by reducing your image to one pixel and being invisible), using inappropriate avatars, flashing (showing nudity), prop dropping (tossing an obscene prop), and imposter (pretending to be someone else), identify disruption (changing their identity and prop too often). So the problems we face in virtual communities today were also faced by these early metaverse worlds! Griefing, was a behaviour where players hacked software with the intension to disrupt other’s online experience. They would steal, stalk, or kill players or disrupt their quest in the game (can be considered similar to trolling). Farming also happened which meant that players sold their tokens, status, and rankings (like a blackmarket). Another problem was “throwaway” characters or “mules” which were created to do nonviolent but irritating things to other players

Figure 27: Derek Sanderson - Justice Systems (Game Developer Magazine, 1993: 42)

Challenges with Funding

Running out of funding seemed familiar happening during this time. Worlds Inc, the parent company of AlphaWorlds/ActiveWorlds, used up their US$ 15 million funding and could not find other contracts for future revenues. The lack of a revenue stream resulted in mass layoffs (sounds familiar?). Their content creator for ActiveWorlds – Circle of Fire (1995), bought the assets, rehiring many of the original team. In 1999 they conducted a reverse merger with Vanguard Enterprises. They were listed on NASDAQ as AW in 2000. At the time of listing, it was estimated they had a million users.

Figure 28: ActiveWorlds Form: SB-2/A, Received: 04/12/2000 10:34:33


As early investors ran out of cash, many of these virtual worlds disappeared or were abandoned. Some of these abandoned worlds persisted after the companies became bankrupt, stored in some hard drive or managed through Creative Commons. Since they were abandoned, some of them have started reflecting decrypt spaces, and worse, there is no one to monitor and manage them. With co-creation, some of these challenges were also compounded. For example, a new world hosted within the game could be taken down: as perhaps the owner did not pay the fees or lost interest, and this disrupted other players who had begun co-creating in this world.


Here is a good quote from 1999 (Figure 29).

Figure 29: Balancing Good and Bad


A key turning point for the internet was that CERN decided that the web should remain an open standard not a proprietary system, available for all to use. In 1994, the International World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was formed and made responsible for web architecture. This was an exciting time opening up new economic models and great optimism.

Government Oversight

The introduction of violent video games resulted in a Congressional hearing in the USA in 1993. SEGA then responds by creating the Videogame Rating Council (descriptive labeling for each game sold). This labeling is a forerunner of the industry-wide Entertainment Software Rating Board (1994) used today. The shooting games also garnered negative public opinion as it was established that the Columbine school shooters (1999) were fans of Doom and Quake. The game simulations may have aided the 14-year-old shooter, who had never fired a weapon, to shoot eight people accurately.

Terms of Reference (TOR)

Everquest had a play policy and a set of rules that focused on self-governance “We greatly encourage players to find their own resolution to spawn disputes, as the solution provided by the staff will at best be a win-lose situation, and possibly a lose-lose situation.” Violation of TOR could lead to removing or banning the offender's accounts. I cannot find many TORs for these early games. If you have any please do send them to me.

Figure 30: Everquest Play Nice Policy

Source: Project1999

Creator Control

These worlds were governed by add-ons or plug-ins introduced by game developers (to prevent farming or griefing). Some of these administrators were known or identifiable: The administrators in WorldsAway were called Oracles; in The Palace, Lord Briton was known as the developer; AlphaWorld had a Police Department and officers. The consortium of Sherwood Forest Community mentioned the need to maintain an avatar's appearance for identity consistency: “Rotation of people on shifts running the same avatar caused confusion among partygoers. They might ask who are you now? and stop trusting your presence in a particular avatar. In addition, we used avatars with different body shape but the same name, causing more confusion. There needed to be a facility to flag one's avatar as I am taking a break now or I am switching this avatar to another person now.”

In The Palace, according to Suler, an avatar (like a wizard) could warn, pin, or, if necessary, kill for the offenseof blocking, which was considered a social Faux pas. The first documented eviction took place in AlphaWorld, at a singles party, and the process was managed through a series of escalation points:

A questionable character named Elissa and dressed as a slender black woman cruised into the AlphaWorld Herb Garden party with the full and malicious attempt to crash the event. This person (probably male) used some of the foulest language we have ever seen in years of online interaction. His choice of this avatar was designed to maximize the offense, as his language was aimed at black women. We had arranged for an officer of the Alphaworld Police Department to be there in case of such an incident. As the AWPD is a volunteer group of AlphaWorld citizens who have no special powers (beyond the power of persuasion), the officer found himself unable to stop the Elissa character. Several partygoers crowded around this character in an attempt to convince him to stop. Unfortunately for the crasher, there was one person in attendance who had powers, eminent domain in fact. This was Ron Britvich, of Worlds Incorporated and the developer of AlphaWorld. He was busy disk jockeying sounds into the party when he noticed what was happening. After asking the Elissa character politely several times, Ron, in his office in San Diego, switched to another part of the AlphaWorld interface and banished the Elissa Avatar. From the perspective of that user, in an instant, all the people around just disappeared. From our perspective, Elissa was gone. No sight, no words. Ron said that this was the first time he was so moved to do this. This type of policing happens all the time on moderated chats but it was the first time it had happened in a three-dimensional avatar world. If this all reminds you of Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, you are not far off the mark. Something very fundamental is being born in the social Internet and may influence how people interact in the new medium well into the next century.”

ActiveWorlds created a censor bot (called "Customs Aide"), which could evict players for swearing, but this resulted in the community voicing complaints and hence was discontinued. One suggestion was to impose penalties on abusers like tax, money, or loss of experience, which would progressively increase for repeated offenses and decrease if the behavior stopped.

Some types of governance were using a rogues gallery (DRAGONREALMS), changing the name colors to mark notoriety (Origin), and administrative control (not allowing dead body looting in GEMSTONE III). Often the situation was left to the administrators to monitor and moderate, leading to a higher developer-to-player ratio (in the case of Simutronic), leaving less time for development. In some games like ULTIMA ONLINE, players policed themselves. However, this led to gangs of player killers (PKs). The issue with this governance method meant that you could kill one player every eight online hours without reaching the murderer thresholdand harassment was rampant. A command was created to “squelch” verbal harassment. A justice system for reporting in these early games (whether a window pops up for murder) or filing a complaint to NPC guards was also in evidence.

Rapid Identification of problems, bugs, communication, and deployment of patches

The inability to predict a problem was always a challenge and could affect game development:

“a direct connection with a community of testers who aren’t 100 percent aware of your objectives is something that needs to be managed very carefully managed…..Most beta testers are young people who have a lot of time on their hands; that’s great for finding bugs, but it can also be a problem because some of them lack perspective …. Many of us on the development team spent many hours justifying our design decisions in order to educate the testers on why we were doing things a certain way. While this education does make them better testers, it takes up a lot of time. And it’s a dangerous black hole that you can be sucked into if you’re not careful. I believe that the true balance is to pay attention to your community, but sometimes to sacrifice the battle in order to win the war. You should involve your intended community in the evolution of your game, but don’t let it take over your design process or time.”

Sometimes there are unexpected challenges: For example, the story of Hurricane Kevin (1998) is a great example. Houses in Albiaville were suddenly demolished, and later, it was discovered that a player's little 10-year-old brother was responsible.

Figure 31: Google Chat about Hurricane Kevin

Source: Google Chat

Bugs in the software could only be rectified if they were brought to the administrators' awareness. And sometimes, when administrators took action, the players could misconstrue them. Ultima Online had one incident during a stress test where the avatar of the lead developer (Lord British), who was supposed to be invincible, was killed. This incident happened because the invulnerability needed to be reset as it diminished after multiple sessions. The killer Rainz was banned officially for repeatedly exploiting bugs rather than reporting them.

The faster a message was posted to an administrator, the more likely the problem would be addressed. For example, users could write to the creator in ActiveWorlds. Hence, by popular demand and evidence of abuse, the "create url" behavior was disabled in April 1996 (these changes were communicated to the community). Code seems insufficient as new problems keep cropping up, so one suggestion in those early years was only to intervene when a complaint was filed or charge for violations. Another challenge for developers was that outsourcing needed more control and supervision, something a growing company did not have time for. Here is an example of the issue from a project called FIRETEAM:

“FIRETEAM is a very complicated project with many processes running on both the client and the server. Add in the complication of the Internet, and you can get one confusing mess (Figure 1 shows just how complicated the FIRETEAM architecture is). We tried to break our server components down into smaller, more manageable pieces, each with its own function. We hired some experts in various disciplines to help us better understand parts of the server technology that were new to us. Our mistake was in thinking that these experts could just come in and solve our problems. As we busied ourselves with other parts of the project, it was easy for us to say to ourselves, “They know what they’re doing.” In the end, however, the development team needs to understand the whole picture and how the pieces really fit together. One of FIRETEAM’s unique properties is that its server-side components run remotely at an ISP’s facilities. In order to debug something as complicated as our server architecture remotely, our key programmers — not just the client/server experts —needed to understand the whole system. One or two weeks spent planning and discussing the entire project with everyone involved will save you months down the road. The process of actually finishing and shipping a game is the hardest part of the development cycle; not many people actually know how to ship a game. During the final stage of the project, it’s essential that the entire team understand all the pieces of the puzzle.”

John Suler (1996) mentions another challenge – indecent exposure.

The Palace: “Frontal nudity, including uncovered breasts, are not permitted at the Palace. Offenders first are warned by wizards, prop-gagged (forced into the standard smiley), and, if necessary, disconnected from the server. Adapting to these house rules, some users create avatars of partially naked or scantily clothed figures. Mischievous members sometimes push the envelope by wearing avs that test the limits and ambiguities of the rules. Supreme court justices have had a hard time defining what is pornographic, so the task has been no easier for the officials who run the EC sites. Even though the rules have become very specific about what body parts can and cannot be visible in an av, borderline cases always pop up (see The Bad Boys of Cyberspace).Female seductive avatars tend to be more common than male - although these female avs sometimes are "manned" by male users (see "Male Gender-Switching in Cyberspace"). In fact, the general impression among members is that males are more likely to prop up as females, especially seductive females, than women dressing up as males.”

The evolution of Everquest is documented in its history as a series of patches to fix problems, and this is a good practice. The fact that this was sent to the community and is now public is even better. Doom has also some history here.

Community Charters

Charters for virtual communities existed – in some cases, they bordered on funny (see the charter by Mixed-Nuts, written in 1997).

Challenges with Cocreation

While there are many examples, these challenges are best explained in this quote from 1999: “However, the Internet introduces a lot of negatives to the gaming experience. Instead of lightning-fast LAN connections, players must now tolerate latency. Instead of a small group of friends, a player’s opponents may be complete strangers who aren’t polite and may even be cheaters.” Governance even at this stage is about educating the online communities and individuals and the issue of anonymity.

Records for Future Learning

From 1996 to 2001, much of internet history is recorded in digital tapes, making it difficult to find. The early game development history is managed by volunteer crowd-sourced communities like could be lost at any point in time as people move, servers fail, or get relocated). Roland, the developer of Active world ( ASAP), chronicled a list of bug fixes and parches in the beta program in 1995, which was since maintained. In 1996, Roland said, “Today (1/24/96) we started experiencing mysterious and prolonged property server outage..” Reading the bug updates is fascinating because it gives an idea of what could go wrong in programming, gameplay mechanics, and hardware capabilities (infrastructure, server, and computer).

These new worlds had a new form of language. For example, I got PKed meant I got killed. This gaming language and culture could divide the more experienced players and the newer ones.

Migration to new Servers and Peak Loads

ActiveWorld users faced issues of peak load failure (error number in the 100xx range) and, the worlds/communities needed to be moved to new servers. This situation was also documented in Ultima One when the land of Trammel opened up, and users rushed to claim prime plots only to have the server crash. This requires a long-term plan for tech updates (hardware and software), history, tech support and of course fund management. With the use of open-source software, this period would set thew stage for future vulnerabilities.

In conclusion - many methods of governance! Still, there were challenges for community governance, moderators, creators and owners. Some came from the participants of the communities and some from the software and hardware glitches. Data portability was also a challenge.

NEXT: Part IV- Future of Metaverse Governance: Some Lessons from the Past: The 2000s

Other Readings

Virtual World History: Mathew Scott Jones

The Psychology of Cyberspace: John Suler

If you have stories from these time periods please reach out. Why recreate the wheel if there are lessons on governance of these spaces we can use to create better systems today?


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