No-one cares about mass movements (until they do)

Nick Srnicek, one of my fellow PhD students at the LSE (and contributor to asked on Facebook recently whether there was any good literature out there on why some occupations (for which I am choosing to read mass protest movements) succeed and others fail. I don’t know – it’s not my area. Probably. Probably there is plenty of material out there better than anything I can contribute. But I do have one fairly simply hypothesis. To my mind, mass protests are most successful when they reflect feelings or ideas genuinely more widely held, perhaps in the process raising awareness at all levels of society of the extent to which different people agree on a point. All protesters believe they represent the majority, but very few actually do. The LSE Student Union’s Freeze the Fees campaign foundered on minimal student buy-in and general opposition from faculty. Lacking broader support, when it decided to mount an occupation (primarily as a grandstanding opportunity rather than out of any belief it would have an impact) it had to do so without disrupting the actual business of the university. And so it was ignored. Failing to actually represent a majority guarantees irrelevance.

I have been writing recently about the Stop the War march which took place in Britain in February 2003, and about the failure of what appeared to be a massive anti-war movement to achieve its apparent aim of stopping the war. To my mind, the most significant point to recognise from the Stop the War march was that it really did reflect the views of much of the population. The most common slogan was ‘not in my name’. Most protesters (and their parliamentary allies) accepted that military action was appropriate as a last resort to enforce UN resolutions, and that Saddam Hussein was not complying with his disarmament obligations. They were concerned primarily (and probably for good reason) that the US was not taking the prospect of a peaceful resolution seriously, and secondarily for the welfare of the people of Iraq. They wanted to wash their hands of the unseemly rush to war, and its likely negative consequences. But they did not disagree with the underlying goals of the policy, and they certainly were not willing to overthrow their own government to ensure it was abandoned. One could argue that the march succeeded in achieving the goals its members and those they represented sought; they disassociated themselves from the unseemly rush to war and the negative consequences of an invasion of Iraq, while not actually stopping military action being taken against a regime for which they had no sympathy. The most interesting fact about the anti-Iraq-war protests was not that they failed, but that they happened at all considering the relatively high proportion of the British public which would, in the right circumstances, have supported the campaign.

New York is currently experiencing a public protest named ‘occupy Wall Street’, at present a vague anti-corporate sit-in which has been garnering some international media attention. One of Nick’s friends shared this link to a Washington Post article which discusses the ways in which the protests could ‘succeed’ – in inverted commas because one of the requirements is the development of a coherent set of concrete demands, in effect a set of criteria by which success can be judged. Others include the acquisition of institutional support and the inclusion of a wider range of interested people; at present the movement speaks for but not necessarily on behalf of the economically disadvantaged. That great economic malaise exists means there is a potential constituency out there from which Occupy Wall Street might yet derive greater democratic legitimacy. It has been suggested that Occupy Wall Street could yet do on the American Left what the Tea Party did on the Right; corral a general sense of disaffection with the current order into a (semi-)coherent political movement. The Economist’s conclusion here, that ultimately the way to success runs through the ballot box, is probably a good one. For, in a democracy in particular, the most successful protest movements are those which move beyond protest to become part of the mainstream.  

I think, then, that each of the key requirements of Occupy Wall Street, and indeed of any protest movement seeking actually to achieve its goals, can be reduced to the simple need to represent the majority, and to leverage that representativeness to influence the political process. Protests succeed when they represent the mainstream, perhaps in some unanticipated way, and when by raising awareness and using their acquired notoriety to access the existing political process they manage to shift the agenda of public debate so that the gap between protesters’ slogans and mainstream political views disappears. The problem, of course, is that then they would cease to be protesters.

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No-one cares about the feral youth

So…The good old Daily Mail has the best selection of images and videos that I’ve seen of last night’s trouble invarious parts of London, and other parts of the UK, while some enterprising person has collated a bunch of Youtube videos into a single account. In terms of up-to-date information, BBC News and Sky News each had good rolling coverage, while following #londonriots on Twitter is a good way of keeping up with rumours – though Twitter, as ever, comes with a health warning, since much of the information is unverified. There was a kerfuffle at one stage last night after someone tweeted a picture reputedly showing “the army at Bank”. Given the place in the picture wasn’t Bank, and the tanks in the image had Arabic slogans on them, I was actually quite surprised it took so long for someone to point out that the image is actually of the Egyptian protests in February. Still, if one takes some of the comments with a pinch of salt, Twitter continues to be a good source of rapid information in fast-moving situations. And you don’t have to actually have an account to use it for this purpose.

Source: Stuart Bannocks, Flickr (

Now, in terms of the meaning of these events, a wide range of interpretations have already begun to emerge. Are we looking at the inevitable explosion of an abandoned underclass? The consequences of a recklessausterity plan? Or just a baffling display of random mischief and anger? One thing I don’t think we’re looking at is Public Opinion. Certainly the riots are public. But they are not an expression of opinion. I disagree with those who suggest last night’s activities were primarilypolitical, even if they were not perceived as such by their originators. I believe it is significant that the violence was targeted primarily at property rather than people (including the police, though there were inevitably injuries amongst the 6,000 officers trying to contain the chaos). I believe that it is significant that the looting of consumer goods took precedence over the targeting of political symbols (in contrast to the tuitionfees riot earlier this year). I believe it is significant that the violence was decentralised and leaderless. This is not politics. Rioting may well be related to the sluggish economy and the abolition of the prospects of young people, but it is not a political act, because it has no political goal. The people stealing trainers and burning police cars are doing so to get trainers and to have a laugh. They certainly do not have anything else to do; they have no jobs, and no prospects – which is the common lot of young people in 21st-century Britain, especially under a Tory government, given Tories cause riots (correlation = causation) – but they are rioting, and not protesting.

Even the death of Mark Duggan, which prompted the protest which led to the first riots in Tottenham over the weekend, is not as significant as has been suggested. The IPCC will need to explain how Duggan died, but the latest reports are that he was a known gangster who was carrying a viable illegal firearm; that he was shot and killed by police may well not have been appropriate – we knowthe police make mistakes in such situations, and it now appears the bullet which hit one officer had been fired by another, suggesting Duggan may not have fired at all as was first reported – but this was hardly a random act of unjustified aggression. Individual police officers still take thingstoo far in pressured situations, while tactics for dealing with mass protests remain slow and blunt, but no-one could reasonably claim the force has not improved its community relations and general professionalism since it was heavily criticised over the Stephen Lawrenceinvestigation. Plenty of people still don’t trust the police, and some of them have good reasons not to, but the riots over the last few days are not a symptom of widespread police failures.

No, what we are seeing is bored youngpeople out having fun, smashing things up and stealing, in the probably realistic expectation that they will face no direct consequences as a result. Smashing things is fun. So is burning things (been there). And new trainers. It’s the middle of the school holidays, no-one has a job or any money, and everyone’s doing it so it’s not really anyone’s fault. There’s no point pretending rioting isn’t cool. Of course it’s cool. It impresses girls, and it’s fun to do. It’s like smoking. Also, like smoking, its consequences are deeply uncool. But teenagers don’t care too much for consequences, because teenagers stay young forever, as those of us in our mid-twenties can confirm.

As an aside, my PhD research is essentially about ‘spin’, and I like to think I’ve developed a bit of a sense for it overthe last few years. So here’s a suggestion for the government. “Only in a city as youthful, energetic, creative, dynamic and diverse as London could such a range of spontaneous activity have sprung up so quickly. These young people are organised, enterprising, and single-minded in their pursuit of advancement. Their energy will form a driving force in Britain’s future development”.

Say it with your fingers crossed, if you must.

Update 14:00

This interview by the BBC of two girls drinking stolen wine at 9:30am sums up my point nicely. “we’re just showing the police and the rich people – people who’ve got businesses and that – that we can do what we want”.

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No one cares about the News of the World

Wow. Shortly after 4pm this afternoon, News International Chairman James Murdoch announced the immediate closure of the News of the World. A campaign launched on Twitter to get major NOTW advertisers to withhold their business from the paper had provided the only nudge many of them needed to do just that; there was a real prospect of contagion spreading across News International’s four UK titles. Added to that, pressure was growing (and indeed continues to grow, if somewhat abated by Murdoch’s “breathtaking gesture”), for Newscorp’s planned takeover of BSkyB to be delayed or abandoned. Newspapers represent just 13% of Newscorp’s global revenues, according to the BBC’s Nick Robinson, with television being far more lucrative; even if the contagion within the print business had been stopped, the impact on the BSkyB deal would have been too costly to contemplate.

Undoubtedly many of the ordinary people working for the NOTW “deserved much better than they got”. 21st century print journalism is a notoriously tough field in which to work, and comparatively poorly paid at most levels. Many of those laid off from News International’s Wapping operation are likely to be low-level desk jockeys and print workers, and there will be a knock-one effect on suppliers and distributors caused by the collapse of the country’s highest-circulating newspaper. This is not the fault of the mobilised public on Twitter and in Parliament, however, but of News International, and in particular senior managers who oversaw a newsroom capable of such acts of inhumanity as listening to the voicemail messages of recently-bereaved war widows in order to drum up tabloid gossip. One such senior manager, Rebekah Brooks, former News of the World editor, is now Chief Executive of News International. It has been suggested that the paper’s closure is designed in part to take the heat off her. The Economist refers to the “intense, almost familial bond” she enjoys with Murdoch senior, but even then the idea that a profitable newspaper was sacrificed to save her skin seems far-fetched. It is difficult to imagine she will survive, though she hardly became the most powerful woman in British print journalism without a thick skin and a great deal of tenacity.

It has been a dramatic day for Public Opinion, and yet another example of the impact of new media (especially Twitter) on popular mobilisation. We have seen a definite power shift; a media empire once thought to be able to decide elections has been humbled. It could not have happened without the quick and convenient means of co-ordinated protest offered by Twitter, nor without the effective targeting of two of a newspaper’s main Achilles’ heels; their position as relatively unprofitable components of broader multi-media corporations, and their structural dependence on advertising revenue. New tools, old targets. What has changed in this case is not the underlying purpose of public protest, but its power relative to the institutions against which it is arraigned.

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No One Cares About Phone Hacking

Perhaps a slightly misleading title, as, apparently, quite a few people DO care. A story which has been rumbling along since 2006, about a private investigator hired by the News of the World to hack into the private mobile phone voicemail accounts of prominent individuals, has taken a dramatic turn in recent days with the successive revelations that, in addition to gossip-rag-friendly celebrities,  those targeted included Amanda ‘Milly’ Dowler, who was at the time missing after her murder by Levi Bellfield, relatives of London bombing victims, and the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who had just been murdered by Ian Huntley. Such is the volume of individuals affected that The Guardian’s Data Blog has set up a searchable list of known victims.

From a public opinion perspective, the story is interesting for three main reasons. The first is the ability of the active public to influence the workings of government. Citing extraordinary media interest, and support from amongst their own number, MPs have secured permission from the Speaker for an emergency debate in the House in order to call for a full public inquiry.

News International executives are now frantically scrabbling to discover who knew that phone hacking was taking place, and indeed who sanctioned individual targets. They have already issued an apology, though that was before the latest and most emotionally charged revelations. Former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s Director of Communications in January over the continued “drip drip” of scandal. Damage may yet be done to the PM by the association, as proof emerges that Coulson personally authorised illegal payments to police officers during his tenure. His predecessor as Editor, current Chief Executive of News International Rebekah Brooks, is now coming under pressure to consider her own position, a position which appears increasingly untenable, despite The Sun’s “collector’s item” defence of senior management generally, and her own denials of wrongdoing, on raw commercial grounds (see below), setting aside all suggestion of moral responsibility (which it is safe to do, given the sort of people we’re clearly dealing with). There are even calls for the government to suspend the decision to allow Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corporation and so ultimately of the News of the World, to complete his takeover of BSkyB. A petition is now online.

Most damagingly for the News of the World itself, a campaign is now under way to persuade advertisers to part company with the title. This is a hugely significant step. Not just because it draws upon the latest trends in social media to mobilise an active public faster and with lower entry costs than might historically have been possible, but because it strikes at the very heart of the modern media system. In their analysis of the “political economy of the mass media”, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky set out five “news filters”, five sources of influence which affect what particular pieces of information go on to become news. Briefly, these are the ownership of a news producer, the economic dependence of news producers on advertising revenue, the information dependence of journalists on ‘official’ sources, the capacity of powerful actors to ‘discipline’ truculent news producers with ‘flak’, and finally the existence of over-arching political discourses (such as ‘anti-communism’ or terrorism) which establish standards of loyalty and constrain the boundaries of legitimate debate. The phone hacking scandal affects media ownership, because it is widely known that, ultimately, Rupert Murdoch owns The News of the World (and The Sun, The Times, and The Sunday Times, for that matter). Murdoch’s plans to expand his ownership stake in BSkyB could be delayed or even scuppered if the government perceives the political damage from slighting him is now less than that of being seen to stand up for him. Advertisers pulling out would undermine the News of the World’s entire business model, and could even prove contagious within the News International family. Roy Greenslade, over at the newly-launched Huffington Post UK, reports that such acts are nearly unprecedented in the UK. The impact on information sources is difficult to predict, but whether public figures will feel able to maintain relationships with the News of the World remains an open question. As for flak, normally it is News International that dishes out most of the flak seen in the UK system; hence why Coulson was hired by Cameron as his media man in the first place.

If the twitterati succeed in any of their declared aims; forcing the resignation of News International’s Chief Executive, having the BSkyB takeover suspended, or undermining the News of the World’s business model by persuading advertisers to pull out (Ford, npower, Halifax, T Mobile, and Orange having already made the move), it will mark a massive victory for the active public. It also, perhaps, signifies a shift in the balance of power between institutions and individuals within public debate. Twitter and the like have so lowered the barriers to entry limiting participation in that debate that the advantages previously associated with being a massive news organisation have been significantly reduced. Opinions which previously could only be expressed by getting past the editor onto the letters page of a paper, or by successfully lobbying an MP who in turn managed to get a question onto the order paper, are now catapulted into the ether in seconds. Their quick agglomeration into genuine mass campaigns, facilitated by the ‘networking’ aspects of ‘social networking’, creates instant momentum. And governments and businesses alike must respond. There is a great deal of work to be done looking at the role of social media in the Arab spring, too much to get into here. But it may be that the overthrow of News International by a coalition of geeks, parliamentarians, and Hugh Grant marks a lower-level British version of the same trends.

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Higher Education Funding 2

I thought it worth updating the last post, with today’s report by the Public Accounts Committee having confirmed that the decision of most universities to charge the maximum tuition fee permissible under the hatchet-job misimplementation of the Browne Report recommendations means the government’s sums are now officially broken. In order to claw back the unexpectedly high cost of subsidising loans, it will be necessary either to further cut central funding (to a point at which universities will definitely decline) or to impose tough limits on student numbers at each institution. This is madness. Browne’s key recommendation was that a true market should be allowed to develop in Higher Education. I have my doubts about the viability of this plan for the reasons set out in my last post. But imposing even stricter limits on student numbers in addition to a cap on fees completely wrecks even its the positive elements. Under the pre-Browne system, proper competition between institutions to attract students failed to develop because everyone charged the same and everyone had a fixed quota of students they could recruit in any one year, set by the government. Sound familiar? No wonder even those institutions which embraced Browne are now expressing no confidence in the government.

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Higher Education Funding

Some interesting contributions have been made recently to the debate over British higher education funding. Howard Hotson has criticised the use of the US system as an example for Britain to aspire to emulate, and his argument that US universities actually significantly under-perform their UK counterparts in global rankings, once the sheer quantity of money spent on HE in the States is accounted for, has found some favour in the Times Higher Education. Hotson clearly has a point. As the continual escalation of healthcare costs in the US demonstrates, the effect of market competition in an industry which a large proportion of the population does not feel it can afford to be excluded from is not necessarily the reduction of costs to the consumer or the generation of efficiencies.

The most interesting component of Hotson’s argument is the suggestion that allowing free-floating university fees leads to ever-higher fee levels, which are required to support ever-higher spending levels, themselves needed to justify ever-higher fee levels.  In effect, a vicious circle develops in which universities feel they need to charge more in order to provide ever-higher standards of service to their students. The problem with this escalation is that it lacks natural limits. Almost no-one in the US debate, and very few contributors to that in the UK, questions the assumption that a university education is a requirement for access to the professions, and thus to a reasonably comfortable middle class lifestyle. In addition, it is recognised that even with a degree, competition remains fierce; there is thus an additional incentive to study at the ‘best’ universities, generally defined ultimately by the level of their expenditure. Ivy League schools do not only splash out on beautiful campuses and lavish sporting facilities as Hotson describes; they seek also to provide cutting-edge study facilities and access to the very biggest names in academia. New computers are expensive. So are new textbooks, and access to electronic journal articles, and printing facilities because no-one likes reading articles on-screen. And there is a reason why British professors Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama teach history at Harvard rather than Oxbridge. In the UK, a professor earning over £100,000 a year is doing very well for himself. In the US the equivalent figure is closer to £500,000, and it comes with a much nicer office.

David Willetts argues that raising university fees will improve the quality of UK Higher Education, while increasing the number of people able to study without increasing the cost to the taxpayer.

He is wrong about the cost. As we have seen, the decision of most universities to charge the maximum permissible £9,000 per year has wrecked the back-of-the-envelope calculations hurriedly put together after the release of the Browne Report, which had advised against a ‘hard’ fee cap and instead proposed a ‘soft’ system of progressive clawbacks about £6,000 per year. The prospect of Oxford and Cambridge charging £18,000 a year was thought politically unpalatable. So the present system was hashed out instead, on the assumption the average charge would be £7,500. Whoops. The additional cost of supporting loans to cover £9,000 fees will mean an increase in costs to the taxpayer, as interest payments on government borrowing exceed the cost of just paying universities public money up front to cover the cost of teaching.

He might be right about the expansion of opportunities, but again it is a flawed argument. What he says is that, by reducing the cost to the exchequer of funding each student place, the new system will enable universities which are successful at recruiting students to expand, thus increasing the total number of places on offer. Leaving aside the fact that the government’s poor arithmetic means that limitations on student recruitment are going to be kept in place, what he really means is that the government is not prepared to spend the money necessary to make schools good enough so that the majority of school leavers can compete in the global economy, so individuals will be expected to cover the gap instead. What he neglects is the dangerous incentives his proposed system sets up; since quality control of degree standards focuses on processes rather than substance, there will be great pressure on universities to churn through large numbers of students, charging high fees covered by state-subsidised loans, while providing minimal education, which students will be happy with provided they get their 2:1 at the end.

And so we come on to quality. One of the main reasons universities have rushed to jack their fees to the maximum level permissible is that the fee rises have not taken place in a vacuum; they have been accompanied by massive cuts to state funding. Most universities need to at least double fees to make up the funding they have lost, before they will have any additional income to spend on improved quality. This is why they have decided to charge whatever they can get; in their students minds’, any increase in fees should be matched by an improvement in services. Charging the ‘break even’ figure of around £7,500 was never a realistic option, since students will never accept double fees for the same service. Since the direct relationship between fees paid and service received is opaque, however, students probably will accept £9,000 fees in return for an extra £2,500 of spending, especially if it is particularly visible.

Visibility is a problem, though, because it means spending money in ways which do not necessarily improve the education a student receives. New buildings look nice, but do they really improve learning? New computer technology is fun, but does it really make a difference whether a book is read in hard copy or online? Sports facilities are good to have, but expendable. Universities are expected to become more ‘efficient’ as a result of the market pressures they will be under. But if efficiency means making do with dilapidated accommodation, tatty books and creaky printers, most will opt instead to charge more so they can offer more.

Standards will suffer, too. The value of education is difficult to quantify. One can look at graduate starting and career average salaries to determine the raw economic benefits of a degree to an individual, but there is no measure that accurately gauges all of the social, cultural, psychological and intellectual gains made. So universities will be rewarded for producing high-earning graduates, which means focussing on more vocational subjects like accountancy, and maximising the number of graduates achieving top grades. Grade inflation has already begun to hit degrees. It is nearly impossible to get a graduate job with less than an upper second class degree, regardless of the institution from which one graduates. Fortunately, fewer and fewer students fall into this category, since universities know their reputations will suffer if they produce large numbers of unemployable graduates (and since they can now face legal action – thus far without success –  for awarding grades below a 2:1 without having made heroic efforts to support students through their exams). The days when the 2:1/2:2 boundary was supposed to be the average are long gone.

The point of all this, in a blog about public opinion, is to illustrate the dangers of assuming that the customer is always right in dealing with industries in which the customer does not necessarily know what is best for them or for society as a whole, and in which there is little prospect of bridging this knowledge gap. David Willetts does not care what the people actually teaching in universities think. They have pointed out each of the flaws in his proposed policy listed above, despite the fact they potentially stand to gain from increased competition between institutions for the best teachers, and increased pots of money for salaries. And they have been ignored. We will move increasingly towards a situation in which universities compete to provide more and more expensive facilities in which ever more heavily indebted students will be taught by the exact same academics who teach them now, whose pay will have doubled, and who will give every graduate a 2:1 to ensure good employment prospects, thus ‘justifying’ the high fees. Great.

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If you don’t vote, no-one cares what you think

Another May, another opportunity not to vote. The No campaign is trying to hustle its supporters to the polling stations by warning that a low turnout makes a Yes result more likely. Maybe. Last-minute polling figures suggest a fairly comfortable majority for the No campaign. It is difficult to get too worked up over this, despite my preference for any result David Cameron doesn’t want (and stirs up Daily Mail hysteria over),  for the reasons I mentioned in my last post. Probably that’s the problem. No-one cares.

But despite the general and entirely reasonable sense of disillusionment surrounding the AV referendum, I made sure at least that I went to my local primary school and cast my vote. Why? Because that way, even if my side loses, I at least did everything I could have done to help it win. That means I get to complain about the result.

Too many people fail to participate in the democratic process. Excuses range from “I’m not interested in politics” through to “what difference does one vote make, and anyway Neighbours is on”. Not good enough. The political system is already skewed to screw traditionally under-represented groups, without members of those groups (the young, ethnic minorities, the poor, basically the people whose lives are most directly affected by government support) exacerbating the problem by failing to express a preference come election time. Politics affects you, whether you are interested in it or not. It affects you if you pay taxes, receive benefits, have a student loan, are ever going to get sick or injured or have children, buy a car, smoke, drink alcohol – or indeed consume pretty much anything. And you, individually, may not be able to have a visible impact. But if everyone who could have voted in the 2010 UK general election, but didn’t, had instead voted Monster Raving Loony Party, we’d all be eating compulsory asparagus for breakfast, under the protection of a policeman on a unicycle on every street corner, before enjoying the lush underlay of a freshly-carpeted M25.

These men all studied PPE at Oxford

With politics increasingly run by middle-class, public school and Oxford (PPE, obviously) educated young-to-middle aged white men, whose careers have consisted largely of time spent working for their respective political parties, preceded by school, sometimes with a spot of private sector work experience thrown in, the entire system increasingly represents the sort of violent, factional, self-interested, introspective competition described by Max Weber in his celebrated lecture on Politics as a Vocation. Politicians depend on votes for their livelihoods; indeed, a whole industry of politicos depend on them. As I said last time I wrote, the AV referendum is even more about politicians and less about voters than usual. Some of them may lose their jobs regardless of how it turns out, and there is at least a possibility that the coalition government may split. Voters, meanwhile, will see little immediate impact either way (and, in the likely event of a No vote, none at all).

Still, in principle (and indeed in areas where local and regional government personnel are being elected today), not voting means you approve of whoever wins; after all, you made no effort to oppose them, and you could have done. It also means you forfeit your right to complain if the winners do things you don’t like. If you don’t vote, no-one’s job depends on winning your approval. So no-one will even try to get you to like them. They will not care what you think. And it’ll be your own fault (for once).

P.S. Good luck today to Greg Williams, ex-MCBC stalwart, and prospective MSP for Aberdeen South and North Kincardine. Greg has taken my argument to the logical extreme by actually standing for election himself. Admittedly, he is a young, white, Oxford-educated man from the south of England, but that’s hardly his fault.

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