Daze with Willem

A conversation about creative communication tools, social media apps, and building ideas based on instinct

Published June 22, 2023
USURPATOR is joined by Willem Simons, founder of Daze, co-founder of Muze, artist, writer, and one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 for 2022. During our conversation, we discuss creative communication tools, the trajectory of popular social media apps, and building ideas based on gut instinct.

Follow Willem on Instagram, or listen to an extended version of our talk on Spotify, where we discuss dog Instagram profiles, the significance of a like, and screen time.

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USURPATOR: You’re the founder of the app Daze, also the co-founder of Muze. You were also a Forbes 30 under 30 last year, an artist, designer, and writer. Is that everything?

WILLEM: Who knows. I haven't really put myself into these buckets, but I identify with all those things.

U: I don't know very much about your background and how you got into tech, if you could tell me a bit about how you started these projects.

W: Yeah, I was kind of living in the middle of nowhere. I didn't really have any special interest in getting involved in tech, it was pretty accidental. I originally dropped out of school to start Muze with my two elementary school best friends. I went to the University of Delaware, and I just absolutely hated it because it was super fraternal. So instead of playing the game and conforming, I basically opted to just read and make art and live in a solitary way. So Muze, in a lot of ways, stemmed from me thinking about how I originally got inspired to start making art and got interested in self-expression, which led to philosophy. In a lot of ways, I think that Snapchat and Vine were really big influences on us.

U: I mean, they were huge back then, that was the heyday.

W: Yeah, 2016 was the peak of Snapchat, pre-Discover page. One night, when we had just graduated from high school, we were at a party and I randomly made a drawing on Snapchat, sent it to all my friends and we all started making drawings on Snapchat and sending them to each other. Years later, we were reflecting on this. We noticed that Snapchat wasn't built with the intention of inspiring us to all become artists. We just stumbled into it and recognized the power of being introduced to creative tools in this really organic way. With Muze we asked: what would a communication platform look like if it was built with the intention of inspiring people to be more creative and artistic?

Then we came up with this crazy vision that we narrowed down over time. But initially, we were like: what if the chat was this canvas where you could post messages anywhere and you could draw on it? Or a fully built out video editor that had timelines. We were kind of big-braining it. It created something that was not a super distilled idea, but had a lot of the same spirit of what ended up becoming Muze.

U: So what did it actually end up becoming?

W: Just the messenger. Originally, it was messaging and also this separate thing called Canvas, which was just a pared down creative tool with every possible creative tool you could imagine. We wanted to make the most powerful creative tool on both the computer and the phone. We were a couple of 19 year olds that had no tech experience. I was studying philosophy and economics at the time. From there, we dropped out of school, and in a lot of ways it was just very naive and delusional. But that's kind of what made it beautiful. Like, yeah, we can drop out of school and in six months we'll be able to build the whole thing and we'll learn how to code. So we dropped out, and lived at home in the middle of the forest in New Jersey.

U: And did you learn how to code?

W: I didn't learn how to code, but my two co-founders learned how to code. Instead of learning how to code, I learned how to design. I was the one making all the mockups. I still have some of the original drawings—I started off just with a piece of paper and eventually went over to Illustrator, and in retrospect a lot of it was pretty unnecessary. I could have gotten a lot of these things like icon assets from the Internet, but for some reason I was like, “No, every asset in the app needs to be fully designed from scratch.” In retrospect, it was totally over the top. But I'm also very grateful for it because that's where I learned how to look at really small details in design and make it better.

U: So it didn't start off with you guys wanting to break into tech and making a startup.

W: No, and I feel like that's actually pretty important. I frequently meet a lot of people, especially around the hype of AI and crypto, who are very much coming into it with the idea of making a startup and trying to brainstorm within the current space to produce an idea that you can raise from. But I think it's really tough to make something authentic and actually care about it. I think part of the reason why Muze was so special was because we were all doing it because we delusionally believed that it would be the force to make fraternities artistic.

U: That was your goal at the time?

W: Yeah, early on I was like “How can I make University of Delaware an artistic place, filled with people that I want to spend time with?” Because I was always kind of a lonely kid. I was an only child living in rural New Jersey, and I had really good friends, of course. But I think part of what made art so appealing to me was that I was able to express things that I had never been able to before. Part of me felt like everybody has something to express and it's just too difficult to. Even all of these people in fraternities and sororities, even though it's not a super expressive culture, everybody has something to express, everybody has a story. If people only felt comfortable being a little bit more vulnerable and honest about who they really are, then everyone would feel a little bit more connected.

U: What were your hopes for how people would use the app?

W: I guess on a high level, language is the main interface that we use to peer into each other's souls. Normally, that's restricted to either text characters or speech. And yet, there are a bunch of different means for self-expression that we could be embracing. That's what's powerful about art. It's like how a painting expresses something that words can't, and a song expresses something that a painting can't. Every medium is good at expressing a certain type of thing.

So, the more that somebody is able to express, the more that they will. We really wanted to expand that language. The ways in which we were doing that was through these creative tools, which ended up being pared down to collaging photos and erasing the background or drawing and pulling in Google images and gifs and layering everything. But when we big-brained it originally, there was going to be a full audio editor so people could make music. We didn't really have a cap on the creative tools that we would put in it, which is really difficult not only to build, but also to package in a concise way so that people will understand and be able to pick it up.

What was powerful about Muze, in my mind, was that it wasn't framing itself as an artistic tool. It was just framed as a communication app similar to Snapchat or Facebook Messenger. We were trying to Trojan horse these creative tools. You would download it just thinking, “Oh, this is a fun place to communicate with my friends.” And then by using it, you're expressing more of yourself and using art without realizing that you're making art, because everybody has all these preconceived opinions about what an artist is. Everyone likes to jump to this idea that they’re not an artist, or they’re not creative. But I think everyone's creative.

U: It's interesting to me when you talk about the freeform nature of the app, I feel like there's so many apps that we end up using for different purposes than they were originally intended for.

W: Most of the big apps that we know started off as something very different. Like Musical.ly turned into TikTok, right? YouTube was originally a dating app where people would upload videos for their dating profile. It's especially interesting with these social use cases, like when people are using it as a mechanism to connect with others. It's because, on some level, you have no idea what people are going to make, especially with creative tools because everyone is unique.

That was one of the most fun things with Muze as well, just seeing the sort of things that people would create that we weren’t expecting. One example of this: we were originally expecting it to be used similarly to iMessage, like DMs or smaller group chats with maybe 12 people maximum. But there was a point where it started to get recognition on tech Twitter and these huge group chats started forming. There was a 400 person group chat called OnlyFrogs, and people were collaging these really bizarre photos of frogs. There was another one called Illegal Emoji, where people were using these creative tools to collage bits to just make these really bizarre emojis.

U: So, you're currently working on Daze right now. How long has that been going? Can you break the idea down for me?

W: Daze has been going for two years. Daze is ironically building something similar to Muze now. There's a long back story, but Daze started off as a calendar, so the idea was to make a social media calendar that had a lot of the same tooling as Muze. The idea was that every day and every event was a canvas where you could use freeform creative tools to collaboratively make an artifact for what you did with your time. Then you could share that with other friends. It was meant to recognize that events are a centerpiece of your life. It's like when you're at a party, you go on a vacation, you're at a dinner, and yet there isn't really a social platform that's centered around that collaborative moment. If you're doing something interesting with friends, you should all be able to post the photos that you took together and make a collaborative scrapbook post to share. It also made planning events really easy, so there was a utility there.

I was originally hoping that people would make events for smaller parts of their lives, like going on a walk. While I'm on this walk, I can post the song that I'm listening to and a couple of photos of the East River or McCarren Park or whatever I happened to see. Then I'm going to share that with friends. So, events for smaller things. But that's a power user thing to do. The way that it ended up evolving in my mind, from a product growth perspective, was that a social network is only as valuable as the network that you have on it. Most of the reason why people post to Instagram is because that's where all your followers and friends are. You post knowing that they're going to see it. Making a new social network is really difficult to do because you don't have any friends on it yet. One of my hopes was that the events portion of the app would be able to get an entire friend group to use it all at the same time, which would hopefully lead to them using these daily journaling features and the more consistent feed aspect.

There are a bunch of things that are needed for that loop to fully happen. We weren't finding that it was happening as much as we wanted to. But around five months ago, we decided to move back to messaging, but there's still an events component.

U: Yeah, I was going to ask you to describe the future of the app. I feel like every time I hear you talk about Daze, there are a lot of new things that are on the horizon, or the app isn't fully formed yet.

W: Yeah, making apps in general is very much an evolution. You start off with something and then people use it in a certain way, then you shift based on that. To put it briefly, we're trying to make the most fun, expressive, creative communication tool possible and using a bunch of different features to create that.

One thing that I think Snapchat did really well was, of course there's the ephemeral photo, but I don't think that Snapchat is really about the ephemeral photo. I think the ephemeral photo just allows for people to casually send something to one of their friends and that's really nice because you're in high school and you want to talk. You're bored at home, you want to talk to people. So you can just send them a casual photo and then that converts to you having a conversation. It's kind of the ultimate small talk, where you send something really small, but hope that it leads to something bigger. In a high school context, this is really nice because it's a way that you can talk to, like, your crush.

U: My friends and I always said that Snapchat was the best way to start talking to boys if you hadn't really established that connection yet. The best way to do it was on Snapchat because people would often be sending the same photo to lots of people, and you just put them in the roster, then a rapport would form.

W: Exactly. People like to say that Snapchat is just the fastest way to send a photo or, you know, you can send ephemeral photos, but I don't think it's really about that. I think it's just the easiest place to send somebody anything. I think that there are a bunch of different ways that we can contribute to that sense of playfulness, ease, and connection. Muze was definitely a little bit more on the artistic side, whereas Daze still has all of these freeform features and it's arguably a much better creative tool than Muze was. You can do everything you could on Muze, but even more.

For example, you can send anonymous messages. You can anonymously DM somebody and you can send an anonymous message in a group. This is a format that has historically been really fun and people really like, but it inevitably falls apart because somebody gets bullied and kills themselves. For Daze, you'll be able to send anonymous messages, but we're going to filter the anonymous messages through AI to detect negative intentions, hate speech, bullying, so you won't be able to be like, “I hate you, you're fat.” You'll still be able to say whatever you want, but just not in the anonymous tool. Otherwise, humans are surprisingly mean. Yeah… I always assume that people are kind of the same as me.

U: Well, you're very kind.

W: I hope so. But yeah, I always assume that people are similar to myself, on some level. So I'm like, why are people doing this? But there's enough evidence in the history of social interactions on the Internet that shows that people are going to be mean. If we don't want it to get shut down, and we want it to remain a place where people are being virtuous and kind and all the things that I hope to bring into the world, then this is a necessary piece of that.

Part of what I like about the idea of the anonymous message is that it allows people to be a little bit more honest and to say something that you wouldn't necessarily say because you're scared of your identity being associated with it, and I think people should be more honest.

I'm still excited about events as well. Events on Daze will basically be a group chat. You can invite whoever you want, you can text them a link to it, and then everyone is automatically thrown into one of these chats where you can freeform place images and send messages and draw. It's just making events feel like a little bit more of a community. It's bringing people together. I feel like it frequently happens where you meet people at an event and you don’t get their phone number or Instagram, and then you never see them again. They're just gone. Now, everybody can immediately be in a chat together. You can go to their profile, see who they're friends with, send them a message, and then hopefully, you continue your relationship on Daze. We're really trying to make it a good enough standalone messenger—like, able to replace iMessage—which is pretty tough to do. But I think we can and we will. I like the idea of bringing events into this space where it's more collaborative and you can actually talk to the people or follow up.

U: We hear a lot of people complaining nowadays that social media isn't social, that it’s isolating. Is that something that you're trying to speak to or solve?

W: I think that there's space for both. When you think about what Instagram was originally, it used to be all about friends. Part of what's not great about Instagram and TikTok is how it's not really your friends now. It's about the Internet at large, and that's where it started deteriorating.

U: Why do you think that happens? Just because companies need money, so they have to go global—everyone needs to be on it?

W: I think it's because they're optimizing for screen time. So, Instagram and TikTok have found that they want to make the most entertaining content so you spend more time looking at the app, and your friends don't post enough for you to constantly open the app and see something new. So, they're trying to get more content to get people on there for longer. And how can we make that content as entertaining as possible? The incentive is a little bit in the wrong place. Like, what if all these other social tools just cost money? What if Instagram costs a dollar a month? And then instead of having to rely on this ad-based monetization strategy that forces you to kind of melt your brain, you pay a dollar and you don't get any ads. It could just be about your friends and meaningful content that connects you with your community. But I think that there's still something beautiful about TikTok. Everything has pros and cons, right? I love YouTube, for example, and YouTube isn't really that different from TikTok. It's really just suggested videos that learn about what you like. The main difference is that one is 30 second videos and another one can be up to many hours long. I think one is better than the other, in the sense that long form content has a higher tendency to teach you something, and for you to really think about what you're consuming. Whereas short form content of course is just ruining our attention span.

U: I was going to ask if you've ever felt a duty to create an ethical algorithm, or an ethical platform?

W: I think that's the underlying goal for everything, all the social products that I've made. Muze, even just the name, it's all about trying to inspire people to be a little bit more creative and a little bit more honest and authentic. I think one of the problems with current social media is that it's really kind of shallow. For most people, it's just posting selfies and photos of your exterior.

With Muze and with Daze, I want people to be able to post things that represent their insides a little bit more. You can just post selfies, but it gives you the opportunity to express your feelings and metaphors, and to do it in a more creative way, which I think inherently says something more about you.

U: You want to build something that people want to use instead of something that people feel like they have to use.

W: Yeah, I had a lot of praise for Snapchat earlier. I also have a lot of critiques about Snapchat. For one, the Discover page, but to be more relevant to what you're talking about, is streaks. Streaks are great, right? It's a forcing function for you to spend more time talking to your friends consistently, which causes you to be closer and keep in touch. Which is really good, depending on how many friends you're using Snapchat for. If you have four friends on Snapchat or ten friends on Snapchat, a streak is okay to maintain. It's only once you have like 30 friends on Snapchat or 100 friends and you're trying to maintain streaks with all of them that the streak ends up forcing you into a behavior that isn't healthy. I remember watching, like, even people on the subway or my little cousins where they'd send a photo of the floor to maintain a streak. And it's like, what are we doing right now, that we're just rapid firing photos of absolutely nothing?

U: The way teenagers used Snapchat was so crazy. When I was around 20, I would have streaks with like, five of my friends. But teenagers would have it with dozens of people they didn't speak to in real life, people they didn't have a relationship with, sending a photo of anything to maintain the streak. It was this really strange frenzy that was happening.

W: Especially with streaks, I don't think that Snapchat had any sort of malicious intent. I think that they were coming at it from the angle of “How can we make people feel closer with one another and maintain the frequency of their relationship?” Of course, if you talk to somebody every day versus once a month, you're going to be closer with them and it makes it easier to send them a message. Again, it's like, if you have this streak going up, it's even easier to text your crush a second time. So there's something beautiful in that. But, I have a lot of thoughts on the evolution of Snapchat.

U: I saw that they also have short form videos now. I just updated my app and I was shocked to see this.

W: See, Snapchat is another good example of what I was describing before, with Instagram relying on advertisements instead of: what if Snapchat just charged you a dollar a month instead of building all this trash that nobody wants? They could have focused on the human connection part, to make it as intimate a place as possible for you and your friends. Instead, there's the Discover page, which is actually atrocious. It's dated tabloid content that is mostly fake rumors. I've even found myself occasionally opening Snapchat, and I go on the Discover page. I'm like, damn, who's curating this content? It's clear that it's not being curated with the right intentions. It's just all about money and monetizing the app. And that's probably the truth for the Spotlight feature as well, which is their short form TikTok-type content. It's kind of sad in my eyes because it shows how their failure to come up with a business model that was in alignment with its users caused them to sacrifice their product integrity. I hope Daze never becomes that.

U: I was reading one of your essays about the limitations of big data. It was interesting to me, as a UX researcher. The crux of your argument was saying that when you build an MVP, you usually have limited user data. You build the MVP to get it and then you keep developing it and continuing that feedback loop. You said that this process loses out on a lot of magical ideas, and I think that's true. I don't think that the user always knows what they want. They often want you to foresee their needs and present them with a solution that they didn't know they wanted.

W: I think that there's nothing wrong with the whole process of getting feedback from people and then iterating based on that. The problem that I have with it is if that's the only method that you use to justify ideas, then you end up never testing anything new because you don't have data on unbuilt stuff. I think it's easy for big companies, where it historically becomes bureaucratic and political. It's not that it's necessarily a bad process, it's just that you still need to build in processes that allow you to experiment with new, untested ideas. A big part of that is just your gut feeling.

When I was starting both Muze and Daze, I wasn't like, “What's our D30 retention on a free form messenger looking like?” I was just thinking that the apps would be cool because it would make communication more creative. Clearly, the internet is leaning towards expressivity with the rise of gifs and emojis and videos and photos. How can we make it more expressive? Just leaning into opinionated ways of what that should look like, but with no data. There's no precedent for building anything new. On some level, you just have to have faith in your own creativity and your ability to relate to other people, and that's really hard to quantify. Especially when companies and teams get bigger. We even saw this with Muze as it got bigger: if there wasn’t a clear decision-maker, it ended up coming down to a vote. It's like democracy, and it's really hard to convince people to vote for a single person's vision when there's a bunch of other things you could build that have clear data backing them.

I think it's kind of sad, because when you look at bigger social media companies like Snapchat and Instagram, it's clear that they're leaning towards the metrics. Snapchat, in my opinion, hasn't released a really big feature in a while. Most of the things that they've shipped in the past few years have been related to advertisements. But then there's also these bigger companies copying other new companies that are doing well. So, the trend seems to be for a company to get started by recognizing their own gut feeling about what social interaction should look like on the Internet. They build it, they get a lot of traction. Then, over time, the team grows and they end up leaning into this cycle of just looking at data and making smaller improvements on the core product until some other company comes along that's young and listens to their gut and proves that a new social format works. Then the big companies will try and copy it. Like Instagram and TikTok copying BeReal photos. It's like, damn, I know Snapchat is filled with creative people. Instagram is filled with creative people. I've met a decent amount of them, and it's clear that they have a lot of ideas. It's just that if the overall culture ends up being 100% metric driven, you end up losing out on a lot of those special ideas, which is kind of sad. But at the same time it creates the opportunity for new companies to come in and say “Hey, you guys are only looking at the data I'm going to build from a place of authenticity.”

U: When you speak of building based on your gut and being able to explore, how do you reckon that with the actual financial limitations?

W: How do you justify the cost? Yeah. Working on these things, I think it's a staging thing. For a small startup, like Daze, that's the entirety of what we're doing. We haven't launched this new version of the messenger. We don't have any data, then once we build the first version, then we'll be able to give it to people and see what they think. I think that it still makes sense to be metric driven and to iterate based on trends that you're seeing and how people are using the app. My main critique is just when you only build based on metrics. I think that both are really important.

U: I also wanted to ask you, in terms of Daze, how do you guys plan on marketing this? How do you guys intend to get your targeted demographic to start using it?

W: I think the target demographic is probably high schoolers and college students. Not because I think that those groups would necessarily like it more than others. But, when I was in high school, I had so much time. Most of my relationships were orchestrated through my phone while I was at home, texting. You're just home alone, you're bored. You have all this time and the messenger is the number one place that you go to to hang out with friends. Then in college, you also have these really tight networks of people. Once you graduate college, I think that the amount of people that you spend time with inevitably decreases. I kind of miss it on some level, because when you're in school, you have this societal force that’s pinning you together with other people. You have hundreds of kids that are all the same age, thrown into a room and you're basically told to spend time with one another. Once you graduate from college, you're just kind of like, “All right, I guess I'll find a job.” And then you end up at a company and maybe you have some friends there, but that's not the core friend group that you usually spend time with, I imagine. The network becomes smaller. In general, I have the feeling that you're using these social tools less.

Right now, our main strategy is to use TikTok. Muze went pretty viral on TikTok through millions of views that eventually crashed the server. We couldn't handle it. But I think that messaging content is especially suited to a format like TikTok because of how there's an inherent story. If you're watching a video of two people texting, and it's like, “Hey, can I tell you a secret?” When you're watching it, you want to know what the secret is, so you keep watching. People want the actual content. They want to see immediately what it is and have the story be interesting enough to push them to download the app. Part of what worked so well with Muze’s TikTok videos was that they didn't feel like advertisements. They were just screen recordings of people texting one another. The conversations themselves were interesting enough to hook people in and then they're like, “Whoa, what is this format for messaging? I want to do that with my friends.” So they would download it. That's a big part of the strategy.

We'll probably kick off our college ambassador program again. If you download a messenger, you need a friend to use it with, so you invite a friend to use it with you. People at scale spread it. I think Snapchat started because Evan Spiegel's cousin brought it to her high school and it spread through the entire school, then spread beyond it. The word is “viral” for a reason.

U: I think that also happened with Yik Yak, and I can see a few other examples of apps where I never felt like it was being marketed towards me. It was truly word of mouth.

I have this theory that we've hit our max in terms of social media apps that have to cater to everyone. There's always the push to expand, to get another demographic instead of just being like: “We have this niche, and our product does something for them, or answers a problem that they have. And that's okay.” Maybe you have to accept some kind of pay cap in order to create the product that you want. Just because one thing catches on doesn't mean that it has to be the thing forever.

W: I think you're probably right. Especially as it becomes easier and easier to make software. Maybe one day anyone will be able to make Daze, and because of that, people will make apps for their own friend group, or high school or whatever.

Even BeReal, it fulfilled this specific niche for a little bit. But in my opinion, they failed to expand beyond that. The product had a half life and people slowly dropped off. Maybe that's the way that it was supposed to be. Maybe it's not supposed to last forever.

U: What do you think? Do you think that it's a shame, or that there was a missed opportunity there?

W: For BeReal specifically? Yeah, I never really used it that much. I have the app, but I didn't have a year long daily streak or anything. I definitely think that it was a missed opportunity. I mean, they had the entire country posting photos every day and yet it was a really small portion of your day. I don't actually know the data, but I think the average amount of time that people would spend on BeReal was like, 4 minutes a day. It's really powerful that they got all these people on it. But then it's like, how do you build on top of that? I wouldn't be surprised if BeReal ends up making a messaging functionality or increasing the amount of photos that you can post. I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to become the next Snapchat.

U: I feel like the opportunity is already missed, because they were just too slow. Why didn't they just sell it?

W: I don't know. I mean, they probably had offers. They were clearly really good at making an app that people loved. That's a hard thing to do. I don't want to undermine that.

U: I was thinking about when Wordle was sold to the New York Times. That's exactly what they should have done. The guy who made it wasn't going to invent any more parts to it. It was one thing, it served one purpose, and he didn't want to make it anything more than that. So, just make a million bucks when it's at its peak.

What’s your feeling about the whole following/follower and like count on social media, in terms of your philosophy of how social media should work?

W: I don't really care about following and followers or likes. It definitely makes it addictive. But at the same time, I don't know if that itself is necessarily a bad thing. It's nice to get feedback. Maybe if we didn't have likes, and you could only respond with something that requires more work. Maybe that's it. Maybe the problem with likes is that it's slightly too easy. It's too passive.

In general, I feel like Instagram stories have reached a decent balance where you can respond to somebody's story. I don't like public comments, really. I think maybe there was a place for that on the internet earlier on, but not at this point. You want to just send them a message. Comments aren’t a real dialog, especially for Instagram. I know Twitter comments are a part of being in the conversation. But for Instagram, its comments are special because of how it has the potential to be the start of a conversation. I think people are generally more open to that if it's in private. You're not gonna have a whole conversation in front of the rest of your followers.

I generally don't really care about likes. I think they're fine. I think people like to critique likes, because of how they've become this symbol for our social media addiction. We're addicted for a lot of reasons beyond just likes. Maybe it's wiring us in an unhealthy way, but I generally think that the problem arises more so out of what we’re using this for, and how it serves our relationships, which is a much deeper systematic problem than just likes. I think there's an opportunity for more meaningful ways to respond or to react to that. I think BeReal’s system for likes is pretty smart, where you react with a live photo that you take. It's additive instead of just approval. It's a little bit less of an ingrained habit. Or, what if you only had four likes a day? So when you did send a like, it had to be this intentional gesture.

U: Is there anything that you'd like people to know about where to find you, where to look out for Daze?

W: So, it's not live yet. But within the next few months, it'll be out. And when it is out, it won’t be any of this, “I'll download it and play around with it for a little bit.” It will be like, iMessage is dead. Throw it away. You can probably delete the app from your phone. As soon as Daze comes out, we can throw away everything that we're using in the trash can.

U: I’m ready for it.

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