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The Attention Economy: Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation

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The Attention Economy: Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation

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According to legend, Abraham Lincoln was willing to walk several miles in order to borrow a book while growing up in Indiana during the early nineteenth century. “My best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read,” young Lincoln is reported to have said. Literature was scarce, difficult to access, and precious. Not only literature but information in general was hard to come by. Whether news from afar, new knowledge and insight, or simple entertainment, it usually took effort and came at considerable expense to get hold of information.
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1© The Author(s) 2019
V. F. Hendricks, M. Vestergaard, Reality Lost,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-00813-0_1
1.1 The Information Society
According to legend, Abraham Lincoln was willing to walk
several miles in order to borrow a book while growing up in
Indiana during the early nineteenth century. “My best friend
is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read, young Lincoln
is reported to have said.1 Literature was scarce, difficult to
access, and precious. Not only literature but information in
general was hard to come by. Whether news from afar, new
knowledge and insight, or simple entertainment, it usually
took effort and came at considerable expense to get hold of
information.
Just a few years ago, information was much more difficult
to get hold of than it is today. Being well-informed depended
on subscribing to a newspaper, heading out to buy one, or
going to the library. Digitization and information technology
have changed all this. Today, a smartphone is enough: access
to any information of choice, let it be news, politics, or scien-
tific results; literature, entertainment, or gossip; or endearing
baby pictures or cute cat videos. Never before has so much
information been so easily accessible.
1 Holleran, A. (2008): “Such a Rough Diamond of a Man,” New York
Times, July 11, 2008. Verified June 27, 2018: http://www.nytimes.
com/2008/11/09/books/review/Holleran-t.html
Chapter 1
The Attention Economy
2
The hallmark of the information age is not that we are all
in continuous pursuit of precious information hard to access,
but the other way around: The information age offers so
much information that drowning in it, or chocking on it, is the
risk. The vast offer of freely available information online has
made the value of information drop steeply. People grown up
with the Internet expect to get their information for free and
refuse to pay for newspapers, books, or entertainment prod-
ucts. Not too many people would be willing to walk for miles
to get hold of a book in this day and age.
1.2 The Price ofInformation
The easy access to overwhelming amounts of information,
and the fact that often you don’t have to pay money for it,
doesn’t mean that information comes for free; to receive
information, we pay attention. You may have access to loads
information, but in order to take it in, process it, and possibly
act on it, you spend your attention on it. Project Gutenberg
has made more than 53,000 books freely accessible online. If
you read a book a day, it will take you 145 years to get
through a library that size. If you prefer video, 400 h are
uploaded to YouTube every minute. The challenge today is
not to find something to read or information to pay attention
to; it is to find the time to read or look at the material at your
disposal.
With information in abundance comes an attention deficit.
As early as 1971, Nobel Prize Laureate in economics Herbert
Simon prophetically said about the information age to come:
…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means
a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that infor-
mation consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious:
it consumes the attention of its recipients.2
2 Simon (1971: pp.40–41).
1. The Attention Economy
3
The fact that information consumes attention makes atten-
tion a valuable resource. The information taken in is the basis
of our experience and knowledge and deliberation, decision,
and action.
Attention is a curious resource compared to economical
means since it is more equitably distributed. Surely, some
people can concentrate longer and more intensively than oth-
ers. All the same, there are only marginal differences in the
amount of attention each of us can spend. Attention cannot
be accumulated and saved like money for a rainy day. In our
waking hours, we constantly spend our attention: We are
always attentive to something. A common feature of both
attention and money is that spending it on one thing excludes
spending it on another.
1.3 The Scarcity ofAttention
Philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) has
described attention in a famous quote from 1890:
[Attention] …is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and
vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously pos-
sible objects or trains of thought … . It implies withdrawal from
some things in order to deal effectively with others.3
In order to efficiently take in, process, and act on information,
we need to focus on one thing at a time. This has been con-
firmed in recent cognitive research: Even if we may some-
times multitask and pay attention to several things at once,
such as talking on the phone while cooking, it generally
makes us slower and more prone to making mistakes. Quality
wanes when we split our attention rather than focus on one
single item or activity (Sternberg and Sternberg 2012)
(Fig.1.1).
3 James, W. (1890): The Principles of Psychology, Chapter XI: Attention.
Classics in the History of Psychology, Green, C.D. (ed.). Verified May 31,
2017: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin11.htm
1.3 The Scarcity ofAttention
4
Time becomes a decisive factor when attention really only
may be paid to one thing at a time. But time itself is fixed and
limited: No matter how much we try to get organized and
optimize with to-do lists, there are only 24h in a day. We have
a limited attention capacity (Kahneman 1973). This produces
an upper bound for how much each of us may pay attention
to, and therefore how much information we can take in and
process on a daily basis. This makes the selection of informa-
tion and allocation of attention of crucial importance.
Economics has been described as the “study of the alloca-
tion by individuals and societies of scarce resources”
(Samuelson and Nordhaus 2010). When attention is viewed
as a scarce resource, it creates the basis for studying the infor-
mation age as an attention economy.
1.4 Information Sources
In order to obtain information about matters beyond our
immediate environment, the media is needed as vehicles and
presenters of information. This allots a very central role to the
news media. Information is to a large extent received via
F. 1. 1. Multitasking makes the quality of one’s attention wane, as
witnessed in our reflexes and the scores of information absorbed.
1. The Attention Economy
5
channels created by the media. Therefore, the media’s reli-
ability as an information source is key to how well-informed,
misinformed, or disinformed for that matter we are. If you do
not pay attention to news or politics, but allocate your atten-
tion to entertainment, it should come as no surprise that you
are hardly as informed about politics, as you would have been
had you paid attention to it. And if attention is paid to unreli-
able sources and untrustworthy information, there is a
greater risk of being deluded and duped. If attention is sys-
tematically spent on conspiratorial YouTube videos and
political propaganda sites, no surprise either it invariably will
color your perception of reality. A significant consumption of
false claims, unconfirmed rumors “alternative facts,” and fake
news may cause you to lose your grip on the real world and
relegate you to an alternative reality (Fig.1.2).
When attention is consumed by information, information
is the source of knowledge, and attention is a scarce resource,
it is important to spend attention with care. This is easier said
F. 1.2. One-sided news diets may result in distorted ideas of reality.
1.4 Information Sources
6
than done. Many actors in the information market fight dirty
to catch and harvest our attention.
1.5 The Market forAttention
Few people like being ignored, not seen nor heard by others.
As individuals, we crave at least minimal dose of attention
from other people and need it to thrive, both as children and
adults. A lot of people just can’t get enough, judging from the
present-time celebrity and reality television culture. The pur-
suit of fame as reality star on TV or as a micro celebrity (or
micro influencer) on social media may look like a pursuit of
attention for the sake of attention itself (Marwick 2015)
(Fig.1.3).
Once in possession of people’s attention, it may be trans-
ferred to others. If a stage performer points to one person in
the audience, a large part of the audience’s collective atten-
tion will be transferred from the performer to the happy fan.
If you have people’s attention, you can channel it to another
person or product and monetize it. This is the principle in
overt sponsorships and product placement alike. When the
name of the firm goes on the player’s T-shirt, or a media dar-
ling is paid to wear a brand visible to the cameras, the adver-
tiser is purchasing into the audience’s attention.
Marketing is intrinsically linked to attention harvesting.
The aim of marketing is to influence behavior. Marketing is
about persuading consumers into buying a certain product or
voting for a specific candidate. No persuasion happens if no
one is listening, reading of watching. Attention is the portal to
people’s minds and a necessary condition for all successful
communication; from teaching and knowledge presentation
to persuasion, seduction, and manipulation. This makes atten-
tion extremely valuable for everyone with something to sell.
It is the main factor in all forms of marketing, branding, and
advertising (Teixeira 2014).
Models of marketing qualify different levels of attention,
ranging from no attention to partial attention (due to multi-
1. The Attention Economy
7
F. 1.3. Attention is pursued for its own sake, but may also be
traded for sponsor and advertising revenue. Here is Kim Kardashian
trying to “break the Internet,” a metaphor for harvesting enormous
amounts of online attention. (Spedding, E. (2016): “The man behind
Kim Kardashian’s Paper Magazine cover on how to break the
Internet,” The Telegraph, June 18, 2016, verified June 6, 2017: http://
www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/the-man-behind-kim-kardashi-
ans-paper-magazine-cover-on-how-to-br/).
1.5 The Market forAttention
8
tasking) to full attention (Fig.1.4). The goal is to isolate the
best marketing strategies given the attention already at the
advertisers’ disposal. If there is no attention, then attention
needs to be seized; if there is only partial attention, it needs
to be won over completely; and if someone’s undivided atten-
tion is won over, it must be kept and used as efficiently as
possible to persuade and affect behavior.
1.6 Attention Merchants
The intimate connection between attention, communication,
and marketing forms the basis of an industry that Columbia
Law School Professor Tim Wu has labelled attention mer-
chants (Wu 2016). The basic business model is quite simple:
harvest attention and resell it for marketing and advertising
purposes.
Benjamin Day was the inventor of this business model and
one of the brains behind the Penny Press in the 1830s. Back
then, newspapers such as The NewYork Times and The Wall
Street Journal cost six cents; they were luxury items for the
F. 1.4. Strategies for catching or exploiting attention with a view to
affecting behavior. (Harvard Business Review (2015), verified June
10, 2017: https://hbr.org/2015/10/when-people-pay-attention-to-
video-ads-and-why).
1. The Attention Economy
9
privileged few. In 1833, Benjamin Day launched The NewYork
Sun at one cent a paper, dumping the price.
The news criteria were also dumped. The only criterion for
the stories was how many papers they could sell. Sensational,
dramatic, and juicy crime copy was also popular back then.
Material was picked up on a daily basis from the police
departments and the courts. Crime sold newspapers. Benjamin
Day was no journalist; he was a businessman. His newspaper
took tabloid to whole new levels in order to achieve
readership—for example, running a successful series in 1835
reporting on a new “scientific” discovery of a race of bat
people inhabiting the Moon. Flavor was added to the story
with claims of the libertine and promiscuous lifestyle of the
bat people. Fake news is not a new invention (Fig.1.5 ).
When the sole criterion for success is to sell as many
papers as possible, truth is of little or no consequence, and a
lot of papers had to be sold to make the project fly. The
F. 1.5. Fake news from The NewYork Sun in 1835.
1.6 Attention Merchants
10
papers were sold at less than the production costs. Selling a
lot of papers in itself would have simply worsened the deficit.
Indeed a bad business if the real customers were the readers
paying a cent for the newspaper. In the attention merchant
business model, however, the readers are actually the product
sold to the real customers: the advertisers. The real customers
for Benjamin Day were the companies who placed ads in The
NewYork Sun to buy the attention of the readers.
The same business model is later being rehearsed on com-
mercial TV competing for eyeballs. The viewers’ attention is
sold to the paying customers in the advertising industry. The
industry in turn presents its messages and influences a broad
public audience during commercial breaks. Ever more view-
ers, ever more attention is sold, and the higher the price for
advertising seconds (Fig.1.6).
From a business perspective, TV programs are merely
means for selling what it is really all about, advertisements.
The purpose of the programs on commercial TV is to make
you watch more TV and stay on the channel. Stay tuned.
In the wake of the digital revolution, (business) history
repeats itself. As the saying goes on online social networks
F. 1.6. Artist Richard Serra’s minimalistic video work, “Television
Delivers People,” from 1973. (Richard Serra (1973): “TELEVISION
DELIVERS PEOPLE,” verified May 4, 2017: http://www2.nau.
edu/~d-ctel/mediaPlayer/artPlayer/courses/ART300/pov1_ch1/tran-
script.htm).
1. The Attention Economy
11
and platforms; if you are not paying for the product, you are
the product. If you perceive services such as Google and
Facebook as truly free of charge, you have misunderstood the
business model and your own role in it. The main default
business model online is the attention merchant. Media
researcher Douglas Rushkoff points out:
Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who
are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are
paying. If you don’t know who the customer of the product you
are using is, you don’t know what the product is for. We are not
the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is sell-
ing us to advertisers.4
The attention and data of the users are the items offered
for sale to possibly third party. And similar to the casino, the
more engagement by the users, the more social media stand
to benefit. Like Robert de Niro says in Casino the movie: “In
the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and keep
them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose.
In the end, we get it all.
1.7 Data Collection
Corporations such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google collect
enormous amounts of data about the online behavior of
users. Together with masses of smaller players who also offer
seemingly free products, not only do they sell user attention
to advertising third parties; they sell a plethora of information
about users. This goes for all the information shared when
users fill out profiles, listing interests, age, gender, political
affinity, relationship status, etc. Every piece of information
given up has value when aggregated. This also applies to a
heap of data constantly generated about our online behavior
through cookies and other invisible tracking systems. Data
4 Solon, O. (2011):“You are Facebook’s product, not customer,” Wired,
September 21, 2011. Verified May 4, 2017: http://www.wired.co.uk/arti-
cle/doug-rushkoff-hello-etsy
1.7 Data Collection
12
about everything, from searches and search patterns, visited
pages, and engagement on social media to e-mail contacts
and consumption patterns, are collected. Unless your phone
came out of the ark, the same goes for your physical move-
ments. If a child has a Hello Barbie doll, it collects and sends
information back to the producer Mattel about what the child
talks about, likes, and wishes for.5 The collected data may be
traded in a flourishing market where information on users
and citizens is a valuable asset. Online surveillance and resale
of the information generated by the surveillance is a growing
industry. Already in 2012, the American data broker industry
generated revenues ($156billion) exceeding twice the amount
the US government allocated to its whole intelligence
budget.6
With data collection, online media and businesses have
taken things a step further than earlier attention merchants.
Not only do they sell the audience’s attention; the collected
information is used to target ads for each individual user so
that the ads hits home pertaining to user needs, interests, and
stances. In Facebook’s own words:
We want our advertising to be as relevant and interesting as the
other information you find on our Services. With this in mind, we
use all of the information we have about you to show you relevant
ads.7
In less unequivocal terms, users are being monitored to the
end of making economic profit by selling information about
users along with their attention to third parties. Corporations
like Facebook and Google secure their profit by means of a
5 Marr, B. (2016): “Barbie Wants To Chat With Your Child—But Is Big
Data Listening In?”, Forbes, December 17, 2015. Verified June 12, 2017:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2015/12/17/barbie-wants-
to-chat-with-your-child-but-is-big-data-listening-in/#2b31020a2978
6 Senator John D.Rockefeller IV (2013). “What Information Do Data
Brokers Have on Consumers, and How Do They Use It?” December 18,
2013, Verified June 27, 2018: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-
113shrg95838/pdf/CHRG-113shrg95838.pdf
7 Facebook Data Policy, verified 04.05.2017: https://www.facebook.com/
privacy/explanation
1. The Attention Economy
13
business model that is based on surveillance (Taplin 2017).
Surveillance provides information about the surveilled that
may be (mis)used to persuade, trick, and manipulate more
effectively.
1.8 Hit Them Where It Hurts
The amount of collected data combined with powerful com-
puters make it possible to predict quite personal things that
users otherwise would not share publicly. Even if you do not
state your gender and age and where you live, all the other
data points collected from your phone, your computers, your
credit cards, etc. are enough for this basic information to be
computed with accuracy. And this knowledge is worth a lot in
marketing terms. It is much easier to persuade someone to do
something or influence their behavior if you know them and
know which buttons to push.
The company Target decided to compute whether women
were pregnant, even if they had not given that information.
That would be useful for marketing during the pregnancy:
“We knew that if we could identify them in their second tri-
mester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for
years …As soon as we get them buying diapers from us,
they’re going to start buying everything else too.8 Target suc-
ceeded in this profiling endeavor. About a year after the
onset of this pregnancy-targeted marketing campaign, a
father turned up in one of the stores, upset that his 17-year-
old daughter had received a pregnancy-related advertising
e-mail. When the store manager spoke to the father over the
phone later, it was the father who apologized; his daughter
was actually pregnant.9 It doesn’t stop with pregnancy predic-
tions. Big data’s power of prediction may also establish your
8 Duhigg, C. (2016): “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” New York
Times, February 16, 2016. Verified June 12, 2017: http://www.nytimes.
com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1
9 Ibid.
1.8 Hit Them Where It Hurts
14
political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and other
very private, personal, but very useful information.
These data may be used for other purposes than showing
you “relevant” advertising, as Facebook so nicely puts it. The
information may be abused in aggressive predatory advertis-
ing, where people stuck between a rock and a hard place are
targeted right where they hurt the most. Cathy O’Neil, Ph.D.
in Mathematics at Harvard University, activist, and author of
the book Weapons of Math Destruction (2016), points out
that if someone is in possession of people’s zip codes, demo-
graphics, habits, interests, and consumer preferences, they
may use this information to effectively target ads specifically
to people under social and economic pressure. If you have
trouble making ends meet, you get fast and furious offers of
payday loans at extremely high interest rates. If you are stuck
in a steady job with little chance of climbing the career lad-
der, you are offered courses at expensive universities. The
idea behind predatory advertising is:
… to localize the most vulnerable persons and use their private
information against them. This involves figuring out where they
hurt the most, their so-called pain point.10
Vulnerable people are subjected to “false or overpriced
promises”11 by leveraging their weak points. It is documented
that data brokers have sold lists consisting of possible “tar-
gets” for predatory advertising of snake oil or worse that
include rape survivors, addresses of Domestic Violence
Shelters, senior citizens suffering from dementia, HIV/AIDS
sufferers, people with diseases and prescriptions taken
(including cancer and mental illness), and people with addic-
tive behaviors and alcohol, gambling, and drug addictions.12
10 O’Neil (2016: pp.72–73).
11 Ibid. p.70.
12 Report to the General Assembly of the Data Broker Working Group
issued pursuant to Act 66 of 2017, december 15, 2017, verified 29.06.2018:
http://ago.vermont.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/2017-12-15-Data-
Broker-Working-Group-Report.pdf
1. The Attention Economy
15
Data-borne precision marketing is also exploited in politi-
cal campaigns and ads. If you know the voters’ profiles, it is
much easier to persuade, seduce, or manipulate them and
hence influence which candidate they vote for or if need be
make them stay at home on election day. With the right data,
you may be able to modify behavior and maybe even influ-
ence election results.
Money may buy you both the attention of voters and the
information needed to influence their behavior in the desired
direction. Barack Obama’s campaign did it as early as 2008,
when digital micromarketing became a big thing in American
politics. Over a billion targeted e-mails were sent, particularly
to young people and members of minorities in order to mobi-
lize them to vote for the first time and vote for Obama.13
Targeted political micromarketing reached a new level and
took a dark turn in the Brexit referendum in the UK and in
the 2016 Presidential Election in the USA.Both Leave.EU
and Trump’s campaign hired the firm Cambridge Analytica,
which marketed itself as “using data to change audience
behavior” in both commercial and political advertising.14
When the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal
broke recently, it came forth that Cambridge Analytica in
2014 started scraping personally identifiable information of
up to 87million Facebook users without their knowledge or
consent.15 The numbers are possibly even higher. With suffi-
cient data about the electorate, it is possible better to manage
it emotionally praying on pain points. This may be put to
shady use as part of a “voter disengagement” tactic to demo-
bilize the opponent’s supposed supporters, so they do not
13 Nisbet, M. (2012): “Obama 2012: The Most Micro-Targeted Campaign
in History?”, Big Think April 30, 2012. Verified June 24, 2017: http://big-
think.com/age-of-engagement/obama-2012-the-most-micro-targeted-
campaign-in-history
14 Cambridge Analytica, verified June 10, 2017: https://cambridgeanalyt-
ica.org/
15 “The Cambridge Analytica Files,The Guardian, 2018. Verified, June
13, 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/cambridge-analytica-
files
1.8 Hit Them Where It Hurts
16
vote at all. This tactic is reported to have been employed in
the American presidential election to discourage African-
Americans to vote for Hillary Clinton.16 Another tactic is to
fuel anger and tensions, divisions, and conflict to the benefit
of one’s client. This method seems to have been employed in
Kenya, where a lot of extremely divisive political messaging
and targeted misinformation packages were observed during
the 2017 election. Opening Pandora’s box of political tar-
geted micromarketing leveraging pain points may not only be
damaging to the civility of democratic deliberation and par-
ticipation. It may pose a danger to peace and stability. As
Lucy Pardon, Privacy International Policy Officer, notes:
The potential data-gathering could be extremely intrusive, includ-
ing sensitive personal data such as a person’s ethnicity. In a coun-
try like Kenya, where there is history of ethnic tensions resulting
in political violence, campaigning based on data analytics and
profiling is untested ground fraught with great risk.17
Many developing countries and emerging economies are at
least as sensitive as the USA and UK to data misuse, misin-
formation, and fake news operations. At the same time, and
at rapid pace, these new territories have caught the eye of the
attention merchants and their entourage of big data analytics
and demographic profiling to potentially hit the developing
countries where it really hurts: on political
self-determination.
There are dismal and even dystopian prospects in an atten-
tion and data economy where companies collect and appro-
priate personal information, commodify users into products,
16 Burns, J. (2018). “Whistleblower: Bannon Sought To Suppress Black
Voters With Cambridge Analytica,” Forbes, May 19, 2018, verified
29.06.2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2018/05/19/
cambridge-analytica-whistleblower-bannon-sought-to-suppress-black-
voters/#61a56d707a95
17 Mirello, N., Gilbert, D., and Steers, J. (2018). “Kenyans Face a Fake
News Epidemic,” VICE, May 22, 2018. Verified June 13, 2018: https://
news.vice.com/en_us/article/43bdpm/kenyans-face-a-fake-news-epidemic-
they-want-to-know-just-how-much-cambridge-analytica-and-facebook-
are-to-blame
1. The Attention Economy
17
and employ the gathered information against the very users to
efficiently manipulate and influence behavior (see Chap. 7).
There is a lot of money in politics. The bulk of the cam-
paign gold is spent on buying attention and influence on
radio, TV, and the Internet. However, precious attention may
come for free. The attention politicians are able to secure
through exposure and time allotted to speaking, making
headlines and set the agenda on the mass media’s news cov-
erage come without charge.
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1.8 Hit Them Where It Hurts
... Некоторые исследователи называют такую экономику -информационной [одним из первых - Porat, 1977], однако, существует мнение, что данная терминология является не совсем корректной, так как по определению, экономика -это изучение того, как общество использует ограниченные ресурсы 6 . Информация же в настоящее время предстает перед нами в избытке, а дефицитным ресурсом является внимание, поэтому именно экономика внимания является естественным названием экономики в киберпространстве [Goldhaber, 1997b;Hendricks, Vestergaard, 2019]. ...
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... Highly targeted advertising has become reality: whereas previously advertisers only suspected the whereabouts of their customers (based on events, websites etc.), now they know it exactly based on well-defined parameters (targeted micromarketing; cf. Hendricks-Vestergaard, 2019). This leads us to the topic of Web 3.0 or the semantic web: the world of personalized services and, of course, advertisements . ...
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The rising cost of consumer attention: Why should you care, and what you can do about it
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