Adapting our work to the revolution in digital mass communications

BY:John Bachtell| July 6, 2015
Adapting our work to the revolution in digital mass communications

Presented to the CPUSA National Board May 30, 2015. 


I’d like to first extend appreciation to the NB members, district and club leaders who responded to my email for input and also those who participated in the club and district leaders survey. It was very helpful to get your estimates, ideas and concerns. We will get those results to the Party soon.

And I’d also like to preface these remarks by suggesting an approach for the discussions this weekend.

The goal is to soberly look at the Party organization and outline plans to continue to update and modernize. In many ways we are at a critical juncture and the National Board will have to make some big decisions. These discussions won’t be easy but we should strive for a common assessment of the status of the party, draw some conclusions and resolve some longstanding issues, primarily the, Political Affairs and our approach to youth and students.

We need to streamline and recalibrate our work, allocate and prioritize precious resources and staff.

We know there are things the NB can find broad agreement on and others upon which there are a wide range of views and even sharp differences. We may not resolve all issues, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. But the changes we adopt should lay the basis for bigger changes in the future. As the Cubans say in regard to their own transformation of socialism, “changes little by little, steadily, but without pausing or stopping.”

Where we can’t find solutions, we will continue probing in light of new experience and understanding. However, that should not stop us from tackling difficult, challenging and even controversial issues. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

While we are seeking the broadest possible agreement we are not seeking unanimity. That is a figment. There is a time for discussion and a time for action. After all, this body has to lead. We have to be aware of how our actions affect the morale, enthusiasm, esprit de corps of the party. But our leadership has to be big enough and flexible enough to handle differences.

Our discussions must be reality based, probe below the surface, seek what is new and identify trends.

You can’t build on negatives, but you can’t move forward without identifying the negatives either. With our culture, we’re often inclined to put a rosy spin on things, even if one doesn’t exist; to promote self-congratulation over real problem identification and solving.

As Raul Castro admonished in one of many speeches during the current updating of Cuban socialism, “I believe that we need not be ashamed of errors; it is more serious and shameful not to have the valor to delve more profoundly into them and analyze them in order to extract the lessons from each one and correct them in time.”

Finally, in preparing for this meeting, we have included consultations with comrades involved in areas of work under discussion but not part of the National Board. I believe it was worth it even if it took a little longer than expected and we didn’t always see eye to eye on things. Many of these comrades will be involved in the work going forward and it is important to have their input.

Process of updating
Over the past few years the emphasis has been on transforming the Party along the lines of what we call “a party of 21st century socialism,” updating our politics, forms and methods of work, delving into new ideological challenges; to adapt to and root ourselves in the rapidly changing world and class struggle.

Sam Webb led us in addressing many of these challenging issues, and we should try to follow his example.

We have tried to shed old concepts and ways of working rooted in another era, that don’t fit the new realities or leave us marginalized. We have made headway in some areas but have come up short in others.

We have taken up new challenges and questions including the changing nature of the working class, new forms of racism and discrimination, the climate crisis and its impact everything, our understanding of the democratic path to socialism, non-violence, our vision of grassroots powered democratic, green, peaceful socialism, etc. But none, including the convention mandates of the Fight for 15 and climate justice, have been addressed to the degree required, and many other questions not at all. A deeper study of what is new and developing in the class struggle, including emerging movements, is needed.

Every organization that hopes to endure and thrive is concerned with making itself relevant in the 21st century. AFL-CIO President Trumka has acknowledged the labor movement, now engaged in a heroic struggle, is in an existential crisis and must change to survive. Labor’s transformation process has unfolded over years, through successes and failures. Some unions are responding while others are still stuck in the old ways. But the labor movement keeps soberly re-examining its status and which new forms of organization are working or what needs changing.

It’s something the Catholic Church is doing under the leadership of Pope Francis. Pope Francis is boldly challenging old orthodoxies, tackling current problems and controversies. If the Catholic Church (and Boy Scouts!) can be brought into the modern age any organization can.

Again, I was also deeply struck by the updating of Cuban socialism and the role of the Communist Party of Cuba. They are boldly changing everything that doesn’t fit the new realities, fearlessly tackling mistakes, including some lingering for decades.

Those organizations that don’t make changes are bound to limp off the stage of history and perish. We are determined our party will not only remain relevant, but thrive.

Rooted in real battles
Those organizations adapting and modernizing are doing so under the extremely difficult realities of contemporary US capitalism: vast concentrations of wealth, slowing economic growth, growing poverty and mass unemployment, fragmentation and crisis communities, racism and discrimination, looming threat to life on the planet, etc.

Under conditions in which the extreme right has achieved big gains in the legislative arena and judiciary; the labor movement is fighting for its life, democratic rights have been severely eroded, growing numbers are disillusioned with electoral politics and feeling hopeless that change will occur. The ideological battle is fierce, and the ruling class is able to reach and influence millions around the clock through the most powerful ideological apparatus ever known.

At the same time millions are in struggle and looking for something new, there are broad shifts taking place in thinking including some stunning shifts on same-sex marriage, criminal justice and the police, global warming, raising the minimum wage, etc.

Updates in theory, politics and organization cannot be done apart from the current struggles. If the Party is not deeply and organically part of them, helping to draw the interconnections and active in all forms of struggle, including the electoral arena and helping to influence them and tell their story, our role is not realized.

For example, I sense a substantial part of our membership and even some of our leadership remains unengaged in the electoral arena and doesn’t understand or agree with our anti-ultra right policy. This remains a huge challenge for us.

Leadership transition and development
I want to outline my thinking on dealing with some critical challenges. But first, after having visited most of the main and smaller districts here are some observations and impressions regarding our status. We’ll need to compare my observations with how things have changed over time.

We have a very dedicated and treasured district and club leadership and membership. But it’s also fair to say in most places leadership is of the “boomer” generation and aging. Concern for the future of the Party was mentioned by several members in their responses. This is a critical challenge.

With few exceptions we lack a core of younger activists being developed to assume leadership at the district level. We are largely missing the 20-40 year old generation.

I think it is fair to say in most districts meetings “boomers” predominate leaving the impression the activist core of membership is aging. Most public events draw only a smattering of youth.

The YCL has a small regularly functioning national collective and fostered some important relations nationally. But the YCL as a regularly functioning organization on the ground exists in only one district. Most are not able to establish a separate YCL organization.

With a few exceptions we are not attracting through our work the young activists from the #blacklivesmatters, climate justice movement, student debt movement, fight for 15, etc.

Many of our clubs are in a fragile state and leadership is thin. Nearly half of clubs report not having a collective leadership.

There are few districts where we have a core of young emerging leaders. If a new leadership is not identified and developed, and not just any leadership, but leaders with broad flexible politics rooted in the movements, then we risk a collapse of a majority of districts. This is a painful realization, but one we must face squarely.

This is also true for our staffing needs including the Finance work, essential for our future. Right now Jenn Delgado, Tony Pecinovsky and Melissa are the only younger people in that field. The same thing is true of International Publishers, with the imminent retirement of Betty Smith. We have no replacement.

It’s not for lack of effort and work at the grassroots. It’s not a matter of working harder, it’s a matter of working differently.

We have also had problems promoting people to quickly, even when we knew there were political problems. And I’m not only speaking of young people. Sometimes we promote out of desperation; there is no one else and we hope they will develop. Some of the mistakes have been costly.

As a result we tend to give short shrift to allowing people to develop through a period of activism and political and educational training. As Marc Brodine wrote, “Jumping people into leadership is not the answer-a period of political and educational training combined with practical experience is needed. Being open and flexible but not trying to force people into what we need, but rather taking advantage of the skills and lessons they already have and know.”

We need a higher expectation for leadership and staff along with greater accountability and political, professional and skill development.

We are taking steps to overcome the isolation of grassroots club and district leaders from the party organization nationally. This is the purpose of the District and Club Leaders Forum and regular direct communications. After three meetings, it seems to be making a positive contribution.

Commissions, working groups and collectives are also a place where younger members can get valuable experience. But we have had mixed success with the consistent functioning of these collectives.

Joelle Fishman reports the CT District is embarking on what is called the “Next Generation Project”, a year long effort to identify and bring forward new leadership in the clubs and to mentor young people in their twenties. The plan is to meet with every club and person, with some early promising results.

We need to do a better job of collectively identifying potential leadership and organizing their development. Many districts have marvelous members with leadership potential who are not included in national schools and online classes.

Membership status
Since the 26th National Convention, 718 people have joined the Party online and 2800 over the past 4 years. We don’t know how many new members are joining directly through our state and local organizations. Although in a recent survey, most clubs indicated 1-3 people had joined in the past year.

Even with the modest stream of new members, most clubs list growth as a critical problem.

It’s a wonderful thing that so many are joining online. But most are not being integrated into the Party organization. Efforts to do so are uneven, and often with mixed results.

Our knowledge of these new members is very sketchy. But with analytics we are able to get a better sense of the total picture.

A substantial percentage of the new members are not connected to movements, struggles, coalitions, campaigns or other organizations. They are angry and this is their first political act.

But many are active. Approximately one-third of the new members are trade unionists or active in the Democratic Party, DSA, Socialist Party or some other organization or movement.

A majority of these new members are under 35 years of age. Approximately one-third are students.

Approximately 15% are people of color. Only 25% are women.

Approximately one-half clicked through emails and one-third opens emails, clicks links and responds to campaigns regularly.

On the other hand, many carry wrong notions of what revolutionary change is, have little idea of our real positions, hold a caricature of the Party and socialism, a fascination with armed struggle, all things Soviet, etc.

The attitudes of some are rooted in the post-Russian Revolution world, and generate all sorts of arcane discussions. It reminds me of the story Barack Obama’s tells in his book, “Dreams of My Father”. He speaks of passing leftists on the Columbia University campus passing out their newspapers and arguing on some inane point. What Freud referred to as the “narcissism of small differences.”

What does that tell us? About them and us?

Of those not joining, are they finding other organizations and forms of activity more fulfilling? Perhaps they are finding more satisfying ways to get political guidance, Marxist education and tools for action.

Of course many don’t agree with our policies, but perhaps others don’t think we are politically relevant. They think the Party is retro, not modern and vibrant.

Perhaps we are too isolated from these movements for various reasons.

Perhaps they fear anti-communism and being isolated from friends, coworkers, and fellow activists. They don’t gravitate around us because of the negative association people generally have of communism, of Stalin and “totalitarianism”.

Again it raises whether or not we can overcome those negative connotations? Is the name an impediment, associating us with a socialism and ideology which is seen as undemocratic, rigid and passe.

A number of you raised these concerns in your responses and urged a discussion of it. And we agreed at the November NC meeting we would organize such a discussion on the impact of anti-communism, whether name and symbols impact our relations, work and growth. And we need to do it dispassionately and soberly, while fully and deeply investigating all sides of the question.

Mass communications, organization and organizing
The essence of our unique contributions is our Marxist analysis, approach to strategy and tactics, vision for socialism and the democratic path to achieve it. We need to elaborate these questions in every direction, as an organization and in collaboration with allies. As Marc Brodine says, we need to develop more convincing arguments for example explaining how “our electoral tactics are connected to movements, struggle, and progress, and to ultimate goals.”

The party can make a big contribution by elaborating strategy and tactics in relation to defeating the right, its connection to the fight against monopoly as a whole, building the climate justice movement, the relation between the class question and struggle for equality and other democratic questions, winning radical democratic reforms and ultimately socialism.

But only if we continue the updating process and make a big turn in mass communications. The mass communications revolution, social media and social networking are revolutionizing everything: communication, political organizing, political campaigns and organization. Social media is engulfing the environment.

Any organization that expects to thrive, must be equipped with modern forms of communication for projection of ideas, politics and organization. Our analysis, strategy and tactics and socialist vision mean little if they are not communicated widely.

This is why the proposal to re-center our work around the award winning is essential for our existence; to build a multi-media communications platform putting us on a par with the Nation, In These Times, Jacobin and Democracy Now! and other websites.

The battle of ideas is a key component of the class struggle. To not only engage in it, but to engage with a much larger audience we need not only print, but video, audio and web-blogging, memes, photography, and engage via mobile technology, ie smartphones and tablets, etc.

By itself it doesn’t guarantee our relevance, but without it we will not have a future.

I received some comments that mesh with my own thinking about realigning our priorities towards, comments that highlight the critical nature of our situation.

April Smith reflected the sentiments of many who wrote, “I think our key obstacle now is our size, size, size. I don’t think we’re big enough to be in contact with many things going on. People are active but we need to be bigger.”

Because of our small size, concentration on mass communications is an absolute necessity, including in developing relations with a wider range of activists and movements. As Sue Webb writes, there has been “a disproportionate emphasis on one-to-one interactions, e.g., “having a piece of paper to hand to people,” etc.”

The social media amplifies our voice many times over. It gives us a larger platform to share our views. As Rossana says it, “does not replace the face to face interaction but it enhances it 10 times fold if not more.”

Without communicating our Marxist analysis, strategy and tactics effectively, our membership and supporters cannot know how to creatively employ them at the grassroots and the movements will not know we exist.

This was brought home to me on my visit to Baltimore. Margaret Baldridge arranged a meeting with a leading young African American pastor organizing the Freddie Gray protests. And when asked how the Party was seen, he stated frankly, “We’ll you may be known to your circle, but you’re not on the map.”

That was sobering but it prompted us to discuss ways the tiny club could have a presence and connection. We concluded the best means was through the Since then the club has helped tell the story of the movement, given an alternative narrative of the role of youth, widely shared many articles and built many new relationships. They found a concrete way to help build the movement.

The multi-sided on the ground reporting during the events in Ferguson by the Missouri district, including by protest organizers and staff made a fundamental contribution to the movement, told unique sides of the story and built many new relations.

By marrying vibrant, creative Marxism with mass communications we can influence millions in a unique way. It is a key means to overcoming marginalization, to erasing distinctions between internal and external communication and building individual relations and broad mass influence.

The Party and are vital partners and resources for the working class and people’s movement and the growing socialist current. As John Wojcik writes, “The whole ILCA effort in North Carolina, hosted by the AFL-CIO with Rev. Barber the keynote is about organizing the unorganized. We became a vital part of that effort by virtue of having made big strides in mass communication, so much so that we are an asset to those who are organizing and they recognize that.”

It allows us to carve out a place in the dense, chaotic, highly competitive Internet world with an over-abundance of information. There are countless progressive oriented news websites. Our sine qua non is class analysis and perspective. We need to qualitatively improve our content, which will draw readers and allow to become a magnet for writers, videographers, and podcasters.

Generally people should get from our websites three things: community of like minded people, vibrant Marxist education to deepen their understanding and tools to enhance their own activity; where anyone, anywhere can self-educate, self-activate and give effective grassroots leadership.

Impact of social media on organization
It is common for leaders of an organization to understand the impact of mass communications externally, but consider it separate from the organization’s culture and structure, something existing outside the organization’s firewall, so to speak.

As one observer in the field notes, “There is a commonly-held notion that digital technologies are “just tools” which undermines their importance. It disregards the fact that mastering modern-day means of communication and collaboration is far more complex and challenging than traditional approaches.”

Modern mass communications, social media and social networking are impacting all organization, making those based on vertical communication models obsolete. These are being replaced by engagement and two-way communication.

It is changing relationships between leaders and members, allowing for transparency, more interaction, sharing and collaboration. With the social media every member becomes an amplified voice and reflection of the organization.

It is shaping attitudes toward organization and creating new expectations, particularly among the new members and youth. According to studies, new members and even employees will challenge old models of organization they think hint of hierarchy and control. We have to adapt to this new world.

Any notion that mass communication is separate and opposed to grassroots organizing is a false dichotomy. The two are inseparable. One cannot organize coalitions, influence others and build relationships unless one understands our analysis, estimate of the balance of forces and strategy and tactics.

During the 2012 election, 39% of all American adults took part in some sort of political activity on a social networking site. These users are referred to by Pew Research as “political social networking site (SNS) users.” This underscores the fact that social media engagement leads to offline involvement. According to the same study 83% of political SNS users got involved in political or social issues offline in 2012.

“This relates to what I think is a fossilized concept of what being a party member means, and of what is the role of the party. That in turn, I feel, cuts down on membership and retention,” says Sue Webb.

Membership goes way beyond attending meetings, events, protests, door knocking and phone banking for candidates.

“It is often not inspirational nor really political, does not appeal to many people or does not fit with their life situations, and does not address waging the battle of ideas with masses of people on varying wavelengths,” wrote Sue.

While we want vibrant grassroots organizations where members and allies interact, we should recognize club meeting while important may not be the main way to engage with people, including our members.

Using mass communications we can engage on a daily basis, in real time since politics and the battle of ideas is 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Updating role of leadership and staff
All of us must be thinkers, analyzers, tacticians and strategists and mass communicators too. Our politics have to be creatively developed to fit the local realities and conditions. That’s a key aspect of leadership especially.

Communicating our ideas goes beyond the club meeting, to the public, to the networks of activists and movements the club and its members have developed relations with. But we are a long way from making this a part of the work of every leader and member.

My rule of thumb is Party leaders, whether they are on staff or not, should spend roughly half their political time engaging in the “battle of ideas”; creating and promoting our ideas through the social media. It is the way to build relations, hone one’s analytical skills and set the example for the membership.

Social media and social networking are necessary skills in the world of modern communications and organizing and all staff must be versed in them. As an organization, we must commit to build into our culture training and regularly updating skill sets.

In recentering our work around the and, it means the national Party staff will need to redefine their work starting with me. Job descriptions should be rewritten to fit into the larger project we are undertaking.

We should give thought to the impact of mass communications and social media on the Party organization at all levels and how it will alter forms of organization and perhaps create new ones. For example, do we need individuals assigned to head up the “press” or separate communications collectives to organize the work, or should they be merged as a chief function of the leading collectives.

I suspect most clubs and district leadership collectives rarely if ever take up coverage and analysis or social media. They are consumed with agendas, meetings, mobilizations, outreach, education and fundraising. In fact, 40% of clubs report they haven’t sent in any articles and over half zero to two articles spanning the last year.

I think the same holds for our commissions, collectives and working groups. Tackling new ideological and tactical questions in the various movements and communicating our thinking on them should be a chief responsibility for our collectives.

It means we have to offer trainings and workshops like those conducted in Los Angeles earlier this year with the staff and district.

In today’s social media world, most people get information from trusted sources, usually friends and coworkers. And like it or not, our Party leaders have to think about being media personalities, like the Nation’s editor, and engage with the mass media, get other websites to post our articles, columns, etc.

The old organizing model, which despite what we said about the press being the scaffolding, in real life pitted organization against mass communications. Granted we were much bigger in the 1930s-1980s, but too often we left the job of organizing to Party organizers and the job of reporting to writers. We had a District Organizer and a news writer in many districts.

For Party organizers, writing for is low on the list, left to its staff or an assigned writer. Consequently, many of our district staff (not that we have many), rarely write or produce content.

In the new model, the organizer and mass communicator merge (and the new role should be named). All our staff have to fit into the new recentering model.

Social networking and youth approach
Mastering digital communications is essential, especially engaging with young people. In fact, our entire mass communications apparatus has to be geared to the rising generations, the present and future. If we don’t have a social media/ social networking approach for reaching young people with our ideas, we are missing the boat entirely and we are a party without a future.

While younger adults are just as likely as older adults to be civically engaged, younger adults and are much more likely to be politically active on social networking sites, the Pew study found.

And that also impacts the entire approach to youth organizing and communication. For example, while all content should be of interest to youth, we need a special youth and student section in that communicates in a youthful style and on youth issues. This is what The Nation magazine does.

We should consider creating a youth section on the new Party website.

Later we’ll discuss a proposal to update and refocus our engagement with students by pivoting to the campuses and taking steps to incorporate this work within the Party structure. This is an acknowledgement one-third of our members are students and historically campuses have been the centers of social movements. That is true today with the #blacklivesmatters and climate justice movements. Many of today’s students are also workers and active in building labor alliances with communities.

Youth have radically new forms and ways of organizing which we must be in tune with. More than any other sector their lives and political activism are being shaped by social networking.

Marxist education and mass communications
Experience alone does not lead to class and socialist consciousness. People must combine their experience with Marxist education. Sharing our ideas, providing a platform for Marxist education, is essential for political growth and development.

Mass communications also has an impact on organizing our Marxist educational work. Our Marxist education can reach a wider audience and equip them to be effective activists wherever they may be.

It means largely erasing the distinction between Party and public Marxist education, especially education directed to the working class. Certainly, we need in person discussion groups, schools and classes. But our online educational work has to be geared to the public, creating online resources, discussions, videos, and podcasts.

By using Skype I was able to speak to a high school social studies class in Dallastown, PA and a graduate political philosophy class at the University of South Florida from home. We should advertize our availability to speak remotely on our websites.

Marxist education was listed as a chief concern of districts and clubs in our survey. They do the best they can with limited resources. All the more important why we need a strong education program organized nationally employing mass communication tools.

Too often someone gives a thoughtful presentation in the national board and it goes nowhere, wasted. Or an educational in a district or club, goes nowhere and is again wasted.

Like and websites reaching larger audiences, so should Marxist education. And in fact under the leadership of Dee and the Education Commission, we are moving in this direction.

Because of the introduction of tools like Google Hangout and Go-to-Meeting, we are reaching a larger audience; erasing the difference between membership education and mass public education. Nearly half the participants in the recent LA regional school were non-Party activists. It combined Party education and a public marxist school.

Marxism as creative collaboration
The Party historically made huge contributions to introducing Marxism in a mass way to the US working class through our newspapers, theoretical publications, schools, cultural groups, book publishing, etc. Party historians helped to shape a Marxist view of US history, etc. In many ways the Party was a main center of Marxist education, academic and cultural work especially in the period of the 1930s – 1960s.

That is no longer the case. Today there is a broad current of Marxism in academia, cultural and intellectual circles and in the working class movement. It broadly influences most disciplines from political economy to history. Marxism is more widely accepted, respected and Marxist works are published by many journals and publishing houses.

We are not the only game in town, and in fact because of our size we can not make the contribution we once did. Led by Marc and Dee we have re-instituted organized political discussions on new questions in the National Board. But this should only be a part of what we do to encourage exploration of new and challenging questions.

Many Marxist activists and academics are making important contributions. All the more reason why we need to collaborate with other Marxists including in and websites, classes and discussions.

Movement alliances: political, theoretical collaboration
The digital revolution in mass communications also impacts our alliance building, particularly with the left. We have been engaged in a process of left unity, holding periodic discussions, collaborating on actions and in conference workshops.

This unity process has generally been sporadic and limited to a few left groups. Broader and more flexible cooperation is needed because movement building and the ideological struggle are too big for a single organization or even a small number of left organizations.

Far broader cooperation can occur through collaboration in mass communications, as is doing with the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA). John Wojcik is a Vice President of ILCA and through it many labor-oriented articles are distributed and shared. This allows for alliance building with labor and independent media, the left and the broader people’s movement. It allows the Party to be an organic and natural part of the movement’s institutional infrastructure.

One measure of our relationships are banquets and other Party-initiated events around the country: they indicate willingness of organizations and movements to work with and stand on the same platform including at the African American History Month event in New York City with the appearance of Newark Mayor Raz Baraka and other elected officials.

Membership engagement
We have struggled for a long time on how best to engage our members online. This was new for us and we were flying by the seat of our pants. But we are beginning to make some modest headway. This includes the Social Media Share campaign, online education, weekly messages-and-action, Week in the News with editors and studying the analytics of what people are doing with our emails.

Thanks to Joe Sims’s doggedness, over 844 people have agreed to participate in the share campaign, and over 200 regularly post.

The Membership Committee is functioning again under Rossana’s leadership and trying to re-establish direct outreach when new members join.

The recent Education Commission class series of Lenin conducted via Go-To-Meeting included attendance of 100, 46, 53, 45, 54. A substantial portion were new members.

Sam Webb’s class series on Lenin’s ideas in the contemporary world included 15-18 participants, also held via Go-To-Meeting.

We are only learning how to use this new technology.

The message-and-action of the Week goes out to a CPUSA News and Views list of 6,500 recipients. On average it is opened 8-12% of the time. Average open rates actually fluctuate per industry. The average for non-profit/membership organizations is 11.66%. The twice weekly headline blast goes out to the same list and gets about the same average opens. Once we equip our websites with mobile capability, that will average 28%.

We have just begun to scratch the surface in online engagement. We are lucky to have new staff member Patrick Foote who knows a lot about this and has many exciting suggestions and ideas for how to build on what we have started.

We are only at the beginning of this exciting journey into the brave new world of mass communications, social media and social networking. It is sure to transform our Party in ways we cannot imagine today. Let’s embrace it and journey boldly into that future.

Photo: Creative Commons 3.0



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