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Winning and losing in a world of new paradigms: the ALIA Information Online Conference 2011, Part 1

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents June 2011 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Thomson Reuters.



The ALIA Information Online conference in 2009 began on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States of America. Obama’s campaign slogan – change you can believe in – infused the proceedings.

The 2011 conference opened as the Tunisian Jasmine revolution spilled into Egypt. The protests in Tunisia had led to the departure of President Zine El Abidine Ben a fortnight before the conference. The unrest in Egypt forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak after the conference.

Social media have been credited with the rise of the American president and the fall of the North African leaders. The significance of the internet and its impact on society were underscored by the short list for Time magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, made it all the way to the front cover. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, ended up in a British court fighting a Swedish extradition request amid speculation that political forces were gathering around him.

For Information Online 2011, the organisers had invited a librarian and four outsiders as keynote speakers to speculate on the impact of the internet from the perspectives of Google, businesses in general, publishers, broadcasters, museums, libraries and society at large.[1]

A Google perspective

Iarla Flynn, Google’s Head of Public Policy and Government Affairs in Australia and New Zealand, sketched out the latest facts about the internet, a global enterprise now used by 2 billion people. By 2020, 5 billion uses are anticipated. About 85% of Australians are now connected to broadband.

The recent growth in the use of mobile phones has been phenomenal. There are now 5 billion connections in the world today. More people have access to mobile devises than access to running water. In Australia, there are more mobile phones than there are credit cards.

Social networking is facilitating rapid change. About 800 million people worldwide now use associated tools and channels. Facebook has 500 million users.

The shared infrastructure of cloud computing, offering ease of adoption and lower costs than alternative technology, is attracting more attention.

In this environment, Google continues to refine its search capabilities, products and services. Google Books now has about 15 million titles sourced from publishers and libraries. Through Google News Archive Search, it is making available archival content from more than 300 newspapers around the world, including Australia, and it has begun to digitise magazine articles. Google doesn’t regard Goggle Books as a substitute for traditional books: in-copyright books only have snippets available.

Where do librarians fit into this universe? Flynn believes technology does not necessarily replace things, it just speeds them up. Libraries have already embraced the internet. People still need help to navigate information sources. The digital divide continues to offer opportunities. Librarians have a vital role in the future. They share common ground with Google about censorship of the web, freedom of access to information, a commonsense approach to a safer internet, and the need for infrastructure to facilitate access to internet resources.  

A business perspective

Jim McKerlie posed the question: who will be the winners and losers in future online information services?  As Executive Chairman of the digital marketing and technology service, Bullseye, he worked through his paper First Thoughts: Business@100Mbps - a View of the Firm of the Future to articulate the portents of change and their likely impact on any business in the future. In a world where the internet is a game changer, industries will be influenced by six new paradigms.  

Paradigm one is the move from product-driven to customer-driven supply chains. In product-driven supply chains producers created the market for the products in the manner of a campaign for Marlborough cigarettes. Customer-driven supply chains give emphasis to customer input. Print-and-distribute production flows will morph into distribute-and-print processes. Supply chains will form around manufacturers and customer managers. Information services, he suggested, are likely to gravitate around these two roles, with one focusing on accumulation, storage and management of large repositories and the other, on specialist information providers who assist users to find what they want.

Paradigm two is the move from homogenous to fragmented markets. The mass market tends to treat customers as if they are homogenous. Many new channels will help market segments to prosper. Products and services will be able to be tailored to specific needs, giving rise to specialist and “boutique” operators. The traditional information industry consists of large collections of information artefacts stored in grand buildings that make statements and which people visit. We could see further disintermediation of physical libraries and the rise of specialists and special interest user groups. Segmentation will not be as you know it, he said, but will be based on the personal needs of the user. There may be a new role for information scientists, brokers and special interest groups.

Paradigm three is the move from distributive to collaborative networks. The traditional model consists of a centre connected outwards to nodes, with information flows going one way. In emerging collaborative networks, content will be generated by the nodes. 

Paradigm four is the rise of rich media. The definition of information will change and the ability to influence the user experience will change dramatically.

Paradigm five is the emerging role of intelligent terminals, such as iPhones, smart cards, and tablets. Intelligent terminals receive, transmit and have processing power which not only promotes collaborative networks, but allows the creation of user-generated content.

Paradigm six is the primacy of the individual – “my time is prime time – anywhere, anytime, and only what I want.”

In short, the information component of goods and services is increasing. The value-add provided by information contexts is increasingly valued. The creation, storage, and distribution of information is not a lowly clerical function but is increasingly of high value. The consumption of information will be tracked. There will be greater analysis of the market. Content and visitor strategies will be based more on consumption history not curatorial value. And, in case we had forgotten one of the managerial buzz words of recent times, knowledge will be commoditised. Know-how will be a strong currency.

A perspective about publishing

Michael Mace is a media commentator and principal at Rubicon Consulting, where he helps technology companies plan strategies and products. He thinks writers and editors create magic, but the lesson of the past decade, so far as publishing is concerned, is that “if you don’t eat your own children, someone else will.” Picasso, if he had been in the audience, would have agreed wholeheartedly.

What have we learned from a decade of experimentation with e-book development, he speculated? In 2000, there were a number of e-book and great expectations. Dick Brass, head of e-books at Microsoft, for example, said in 2001: “Paper has taken us about as far as it can go: we’re on the verge of something new. Twenty years from now, 90% of everything published will be published electronically.”  

So what went wrong?  In short, Mace said, there wasn’t enough content to justify buying readers. There weren’t enough readers to justify converting content. Prices were too high. Publishers treated e-books as experimental, they were reluctant to invest in them and they have been slow to tailor advertising to new online and mobile formats. There was some confusion about what problem was being solved. Change only happens when all the conditions are right.

To take things beyond the decade of experiment, he said, we need to evaluate the baggage of the past, core values, and opportunities.

For magazines, the baggage is the physical format and the fact that they are driven by mailing, printing and periodic distribution. The core values of magazines are that they are the product of thoughtful collaboration and have the hook of special subject areas. Opportunities will emerge by rethinking the eco system, making the most of rich media, changing the content to accommodate the dialogue offered by social media, and personalising access and delivery. We need to create new formats rather than mirror old formats.  

Newspapers are afflicted, he said, by the need to print on paper, to deliver to the newsagent once or twice a day, and to respond to subscription and advertising forces. The value of newspapers is wrapped up in their immediacy, their coverage of local, regional, national and international stories, their capacity to provide a filtered context and their investigative role.  Mace is concerned about their future. Opportunities are offered in the form of instant mixed media, social media, local news and local advertising

One other realm rich in opportunity is “short” content - out-of-print books and in-print books that aren’t available in electronic form. In the electronic world story length matters less than it does in the printed world. Much of our heritage is still too inaccessible. Only a small proportion of books are available as e-books. Mace urged the development of short content stores, based on subscriptions, with no restrictions on price or length.

When will it pay an author to focus on e-books? Mace said it will be when 20% of the market has e-readers. The tipping point will be 2011 because of projected sales of iPads and similar tablets. Mace predicts major changes on this front over the next few years.

In summary, publishing with paper is unsustainable. There are still important barriers to getting into the e-publishing game. Librarians should continue to advocate the importance of books and to exercise their preservation responsibilities. Don’t be fixated on buildings: it can be liberating not to have a fixed infrastructure.

A broadcaster’s perspective

Chris Winter, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Innovation Division, drew on his experience in deploying ABC content on a number of platforms, developing and nurturing new relationships with third party content providers (including archives, libraries and museums), technology research bodies, industry bodies, government agencies and media organisations.  

He drew inspiration from the writings of Clay Shirky about collaborative opportunities and increased capacity generated by the internet and social media. These tools are changing notions about “the expert” – as demonstrated by the rise of citizen journalists and bloggers.  Wikipedia is competing with the Encyclopedia Britannica. Newspapers are closing at an alarming rate. The embrace of mobile technology and tablets as news delivery mechanisms is phenomenal.

The ABC is being propelled by changes in listener and viewer behaviours.

Its website now attracts over 3.2 million unique Australian visits and 120 million pages views each month. Online content is being integrated with traditional programming and channels. ABC Open (, in invites regional communities to produce and publish photos, stories, videos, and sound through the ABC. A team of 45 producers around the country will run workshops and events to help people learn how to use digital technologies.

A recent focus has been the Now and Then project, which captures local history and photos ( Twitter is being used to connect to audiences and encourage their participation in programs, notably in Q&A. Twitter has increased viewers by 30 percent. Iview is available to catch up on missed programs or view them in different time slots. The Science Section has expanded the scope and nature of its teaching and learning resources.

Other sites and productions worth mentioning include Gallipolli: The First Day, a 3D documentary site about the World War I Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. ( DVDs of show have been sent to 20,000 schools as an educational resource. Black Saturday is a website devoted to the impact of  Australia’s worst bushfire (  Bluebird AR ( is a new interactive narrative in which the elements of the plot are an online community, a whistleblower, geo-engineering and climate change. Social media spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, delicious, YouTube, and Flickr are used as devices to propel the story.

The ABC has faced challenges in developing online resources. Initially the website was based on the organisational and programming structure of the ABC. Improving the value of the site will call for better ways of searching for and aggregating content from different sources. Unexpected results often come from unexpected sources. Getting to this content is made difficult by the difficulties of managing rights.

Managing granularity is a major challenge. Sometimes collaboration is not attractive because of commercial impediments. Although the Sydney Sidetracks trial demonstrated value, there are currently insufficient resources to extend the project.[2]

Trove has opened up possibilities for metadata of ABC broadcasts to be made searchable via Trove. It’s an exciting world and some of the most exciting things come from unexpected places.  

A museum perspective

Sebastian Chan heads the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies Department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and is principal author of the blog Fresh and New(er) ( and editor-in-chief of the Cyclic Defrost Magazine ( 

He talked about the excitement of working at the Powerhouse Museum and of his efforts in taking this cultural institution with a diverse collection deeper into the digital universe. Five percent of the collection is on display. About 36% is considered by staff to be well interpreted. Its target audiences are “children and families, under 30s, culturally active adults, makers, creators and designers.”

Museum strategies for attracting repeated visits are shaped by different contexts, different platforms and different visitor needs. Operational tensions driving policies and budget priorities tend to rise to the surface in debates about the relative merits of kids and scholars, exhibitions and collections, buildings and media platforms, inspiration, serendipity, efficiency and accuracy.

In developing digital content, the museum is guided by a number of principles. People must be able to find it. They must be able to understand it. The content must be responsive to peoples’ interests and location. It must be useable, sharable and available – online, onsite, and offsite. “Museums are a form of collective storytelling. Museum exhibition halls offer the experience. The Web gives access to data about the objects.”

The Powerhouse Museum’s online adventures accelerated in 2005, when it converted a swatch book of fabrics. The current online version - offering browsing, colour and period searching, and social tagging features - can be found at electronicswatchbook/. It was an experience that encouraged the museum to take a warts-and-all approach in developing online resources. The success of the swatch book went well beyond the initial vision of making it available, and involved a deeper consideration of metadata costs and intellectual property rights.

Since 2006, the Museum has experienced increased use of its website and, importantly, increased interest by schools and school children. There have been surprises along the way. People have not undertaken searches in the way the museum anticipated. Some objects have attracted more interest than anticipated – such as the level of interest generated by publication of the image of a Delta Goodman dress.

The thirst of the web for images has led to greater online exploitation of the museum’s photographic collections. When, in 2007, photographs were uploaded to Flickr Commons, there was a dramatic increase in hits to the Powerhouse Museum site. The availability of the images in Flickr’s Then and Now project encouraged the spirit of playfulness and engagement with a new audience. A single photograph of a Victorian park and bandstand was the source of multiple images in a video-recording that heightened the value of a single  image to tell a story.[3]     

China Heart ( is an interactive multi-platform game for smartphones and the Web. Meshing video, real-world art installation and performance with a rich GPS gaming experience, it guides players on a walking tour of significant locations in Sydney's Chinatown, located near the museum.    

Crowd sourcing has led to improved museum data and produced a chain reaction of opportunities. To assist in managing metadata, the Powerhouse Museum has used Thomson Reuters’ OpenCalais ( to automatically generate tags and it has developed a new API to assist in linking data to discovery portals such as Trove ( and Nzmuseums ( A Wordpress plug-in is available for use by Wordpress bloggers. The Australian Dress Register (http://www.powerhousemuseum. com/dressregister) uses one of the museum’s collection strengths to involve and assist a wider community. The Museum is the lead organisation representing the Council of Australasian Museum Directors and Museums Australia on the Museum Metadata Exchange Project, which is working on options to link museum data to research portals and discovery channels.

As part of its philosophy as a “playable and playful environment,” the Powerhouse Museum  has developed and API for use by gamers and researchers. Current work is focused on making collections available on mobile devices and building capacity for a world of linked data. For example it has done some experiments with QR or Quick Response codes (see discussion at

Changing the museum’s DNA, Chan said, will involve focusing on the user experience and contexts instead of the technologies. New visitors will bring new expectations. Transforming the collection may involve constantly changing collecting practices as the museum adjusts to questions about its relevance to new generations.

And last but not least, a library perspective

Sarah Houghton-Jan is Assistant Director of the San Rafael Public Library in California, the author of Technology Training in Libraries and of the blog about library technology, Librarian In Black ( . In her presentation, Digital Libraries: the Phoenix Rising from the Ashes, she led delegates on a speculative journey about the future role of libraries.  

Their future, she said, is very much tied to technological developments in four territories: education, the library profession itself, communication and entertain.   

The patterns of changing habits are there to see. We now live in both a physical world and a virtual world, where 30% of library users are interested in electronic information only, 10% can be described as ‘bricks and mortar’ users, and 60% use both.  

These patterns can be further encapsulated by connections to the internet, use of the internet, use of Facebook, and the growing use of mobile devices.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in July 2010, Australian dial-up connections to the internet have dropped from about 50% in 2006 to about 10% in 2010. The proportion of DLS and cable connections has increased slightly in that time.

Actual use of the Internet has been regularly surveyed be Nielsen. In August 2009, it reported that about 80% of Australians are regular internet users. In April 2010, it reported that 90% of internet users were social networkers, 63% used Facebook, and 23% - or about 12% of the Australian population - used Twitter. Australian internet users spend most of the time on the internet using social networking tools.

The Facebook phenomenon was captured in an October 2010 Hitwise report: it is the second most visited website after Google, but is more popular than Google in the 18-24 age group. It attracts 19.3% of all page views (compared with Googles 7.4%). It is the number one search term in all of the major search engines. About 11% of visits to other sites come from links on Facebook.

Mobile connections are accelerating. According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, 43% of Australian online users have smart phones. About 73% of smart phone owners run web searches regularly, 18% use Twitter on their mobile devices, 18% use YouTube on mobile devices and 66% of mobile social networkers are under 35 years of age.

The digital library agenda will also be shaped by the development of cloud computing, touch screens, the development of Internet TV, 3D gaming, and 3D printing, among other innovations.

Challenges will be faced on several fronts.

To manage collections, we will continue to wrestle with the proportion of funds to be spent on digital resources over other types of resources and the need to provide access when the library is closed. This agenda is underscored by recent statistics from the San Jose Public Library, where e-book downloads are up 43%, digital reference enquiries are up 450%, catalogue use is up 140% and extended web presence use is up 12,000%. Digital e-book collection issues include user awareness, dealing with different formats, managing digital rights, extending collections through digitisation of local material, supporting more than text, lending the technology as well as the content, and supporting use of devices,

To manage information services, we will grapple with issues around competitive advantage. Programming will consider the digital divide and the long tail, the “have-nots, sort-of- haves and haves.”  

Library systems will be shaped by questions about usability, integration and the limited success of federated searching.

What do we cut? Houghton-Jan suggested that we focus on functions, not brand or category. Go mobile or go home. Consider the value of apps over websites. Look into the use of augmented reality for local history tours, genealogy, and promoting what you have that no-one else has. Consider developing computing services and spaces in terms of support and ergonomics.

In a future that’s not all that clear, libraries, Houghton-Jan said, have been “a bit slow and frugal.” They need to look at trends outside the world of libraries, think about technology in general rather than focus too much on library technology and, instead of thinking about “people”, they should interpret trends based on what the people they know are doing

On the other hand, she encouraged librarians to stick to tried and tested core values – provision of complete and balanced information, assisting research, education, entertainment and self improvement.

“Libraries democratise. They are awesome.” (Wild applause).  


The e-book story unfolds

As soon as the conference ended, the threat to the book chain Borders hit the news stands. Bloomberg pointed the finger for the demise at its slow embrace of digital reading.[4] The antipodean flow-on appeared two weeks later in the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that not only Borders, but also Angus & Robertson had been placed into voluntary administration by their private equity owners.[5]  The Herald pointed the finger at the popularity of overseas online purchasing. Other commentators sheeted home the blame to bad management.

News of the demise of the bookstores was accompanied by news of the emergence of rivals to lending libraries or partnerships by lending libraries with other online providers. The website Lendle ( acts as a Kindle e-books lending agent in the United States. In late February, the Internet Archive announced a partnership with 150 libraries across the United States when it launched an e-book lending program via ( And, in the Wall Street Journal, Katherine Boehret wrote about OverDrive’s app which enables e-books to be downloaded from local libraries to Apple iPad and Android tablets.[6] These experimental ventures no doubt still have some distance to run.

Exemplifying a point made by Michael Mace about the e-book tipping point, Novelr ran a story about Amanda Hocking, a 26 year old indie (independent) writer, who sells more than 100,000 copies of her self-published e-books per month.[7] The average price of e-books is in the range $3 to $5 a copy. Amazon’s cut is 30%. The low price encourages high volume sales. Success via the traditional publishing route does not appear to matter. The top indie writers sell from 2500 copies to 100,000 a month. Do the sums.  

The positive outlook for e-books was underscored in a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ report.[8] It said that while the publishing industry, especially in Europe, is at the beginning of its digital transformation, the breakthrough is under way. Reader habits are changing. E-book readers are improving. E-books will not replace the printed book, but if publishers are to make the most of the opportunities, they must invest now. Those involved need to consider the process of digitising the book industry.

The process of digitising the book industry will no doubt continue to navigate turf wars. When the British Library announced plans to digitise all of its 14 million books, Alex Hudson reported a declaration of war with libraries by publishers in the United Kingdom. Publishers in the e-lending game fear the competition of free lending from libraries and threats to the commercial model. Their response involves the introduction of restrictions to e-lending by geographical location or the number of readers or the number of uses. Debates on the e-book trade have centred on whether ownership means outright ownership or just a licence to view a digital file. [9]

The most interesting idea from the conference

Perhaps the most interesting idea to float to the surface during the conference was one touched on by Chris Winter when he referred to the writing of Clay Shirky to draw attention to questions of capacity and productivity.

Shirky, in Gin, Television and the Cognitive Surplus and related works, argues that spare time has become creative, not just consumptive. Online cultural pursuits and playfulness are replacing compulsive, self-anesthetising television viewing. This transformation echoes the eradication of the gin craze that inflicted England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution:

The critical technology, for the early phase of the Industrial Revolution, was gin. The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that it actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today…it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis.” [10]

Sharky illustrates the size of the surplus by comparing television viewing with the development of Wikipedia, which represents an accumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. In the USA alone, people spend two hundred billion hours every year – or the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year - watching television. Wikipedia draws on an“architecture of participation.”  Social media, harnessing this power, will change the nature of production and consumption.  

It is an idea that resonates with the sigmoid curve, the life-cycle metaphor that describes the phases, ebb and flow of civilisations, organisations and personal relationships, as described by Charles Handy in The Empty Raincoat.[11] If the last 15 years represents the gin-crazed phase of the internet revolution, the next phase will be marked by confidence towards the Semantic Web, at which point we will be confronted by a new revolution.  

New paradigms

In the final session of the conference, Houghton-Jan and Michael Mace were joined by Mary Anne Kennan, a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Sophie McDonald (University of Technology Sydney) and Melinda Stewart (George Western Foods) in a panel discussion that considered an old refrain: “doing more with less.”

Sarah Houghton-Jan took issue with the phrase: exploring future options needs an open mind. Kennan reinforced the point: dealing with the present was a question of creating balance, prioritising and cutting things that are of low value or impossible to do. Mace said he often works with little money anyway. When he puts together companies, he works without an office, and uses skype and open source groupware for communication. He can bring together people from anywhere in the world. But such an enterprise relies on the ability of people to get things done rather than the amount of time they spend in the office.

Delegates posed questions or offered comments with the aid of microphone and Twitter. Are libraries the last of the cottage industries? Do we need to think about outsourcing? Why doesn’t 100% of the population use public libraries? Why didn’t libraries invent Google?

When someone in the auditorium asked members of the panel for the most innovative idea of  the conference, one answer arrived by Twitter: “break the rules.” On the subject of innovation, though, someone had the good sense to suggest that maybe it was better to offer better service than attempt to be too clever.

The session concluded with a discussion about whether it was better to be recognised as librarians or information specialists. The use of the more generic term in tertiary courses and in some job titles has caused ambiguities about the nature of the job. The old fashioned term at least had the merit of being less fuzzy, even if it encouraged perceptions about stereotypes.

There was a sense of déjà vu about this session. Ambiguities about roles and fears about disappearing libraries were the talk of conferences ten years ago. During the past decade,   librarians appeared to have found more assurance about their place in the internet revolution. It was therefore surprising to hear old questions and a touch of paranoia rise to the surface again.

The mood may have been encouraged by Jim McKerlie when he talked about new paradigms, winners and losers. Darwinism will prevail, he had said. Some libraries will close and new ones will flourish. To win, we must re-skill, re-position, and sell.

Internet-fuelled new paradigms have been illustrated by the rise of Obama and the fall of dictatorships in North Africa. Magical possibilities were flagged in the presentations by Chris Winter and Sebastian Chan. But, to what extent, will all of this affect libraries?

When we hear about new paradigms, we sometimes need to exercise healthy caution. As John Ralston Saul observed, “doubt is central to understanding. It is the space between reality and the application of an idea. It ought to be given over to the weighing of experience, intuition, creativity, ethics, common sense, reason, and of course, knowledge.”[12]

McKerlie’s suggested motto for the future - “information: what they want, in the form they want it, when they want it” – was the mission on the cover of library plans in the 1980s. Business plans and library marketing have been widely used tools for dealing with changing environments. New games seem to call for old techniques.

All the more reason to test the wind in part two, which will look at the conference presentations in the parallel sessions.

Operating in a World of Ornate Variations and Tipping Points: the ALIA Information Online Conference, Part 2


[1] ALIA Information Online 2011 website


[3] http://www.powerhousemuseum. com/imageservices/index.php/ 2008/11/

[4] Coleman-Lochner,  L and Keehner,  J.Borders Group May File for Bankruptcy as Soon as Next Week.” Bloomberg, 2 Feb 2011.

[5] Greenblat, E. “Borders, Angus & Robertson go bust.” Sydney Morning Herald 17 Feb 2011

[6] Boehret, K. “New Way to Check Out eBooks.” The Wall Street Journal.23 Feb 2011.

[7] James, E. “The Very Rich Indie Writer.”  Novelr, 27 Feb 2011

[8] PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Turning the Page: the Future of e-Books, 2010.

[9] Hudson, A. “Can libraries survive in a digital world?” BBC Click 12 Mar 2011

[10] Shirky, C. “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” Here Comes Everybody,  26 Apr 2008

[11] Bentley, P. Searching for the Next Sigmoid Curve, Online Currents July/August 2002 and the Wolanski Foundation.

[12] Saul, JR. The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense. London; Penguin, 1995.


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