Have you learnt who KSI is?
Once I requested my associates this query, most of them appeared clean. However one Saturday in January, a 12,500-strong viewers at Wembley Area had little question. They knew who KSI was. They’d listened to his music. They’d watched his gaming movies. They’d seen his beefs with different web personalities and the scorn he’d thrown on the misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate. They’d heard about Prime, the drink that KSI helped launch within the UK and that was so in demand some retailers charged £20 a bottle. And that night, most of all, they wished to see KSI field. “Ok-S-I! Ok-S-I! Ok-S-I!” they chanted.
At 10.30pm, after a number of different YouTubers-cum-boxers had taken their turns within the ring, KSI appeared. He wore a pink outfit and sang the nationwide anthem. He was undefeated in his 5 earlier fights. He beat his chest and his opponent, a hapless Brazilian with the stage identify FaZe Temperrr. It was really easy that KSI added some leaping press-ups. “Girls and gents, I’m on a distinct degree!” he roared. The gang roared again.
KSI — “Data Power Integrity”, actual identify Olajide Olatunji — is many issues: a musician, an influencer, a drinks promoter, a boxer. However what me was probably the most fundamental: he’s a person. Or, to be exact, a person amongst boys. He’s now 29, however his YouTube movies enchantment to many boys aged 11 or youthful. Around the globe, some boys really feel confused and unsure about what they need to be aspiring to. To a bit of his 24mn YouTube subscribers, KSI is inevitably a task mannequin.
KSI’s struggle was occurring a number of weeks after Tate had been arrested in Romania, on expenses of organised crime, human trafficking and rape, which he denies. Tate had been the worst sort of function mannequin, a poster boy for poisonous masculinity. “Masculine life is battle,” he stated. “As a person you need to outcompete the opposite males.” He tried to justify violence in opposition to ladies, labelling himself a misogynist and claiming he was too wealthy to endure any penalties. His excessive message has resonated with some boys, maybe particularly those that felt that society frowned on masculinity, and by extension, themselves.
At Wembley, the gang was largely youngsters and younger males, a technology introduced up on KSI. There have been youthful youngsters there with their dad and mom too, one other technology lining as much as be influenced. A Tate impersonator was there — black T-shirt, darkish glasses, trimmed beard — and folks queued for selfies with him, presumably with various levels of irony.
KSI isn’t Tate, neither is he fairly the anti-Tate: on-line he has mocked him, with out instantly repudiating him. KSI’s model of masculinity is extra benign. The boys watching him at Wembley, and each evening on YouTube and TikTok, are imbibing an ethic of bodily health, competitors and infinite pranks.
However KSI isn’t with out baggage. When he was youthful, he made a collection of what he known as “Rape Face” movies, mimicking the facial expressions he imagined rapists may make. He stated intentionally stunning issues to strangers. In a single video from a 2012 gamer conference, he requested a lady the place her breasts have been, including “I can’t see them.” He later apologised and eliminated the related movies. Then this week in a video, trying humour, he used a racial slur for Pakistanis. Once more he apologised, saying he would take a break from social media.
After Tate’s arrest, I had wished to grasp what messages influencers have been pitching to younger boys, as they pursued web stardom, clicks and likes. What tales have been they telling about being a person within the twenty first century — and the way may that form boys’ lives and relationships?
I grew up earlier than the web was a factor. My influencers got here on printed pages. Loaded journal launched within the UK in 1994, once I was 11, with the strapline “For males who ought to know higher”. FHM (For Him Journal) relaunched that very same 12 months, saying: “It’s a man factor”.
To my technology, these magazines got here as shut as something to suggesting what it meant to be a person. Loaded “captured the truth of what males have been like after we have been collectively”, its first editor James Brown tells me. Its ethos was summed up by the comic Frank Skinner, who informed the sixth problem: “I’ve by no means gone together with all this new man bollocks . . . I feel you may speak overtly about how a lot you want a lady’s tits with out being sexist.”
Loaded had some gonzo journalism, and took as a lot curiosity in music and soccer as intercourse. FHM was much less formidable, specialising in lists of the world’s sexiest ladies and a choice of crude jokes. (Pattern FHM gag: “What do you get whenever you cross [a named female celebrity] with a gorilla? Don’t know. There’s solely a lot you may pressure a gorilla to do.”) Publishers quickly realised that covers of near-naked fashions bought finest. Each lads’ magazine plastered them on each version. In 2000, they bought multiple million copies a month within the UK.
By the point millennials have been 30, the zeitgeist had modified. Lads’ mags’ gross sales collapsed. Supermarkets refused to inventory them. The entire style slid into the bin. Skinner stated he regretted his sexist and homophobic jokes. It felt like progress. The arc of historical past appeared to be bending in direction of a masculinity that didn’t objectify ladies, and that didn’t see women and men as so separate.
Then got here YouTube and TikTok. A whole trade sprung up through which people might broadcast their lives and concepts to a world viewers and make tens of millions. Algorithms typically promoted excessive and outrageous content material as a result of it stored viewers watching and commenting. The outcome was chaotic. Alongside the rise of utmost pornography on-line, the recognition of misogynistic influencers has undermined the concept society had made any progress in any respect. Tate, movies of whom have been watched billions of occasions on TikTok, argued that girls are their husbands’ property, that despair isn’t actual, that males should be wealthy, that rape victims bear some accountability for being attacked. The shock wasn’t that he exists — some individuals will at all times maintain excessive views — however that he has reached a big, younger viewers who’ve lapped up his message with out their dad and mom even noticing.
Maybe the lads’ mags ethos hadn’t light; it had simply moved on-line, fragmented and mutated. A secondary college trainer I spoke to drew the excellence: we grew up with informal sexism; what exists now’s pseudo-intellectualised sexism. Tate doesn’t make lazy jokes about ladies drivers or obese ladies; he preaches in regards to the innate superiority of males and the virtues of bodily health. And he is probably not a blip. In surveys of male attitudes masking 16 nations by the marketing campaign group Equimundo, younger males typically voiced extra conservative views than older generations. “The pattern is backward,” says Equimundo’s president, Gary Barker.
The time period poisonous masculinity was coined within the Eighties by a psychology professor, Shepherd Bliss. Bliss was a part of the “mythopoetic” males’s motion, which apprehensive that society was more and more feminised and that extra fathers have been absent from the house resulting from adjustments relationship again to the Industrial Revolution. In consequence, many younger males had no likelihood to look at and specific regular male feelings and have been leaping to violent demonstrations of masculinity. Bliss selected a medical time period as a result of, “like each illness, poisonous masculinity has an antidote”. The antidote was for males to return collectively in nature with out ladies current — performing rituals, enjoying music, operating round bare and, ahem, farting freely. Robert Bly, a number one mythopoetic determine and writer of the shock 1990 bestseller Iron John, believed some males have been violent as a result of they have been suppressing their feelings, notably anger and disgrace, and that the enforced quiet of recent company tradition was partly guilty. “Many males numb themselves in order that they’re not expressive. In case you’re too expressive in IBM, you get fired,” he stated.
The mythopoetic method was mocked by some, seen as a pushback in opposition to ladies’s rights. However the time period poisonous masculinity mushroomed after 2015, and the perception that males ought to grow to be extra snug with their feelings is extensively shared. The feminist author bell hooks had argued that males’s first act of violence was self-harm: “Patriarchy calls for [that] they kill off the emotional components of themselves.” A 2019 report into youth violence in Better Manchester discovered that younger males have been “utilizing a script about changing into a person that claims: ‘Don’t specific any feelings however aggression’, ‘reject something female’ and ‘see retaliation as a energy’”. Social media intensified expectations and conflicts. Earlier generations “might go dwelling and loosen up and never need to carry out. The best way social media works, you’re having to carry out 24/7,” says Henry Stratford, the report’s writer. With the arrival of smartphones, the strain on boys to carry out a macho model of manhood was beginning youthful, on the age of 10 or 11.
A greater masculinity would begin with males having the ability to specific their feelings truthfully. Terra Loire Gillespie, a Toronto-based digital strategist, has argued in opposition to overly simplistic media portrayals of males as both “Good Guys” or “Macho Males”, and prompt a 3rd choice: tender males. Traits of a young man embody: “Does he specific his feelings in a wholesome means?” and “Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for example, can he specific affection for male associates with out making a homosexual joke?” The thinker Alain de Botton argues that, as an alternative of celebrating “cool” males with a Humphrey Bogart-esque aura of invulnerability, we should always have fun males who’re “heat” and trustworthy about their very own anxiousness.
“The general public dialog has been ‘Andrew Tate is filling a vacuum, there are not any good male function fashions.’ I simply don’t suppose that’s true,” says Laura Bates, the founding father of the On a regular basis Sexism Undertaking and writer of Males Who Hate Ladies. She cites constructive examples within the England soccer staff, notably Marcus Rashford. “They’re speaking about social justice points. They’re speaking in regards to the beginning of their kids.”
However the battle for masculinity is being fought primarily on-line. Within the UK, 91 per cent of 11-year-olds have a cellphone. Boys aged seven to 16 say they spend greater than two hours a day on YouTube. Arthur, a London schoolboy, acquired his first smartphone aged 10. Now 13, he seems to be at it briefly very first thing, then on the bus and typically a bit at college (his college tries to limit pupils to the calendar app, however there are at all times journeys to the bathroom). Then he makes use of it on the bus dwelling, and extra within the night.
A number of kids that I spoke to stated they spent greater than 5 hours a day on their telephones, primarily on YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Social media accompanies homework, displaces assembly up with associates and delays sleep. In polls, kids say they belief influencers greater than newspapers, social media or celebrities with an offline declare to fame.
The preferred YouTuber on the planet is Jimmy Donaldson, a 24-year-old from Greenville, North Carolina, who goes by the identify of MrBeast. His foremost account has 139mn subscribers at time of writing — roughly equal to the populations of the UK and France mixed. Which is intriguing, as a result of MrBeast doesn’t seem like a typical TV star. In earlier eras, casting brokers would have baulked at his look, which is basically very regular. YouTube has allowed a distinct mannequin of man to shine.
MrBeast’s movies are sometimes absurd challenges, resembling competing to win a aircraft (“Final to Take Hand Off Jet, Retains It!”, 101mn views) or enjoying hide-and-seek for a $50,000 prize (128mn views). He’s huge on philanthropy. He paid for 1,000 partially blind individuals to have sight-restoring surgical procedure, and filmed their reactions. He gave one affected person $10,000, one other a Tesla.
MrBeast is so targeted on producing what goes viral — from the age of 11, he “obsessed over YouTube day by day for a decade” — that he appears to lack the willingness to articulate a lot about life past that. He does say that more cash doesn’t convey happiness, and that he reinvests or offers away the cash he makes.
However his movies underline the facility that cash offers you over others. One in all his most well-known movies (395mn views) recreated the dystopian TV present Squid Recreation, with pretend explosives hitting real-life contestants as they compete for $456,000. It’s not poisonous, but it doesn’t appear fully wholesome. The vanity of the content material means he’s a restricted function mannequin. “I really feel like there’s extra necessary stuff, otherwise you need there to be extra necessary stuff,” one 13-year-old boy who had stopped watching MrBeast informed me.
Even so, absurd challenges and pranks are a giant theme of profitable YouTubers. Beta Squad, a bunch of British YouTubers with 5.5mn subscribers, arrange a pretend McDonald’s drive-through. One in all them, Niko Omilana, ran for mayor of London in 2021, and completed fifth with practically 50,000 votes. Will Tennyson (1.8mn subscribers) specialises in health and meals stunts, resembling “I Spent 50 Hours Consuming World’s 100 Unhealthiest Meals” (quote from day two: “I need this video to finish.”) and Oliver Tree, who’s part-musician, part-comedian, constructed and crashed what he known as the world’s largest scooter.
A few of these stunts have exceptional manufacturing high quality. MrBeast stated his 25-minute Squid Recreation video price $3.5mn — as a lot as the most costly TV dramas. However the stunts additionally felt acquainted. They have been what lads’ mags have been attempting within the Nineteen Nineties. They plough the identical fertile floor that produced the MTV present Jackass. Masculinity appears neither higher nor worse, however unchanging. As former Loaded editor James Brown put it to me: “In case you return 2,000 years, there could be Romans pushing individuals down streets in procuring trolleys.”
Maybe the best-known YouTubers amongst British boys are the Sidemen, a bunch of seven which began in 2013. They did pretty predictable challenges — consuming 70,000 energy in 24 hours, and making parody variations of reveals like The Nice British Bake Off and Who Desires to Be a Millionaire?. Their star member, KSI, went additional. He began difficult different YouTubers, together with the American Logan Paul, to boxing matches. That led to the rolling circus I noticed at Wembley.
He has nearly at all times been charismatic and humorous. He can snort at himself in a means that Andrew Tate can not: he claims, for instance, to have misplaced a minimum of £2.5mn on the cryptocurrency luna. After Tate claimed to be a sufferer of “The Matrix”, KSI responded: “I simply suppose it’s cringey.” KSI has additionally opened up about his feelings. “Psychological well being is simply as necessary as bodily well being,” he tweeted in January 2022. He spoke in an Amazon documentary and to a YouTuber known as Physician Mike about how his dad and mom, who believed in corporal punishment, hit him and put strain on him to succeed.
However accumulating subscribers nonetheless appears to require a sure sort of performative self-centredness. In all his movies, KSI likes to speak himself up, and others down. The mythopoetic motion’s desires of co-operative brotherhood in nature might need been excessive, however the competitiveness of social media — a race for likes, shares and subscribers — is unrelenting.
Initially I used to be baffled that KSI would use a racist time period in a video, and that his fellow Sidemen would snort, and that nobody within the manufacturing staff would stop it from being revealed. However YouTube has rewarded the brashest and least-filtered people. Possibly that is the place that will get you. “I’m gonna mess up in life, and currently I’ve been messing up rather a lot,” stated KSI in his apology. One disenchanted fan informed me: “All will likely be forgotten on the subsequent struggle.”
The platform additionally promotes brash materialism. Laddishness was as soon as nearly nihilistic. The celebrities of Jackass skateboarded via plywood for the hell of it. The 1999 movie Combat Membership, an examination of recent masculinity and capitalism, was explicitly anti-commercial: “The stuff you personal, they find yourself proudly owning you,” stated Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden, decrying ads that make males “purchase shit they don’t want”. However YouTubers depend upon ads and product promotion. KSI’s smooth drink Prime is the epitome.
The frequent thread between Combat Membership and plenty of male influencers is preventing. Tate was a kick-boxing champion. Different YouTubers, like Logan Paul and Physician Mike, have boxed. Bodily energy isn’t just sport; it turns into a solution to settle disagreements. “In case you’re such an ‘alpha’ such as you’re [sic] daddy Tate, why not take a look at that alpha?” KSI informed Sneako, a YouTuber and Tate supporter, final 12 months. “Let’s us have a bit spar and see how manly you actually are in individual?”
That doesn’t sit effectively with everybody. “There’s this picture of an especially muscular man who is aware of the best way to struggle and bodily beat different males,” says Callum Hood, a researcher on the Middle for Countering Digital Hate in London. It’s “extraordinary” that “concepts of what a person is have grow to be tied to one thing so fundamental”.
Barker of Equimundo sees the emphasis on bodily energy as “double-edged”. Health is nice, “however the different facet is that it’s fear-based: ‘I want these huge biceps as a result of one thing is threatening me.’ You suppose that the world is coming to take one thing from you.”
Maybe bodily energy is extra engaging to boys, now that women have caught up in so many different realms. Both means, the deal with boxing highlights one thing else in YouTuber movies: how few ladies function. YouTubers are primarily blokes hanging out with blokes. One purpose is that many started in gaming, which is predominantly male. All of the Sidemen are males, as are the Beta Squad. MrBeast typically movies movies with associates; those I watched have been completely male. “I’ve by no means seen a bunch of ladies have a YouTube present,” a 12-year-old known as Rose informed me. Her buddy Flo added: “It’s what’s regular now. It’s so bizarre.”
The male YouTubers I watched wished girlfriends. What they didn’t do was level to any chance of friendship with ladies. YouTube had one way or the other accentuated an current social dynamic. “As a society, from a really younger age, we sexualise friendships between women and boys,” says Laura Bates. “If boys should not inspired to have wealthy, platonic friendships with ladies, it’s a lot simpler to ‘different’ ladies.”
Ladies do seem in a Sidemen strand of movies, known as Tinder in Actual Life, the place the YouTubers compete to impress numerous ladies, themselves typically influencers. What struck me watching these movies was simply how sexually express the Sidemen’s chat-up strains have been. (Among the movies include a disclaimer: “All feedback made are a joke . . . We don’t advocate speaking to ladies in a disrespectful method.”) Equally, Beta Squad’s Niko Omilana made a video the place he dared a lady to keep up the pretence that they have been relationship in entrance of her unsuspecting father. If the lady held out for a full hour, she would win £1,000. Omilana delighted in making up lies in regards to the girl’s sexual historical past.
Even mainstream male YouTubers appear to conceive of intercourse very in a different way from males within the Nineteen Nineties. Half of British 11- to 13-year-olds have seen porn, in line with the British Board of Movie Classification. And in YouTube movies, simply “banter” after all, the dynamics of porn are typically cemented. “Boys and younger males don’t need to be seen as misogynistic,” says Craig Haslop from the College of Liverpool, who has carried out analysis on masculinity in faculties. “However loads of boys don’t realise the jokes are normalising sexual and gender-based harassment.” For 13-year-old Arthur, Sidemen Tinder is “fairly humorous” and never sexist, as a result of “the ladies are prepared, laughing more often than not”.
I discovered one other pressure of male YouTuber — these targeted on self-improvement. It is a break from the lads’ magazine ethos. It attracts from the tech trade and quasi-religious spirituality. Take Lex Fridman, a former AI researcher at Google with a well-followed podcast. Fridman is into fight (Jiu-Jitsu). He’s sensible, assured and tasks monetary success. I might see his attraction for boys searching for course and standing. Fridman flirts with introspection. “Some days I really feel like a failure and I don’t know what I’m doing. At present is one such day,” he tweeted. “Possibly everybody feels that means typically. I simply need to say that I’m with you.” He talks about love and humility. He references novels and different cultural types outdoors YouTube itself.
However Fridman appeared a bit over-sympathetic to Tate, after his arrest. His listing of “issues confirmed to broaden lifespan”, revealed in 2020, included “have plenty of intercourse (350 orgasms a 12 months is perfect for males, TBD for ladies)”. I wasn’t certain that Fridman could possibly be the poster boy for wholesome masculinity.
YouTube has broadened what masculinity can imply. The Sidemen and Beta Squad are extra racially various than lads’ mags ever have been (which is one purpose that KSI’s racial slur this week was so stunning). They usually don’t promote cigarettes or lionise medicine. I additionally discovered indicators of a extra mature masculinity. A lot of YouTube’s first stars at the moment are of their late twenties and early thirties. Daniel Middleton, higher generally known as DanTDM, began posting gaming commentaries a decade in the past. He selected to be family-friendly, avoiding swearing and gory graphics. He cried when one in all his pugs died. After the beginning of his second youngster, he informed his followers he could be “taking a break”. His movies since have featured him caring for the youngsters. It is a step up from Sidemen Tinder.
Whereas many YouTubers venture a rose-tinted imaginative and prescient of enjoyable and recognition, Middleton tries to be clear in regards to the actuality. This 12 months he decried the grind of manufacturing common movies and introduced he was “retiring from the YouTube mindset”, in order that he might spend extra time along with his household and on his different passions. “I began to go down the rabbit gap of constructing stuff the algorithm likes, nevertheless it’s not enjoyable that means. It’s far more enjoyable to do what you need,” he informed me. “I’m hoping that via the issues that I need to do outdoors of gaming — like music and drawing — I can encourage different individuals to strive these issues out and get them away from screens for a bit.”
One other YouTuber father, CinnamonToastKen, has 4.6mn subscribers and posts movies the place he commentates on different movies. I watched him mocking a TikToker for consuming a uncooked bull’s testicle. I watched him and PewDiePie (a not-uncontroversial Swedish YouTuber) mocking pick-up artists for attempting to talk up ladies. And I watched him criticise the ridiculous new US actuality TV present MILF Manor, below the headline “MILF Manor Has Made Me Lose All Hope For Humanity”. It was humorous and understanding, with out being misogynistic or merciless.
Greater than MrBeast, greater than KSI’s pranks and boxing, this felt like a masculinity that I’d need boys to aspire to. However would they discover it? Once I typed “the best way to be a person” into YouTube’s search bar, I acquired outcomes for Tate and for the feminism-sceptic psychologist Jordan Peterson. On TikTok, the primary outcome was a monologue by an American health entrepreneur that began speaking about males needing to be suppliers and ended with a reference to their “justifiable violence”. The second outcome was Tate.
I went to the British Library and summoned from the archives some copies of lads’ mags from the Nineteen Nineties. They have been each higher and worse than I remembered. Early editions of Loaded actually did have first rate journalistic articles. The nudity was fixed (“Ladies: in color, bare once more”; “Arses: an appreciation”), nevertheless it was not hardcore. A listing of 20 books you need to learn earlier than you’re 30 contained no titles by ladies, however a minimum of it contained Nick Hornby and Tom Wolfe.
I felt embarrassed studying Loaded and FHM in a public place. However I additionally felt relieved. These have been simply magazines. It wouldn’t have been doable to take them too severely. As a young person, I learn them for possibly a number of hours a month, however they weren’t my entire life. As Laura Bates places it: “In case you learn a lad magazine, you didn’t have somebody ready so that you can flip the final web page, and thrusting one thing extra excessive into your arms.”
YouTube and TikTok are totally different. The expertise is immersive, hour after hour of content material, each evening. In Britain, kids aged between 12 and 15 say that they spend extra time on social media than with their associates. One boy informed me of Tate: “I really feel like a few of his stuff is absolutely useful. Among the stuff he says is dangerous. It’s a separate half, that’s how I see it.” However the algorithm received’t make that distinction: it is going to preserve serving up Tate movies, and possibly you’ll begin agreeing with them. The influencers know that provocation boosts numbers. The algorithm pushes boys to comparable, and sometimes extra excessive, content material. As a boy, I learnt to separate Eminem the musician from Eminem the individual. I wouldn’t have fancied my probabilities of making that distinction had I been watching Eminem speaking on YouTube each night.
I got here to see the issue not as particular person YouTubers overstepping the mark, however as YouTube itself. Any group of 12-year-old boys anyplace on the planet is prone to fall into scatological, borderline sexist, probably homophobic chatter, argues Equimundo’s Gary Barker. “That, in itself, isn’t a nasty factor.” In these edgy conversations, boys watch, work out the place the boundaries lie, and get offensive views out of their system. “The problem is when our on-line lives grow to be a lot of our time,” Barker provides. “Appearing out to understand how to not act turns into our everlasting means of being.” As a substitute of getting their prejudices and assumptions questioned, boys have them confirmed.
Katharine Birbalsingh, the famously strict founding father of London’s Michaela Group College, a stone’s throw from Wembley Area, has little hope that constructive male function fashions will emerge on YouTube: “Individuals well-known within the media are by definition most likely not nice function fashions.” She factors as an alternative to male lecturers. However in England and the US, solely 1 / 4 of lecturers are male. One quarter of English faculties would not have a male classroom trainer.
Specialists urge faculties and oldsters to take a non-judgmental method. “It is a dialog that requires performing a bit like an anthropologist,” says Barker. “Ask genuinely open-ended questions, don’t cross judgment, and don’t intrude — at first.” His organisation has put collectively a listing of recommendations on the best way to speak to youngsters about radical influencers. It recommends dad and mom don’t preach or censor, however as an alternative ask what their youngsters like and don’t like a couple of explicit character. Begin with open questions — resembling “How does listening to them make you’re feeling?”. After constructing belief, you may dig deeper: “Do you suppose the ladies in your life could be harm by that viewpoint?” Dad and mom may also speak to kids in regards to the nature of social media, about the truth that photos and movies are closely staged and produced. Typically the message comes finest from older friends. Better Manchester’s “Social Change” programme trains boys from Yr 10 (aged 14 and 15) to run periods with Yr 7s (aged 11 and 12), with the message that males could be emotional and don’t must deal with ladies as inferior.
Embracing flawed function fashions is a part of rising up. Boys do know that YouTube isn’t fairly actual. However it appeared to me that the longer they spend in a web-based world the place they’re siloed away from adults, away from women, and away from boys who’re homosexual or gender-fluid, the tougher it turns into to query. In actual life, “among the strongest voices are women — boys being confronted by women,” says Barker. On YouTube, the prevailing masculinity must be challenged. As a substitute, boys typically simply hear the echo of their very own voices.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief options author
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