Vague Patch Notes: Anonymity is not why people are awful online

    
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For SOME REASON

One of the intentions of the Vague Patch Notes column is to have a place to share things that we’re going to need to reference again in the future. It gets a bit silly to have to constantly re-explain some things, and it’s good to just have a single point to link back when explaining why, say, the social penalty for PvP never works, why sunsetting doesn’t mean a game was bad, or why Kickstarters are problematic. And as it has come up in our comments and work chat several times in the past few months, in part because of toxic behavior in Fortnite and the impact of regulation in China, it seems like a good time for a fresh discussion on why abolishing anonymity isn’t actually going to make people not be awful monsters online.

This is something that I’ve touched upon before elsewhere, but the short version here is that we already know anonymity itself is not the thing that leads people to be horrid monsters online. It’s related, in part, but it’s not the root cause, and trying to fix things by removing the ability to be anonymous is actually a slippery slope down a much worse incline than the one you’re trying to solve. Most of the people making the suggestion have nothing but good intentions designed to ensure that jerks online no longer have a wall to hide behind, but it’s a road that leads to marginalized people being more exposed and the jerks being largely unaffected.

So let’s start by looking at something that we unfortunately need to consider whenever we discuss toxicity: Facebook. Facebook is terrible. There’s a reason that “your racist family members on Facebook” has become a ubiquitous cultural touchstone rather than just something some people have to deal with. Many of us have at least one relative or personal contact who has been deeply offensive or terrible on Facebook by this point.

You may be aware that Facebook requires you to not be anonymous, and while it is possible to circumvent the system, most of the people in question are quite willing to attach all of this nonsense to their real names. Exampleman Q. Fakenamington is perfectly happy to let everyone know that Exampleman Q. Fakenamington doesn’t trust immigrants or science without a trace of anonymity.

The reason for this is something that probably has a lot of complex psychology you could use to analyze the problem, but the simple version seems to be fairly straightforward. These are not people who need to be anonymous; rather, from their perspective, their targets are functionally anonymous. They don’t see people they’re attacking as being real people. And given the existing problems with explaining to Exampleman Q. Fakenamington that you’re gay the next time he starts in on one of his anti-homosexual rants, you’re probably more inclined to ignore him than argue with him.

CAKE

Of course, most people who have a genuine desire to fix these problems are also cognizant of the fact that just removing anonymity is not in and of itself enough to fix the problem. It’s seen as more “step one” than “the only trick.” No, usually this ties in with the idea that you need to tie some kind of consequences to being a turdwaffle in with that lack of anonymity.

And it’s not entirely wrong. After all, people are a lot less likely to be utter fecal disasters in games where there is an expectation that being terrible has consequences. In Final Fantasy XIV, even if someone is terrible at the game, there are going to be consequences for suggesting that they play chicken with a stationary industrial fan; in World of Warcraft, there’s no expectation of swift or fair moderation, so people are more likely to just say these things.

Here’s the thing, though. Let’s say that I’m reported for suggesting that someone’s appearance suggests a heritage unusually rich in simian ancestry. What if I said that in response to someone shouting about how trans people don’t deserve rights? Should the consequences be different if that were my motivation as opposed to criticizing someone’s play style as a Warrior? Who decides that? If that should result in lesser consequences, how do you prove that the insult was tied to genuine offense instead of concern trolling?

I realize it might sound like I’m just asking questions about how one chooses to moderate a game, and that is accurate as far as it goes. This is a complicated question. But the point I’m making is also that it is genuinely complicated, and just saying “there should be consequences” implies a central authority that can make the call over what those consequences should be and enforce them universally.

Do I really need to make it clear that such central authorities can have their own agendas and desires which may not always align with those of the people who suggest these solutions? Like, I hate to put too fine a point on it, but this is literally the premise of an episode of Black Mirror in which the point was “this is a terrible idea and would lead to really dysfunctional human dynamics and behavioral incentives.”

Or you could look at China’s whole social credit system, which sounds in theory like what these people are advocating for and in practice is a pretty horrifying tool for party control over social interaction. (Read up on Xu Xiaodong, for example; love him or hate him, it’s clear that his social credit score has been messed with for espousing views China’s government dislikes.)

Ladies.

This isn’t even a new concept in the MMO space. We all remember the RealID fiasco, right? For those of you who don’t, the short version was that Blizzard wanted to ensure that posting on the WoW forums required you linking your real name and identity to anything that you said on the forums, disregarding the fact that there were people who had aspects of their lives in-game they did not necessarily want to broadcast to the whole world. Yes, it’d be nice to know that Exampleman Q. Fakenamington (what is this dude’s deal) is part of a guild called Racial Epithets Are Good Actually, but it’s kind of harmful when it turns out that another gamer is actually a trans man living in a regressive area where he can’t be open with his identity, and now he’s either exposed or driven from the game or both.

After immense amount of public backlash, Blizzard backed down and abandoned RealID, which was honestly always a terrible idea. Again, the problem that the company was attempting to solve wasn’t actually that the players were anonymous but that people saying and doing awful things saw their targets as anonymous. And attaching a real name doesn’t change actually that. If you can’t care about someone’s feelings attached to a name like Grignr or Moondancer, you aren’t going to care when it’s Firstname Lastname either

It’s not that the core idea here is wrong. Facing some sort of deterring consequences for being an awful person is, ideally, what we all want. The goal of every enforcement system is to catch the people who terrible to others. The problem comes with the idea of creating some unbiased third-party arbitration group that keeps a perfect watch over who deserves consequences and has the authority to enforce them.

This is something that even supposedly neutral moderation teams in games can’t manage. (It was just this week that MechWarrior Online’s mod teams messed up and banned someone for saying “trans rights.”) And trusting another outside authority with more power is just asking for trouble and inviting it for a lot of people who deserve anonymity… while not even slowing down the people who never cared about it to begin with.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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AGx-07_162

Disagree. Anonymity is why people are awful online, just not all people. There are some who are just horrible people in general and you can likely find evidence of that in their real lives but the ones that aren’t but act that way online do so because of the anonymity. These are not the people who are out there being Karen’s but are instead mommy’s little boy who wouldn’t say a fraction of the things he says online to anyone outside of his circle of friends for laughs. They ONLY act that way because they are anonymous and see no repercussions. Awful people are gonna be awful but it’s literally the anonymity that makes the ones who only act like that online act that way.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

Eliot hits on a key point when saying the targets being anonymous is the real issue. Dehumanizing someone is the first step down that path. We’ve been doing it for centuries. There hasn’t been a war where we didn’t refer to the enemy by some racial epitaph. It makes it easier to kill them, rather than thinking they are just another living being trying to get by in life, just like us.

Tribalism plays a big part in that too. It’s easy to hate someone different than us when we don’t think of them as human. The anonymity of the Internet has only made it easier to do so when we only have a computer screen to stare at instead of a face. And when we have prominent leaders feed into that, it brings us to where we are today, on the brink of self-destructing as a society.

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Ben Stone

The thing is, people aren’t just awful online, people are generally just awful these days. People generally avoid conflict IRL, but are emboldened online. So you get to see those people on full display in online forums, whereas you would only just hear the snide comments or awful half hearted jokes in person.

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Armsman

Yes, but when they are anonymous (and some decide not to be when doing things like using their real names on Twitter/Facebook – and if/when they post truly awful things/comments can be taken to task by their Employers, etc. directluy); some people really take that awfulness up by an order of magnitude.

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Patreon Donor
Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

Jane who has a two year old invites Tom over who also has a two year old. Tom’s two year old sees Jane’s two year old playing with a ball. Tom’s two year old takes it. Jane’s two year old cries. Tom the tells his two year old to give the ball back because Jane’s two year old was playing with it. His two year old does so. Jane’s two year old stops crying.

I’ve never personally seen a child have to be taught to take something. I’ve seen plenty of children be taught that taking something isn’t the way things work.

Too many game makers are making games where you can have fun at other’s expense(take their ball). People have to be taught to be kind. Kindness isn’t the path of least resistance. If it were, two year olds wouldn’t need to be taught sharing.

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Robert Mann

Correct. The magic ingredient is and always has been consequence. Consequence can either mitigate via people choosing not to have that pain, or remove from future encounters via the consequences themselves, the people who are problematic of their own volition.

Anonymity is merely one layer before consequence can be applied.

Doesn’t mean it cannot be some places, but in social spaces with people who want good behavior, you need to have somebody able to unleash the power of consequence, and therefore some level of anonymity is gone.

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Utakata

A few things come to mind and pigtails about this…

1) Facebook is likely the greatest doxing experiment made.

2) Most of us here who post here anonymously are not awful monsters.

3) There are some things I rather the internet public not know about myself for good reasons…

4) …and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one in this boat.

5) Anonymity should never be taken away because of bad apples.

6) Nor will it deal with bad apples by taking it way.

Yes, some thing where addressed in this article already. But are worth repeating for the clueless of mind and halfwit in empathy.

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Castagere Shaikura

It’s so funny to my friends what’s going on now. Not funny, funny but us sitting around talking about these social media sites are going to ruin the internet. This was way back before Myspace. I disagree about Anonymity not being a big part of this. But I don’t use social media apps. I deleted my Facebook account years ago The Twitter account I use is not even in my real name and is only used to follow games or news sites I like. It’s rare for me to log in to it. It’s been a long time since I’ve run into a toxic person. From what I hear it’s pretty bad out there now.

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styopa

Facebook is hardly the problem. At most, they might be a slight accelerant on the bonfire of our increasingly Balkanized, schismatic society. Personally, I’m rather curious why FB is the particular popular target: how are we not discussing Twitter in the exact same context. Instagram? Youtube?

“Facing some sort of deterring consequences for being an awful person is, ideally, what we all want.”
The problem is that people who believe their own personal moral code should apply to everyone without compromise are sociopathic narcissists.

Some might even observe that prescient political philosophers of the Enlightenment foresaw this choice themselves. When faced with the choice of Leviathan or anarchy, they constructed a middle course that bowed to the necessity of SOME authority for a society, but hedged it strongly round with stern limits on its authority. Too bad we have abandoned that idea.

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Hikari Kenzaki

All social media has the same problem. The reason Facebook is often singled out is a question of reach and spread.

Facebook has 2.89 billion users or slightly more than a third of the population of the entire planet. Compared to Twitter’s 200 million.

It’s a question of using your resources to be the most effective. Twitter is a good sample of the population, but Facebook effectively IS the population.

Youtube has 2 billion users but only a small percentage are creating/sharing content.

Instagram is largely considered part of Facebook at this time.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Facebook got brought up in this context, I think, because it already has rules in place saying you’re *supposed* to use your real name and image. (There’s ways around it, but most people don’t take the effort.) Twitter still allows you to make anonymous accounts, more or less. So in the context of “take away anonymity and no one can be a jerk,” Facebook is more relevant as a counter-example than twitter.

Does Twitter (Instagram/Whatsapp/Youtube) allow people to be jerks? yes, yes they do. They also allow people to still be anonymous jerks, so they aren’t relevant to addressing the falsehood of “Make everyone use their real name and no one can be a jerk.” Since the real problem isn’t being anonymous – Alex Jones is thrilled everytime someone says his name, because his public mask is that he *totally* believes all the bullshit that spews from his maw. (I suspect even he doesn’t believe all of it… but he’s more than happy to wring money from people who do.)

There’s also the “Microsoft Effect.” Facebook gets picked out as an example because it’s freaking HUGE. It’s a site that reaches clear around the planet, with hundreds of millions of users from literally *everywhere* that has any kind of reliable Internet access. Most of whom comply with the rules about using their real names. And it still doesn’t stop them from being awful. In fact, given how Facebook filters and recommends based on interests and associations, it probably amplifies the echo chamber. “Oh, I see you’re a psychotic Nazi. Allow us to suggest several groups you might be interested in joining!”

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Hikari Kenzaki

“Oh, I see you’re a psychotic Nazi. Allow us to suggest several groups you might be interested in joining!”

It’s not even that aggressive, though I think you know this and were just using an extreme example.

For those that don’t know, in the attempt to find similar likes and interests, it makes small connections that compound over time. After a few connections along the chain, you suddenly find yourself in a very loud minority who confirm your bias.
The upshot, if someone doesn’t come up for air and look outside their interests, it can radicalize someone pretty fast.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

“It’s not even that aggressive, though I think you know this and were just using an extreme example. “

Yes. Yes I was. I was trying to be amusing and aiming for something that sounded like Microsoft Clippy. I think I missed slightly. Oh well. Someday I shall discover the secret of this “humor” that people regard so highly. ^-^

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Bruno Brito

Microsoft Clippy.

Keep that abomination away please.

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Bryan Correll

Yeah, there is nothing amusing about Clippy.

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Ben Stone

“You are from a low socio-economic area, here let me fill your brain with anti-vax conspiracy theories because we think you probably couldn’t afford a robust education, lets cause some online drama and get extra clicks for advertising revenue.” – Facebook, probably.

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styopa

“Oh, I see you’re a psychotic Nazi. Allow us to suggest several groups you might be interested in joining!”
Completely agree (and I found your humor successful, fwiw).
However, that same engine might similarly say “you look like a lonely transgender teen, here’s a bunch of people that are in your similar situation” presumably connecting a formerly isolated individual with whole COMMUNITIES of like minded people that can help them be positive about themselves, no?

I just strongly react against people blaming SYSTEMS for people-things, particularly when I feel it’s a convenient proxy scapegoat for things that are vastly more complex.
Guns don’t kill people. People do.
FB algorithms alone aren’t to blame for toxic humans. Humans are.

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Bruno Brito

I just strongly react against people blaming SYSTEMS for people-things, particularly when I feel it’s a convenient proxy scapegoat for things that are vastly more complex.
Guns don’t kill people. People do.
FB algorithms alone aren’t to blame for toxic humans. Humans are.

While agreeing in concept, it’s way more complicated than that. Some systems potential for destruction is just too high.

Using your own example of guns: While guns don’t kill people by themselves ( which by the way, we’re almost getting there ), the fact of the matter is that a gun exists for a single purpose: Stopping power ( and i don’t mean stop as in self defence ). Guns are useless outside that single purpose, they can’t be used as tools, they’re cumbersome. Guns are not knives, they are not shovels, they can’t be used as anything but paperweight or as a reaping scythe.

Which is why countries with serious gun control will try their hardest to keep them from being popularized, because giving people a tool that serves for only ONE purpose, is a guarantee that it’ll be used for that.

The thing about FB and other social medias is how easily it can weaponize opinions and likes and dislikes into this huge ammount of metadata that is also sold for huge sums of cash to create net propaganda. FB keeps feeding into these fanatic frenzies because it’s easier for them to monetize to these particular groups. And they only get to regulate it when called for.

With guns, the solution is a bit more simpler, but i won’t get into it. With FB and algorithms and lack of moderation, it’s way more complicated, but honestly, considering that social medias make more money than god, i’m all for the governments around the world keeping the knife on Mark’s throat so he has to spend some of that ungodly fortune on providing a good service.

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styopa

I think there’s a raft of begged question in your arguments, personally.

Setting those aside, I think even using terms like ‘weaponized’ immediately (rhetorically usefully, if that’s what you’re going for) is slanting the entire discussion in an unjustified direction based on your-already-made decision of who is ‘worth’ promoting and who isn’t. (Not to mention just a soupcon of wealth-envy there at the end.)

Personally, I don’t feel comfortable judging about whose beliefs are worthy or not, whose associations are worthy or not.

To pick an easy one, to me, Flat Earthers are ignorant and their conversations completely valueless. I still wouldn’t BAN them from talking.

I think the moralist righteousness that motivates someone saying “We need to stop (white supremacists, climate deniers, etc) from organizing on Facebook!” is precisely the same as the moralist righteousness that would have fueled someone a handful of decades ago saying “We need to stop (minorities, feminists, homosexuals, etc) from organizing!”
While I obviously personally have feelings about these issues themselves, the idea of silencing people based on who I agree with is repugnant to me. It’s fundamentally undemocratic (and anti-Humanist, really).

We didn’t stop the KKK from having parades because letting nutters advertise their lunacy is USEFUL in a democracy.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know how to let “The Algorithm” connect someone isolated with communities that could help them without *also* dropping people who don’t need it into a hyper-echochamber. And yes, to a large extent the problem is people… but you can’t fix people. Someone who thinks Alex Jones shrieks nothing but truth is not someone who can be convinced by rational debate.

Given the population of Facebook, there’s going to have to be some level of reliance on automated tools and user reporting to catch the rotten spots. The latter of which, especially, isn’t going to work when the people occupying that space think that it’s everything BUT them that’s rotten.

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Bruno Brito

If anonimity was the sole reason for assholery, bullying wouldn’t exist in schools.

Anonimity is just another way to shield yourself from consequence, but reality is that having that shield is what allow people to completely forego the lines that impede them. Bullying happens in schools because schools are the first to try to solve the issue by de-escalation/blaming the victim/”school psychologists” instead of treating bullying as a crime, which it is. Because it lacks severe consequences, it just goes on and on. Which then, only stops at the moment that the victim does something extreme, and that’s not even a guarantee.

The same reason why a lot of the “bad apple cops” allow themselves to complete bust over the lines that should regulate their workflow, is because they’re shielded of consequence.

In the internet, having consequences to your actions is something extremely difficult, which is why people keep being assholes, but it’s not just cause anonimity. There are other factors. I mean, we live in a industry where companies keep pulling the same crap all over again because we vote with our wallet and keep giving them money, isn’t that the same behavior? Not holding anything accountable.

By the way, for everyone who thinks that you should have the right to say whatever you want: i’m highly sure there was a MOP thread where a gamer that was already known for swatting, swatted someone again even after he already had issues with the justice system.

I’ve also read this amazing thread on twitter about a black girl who was remembering how one of her white classmates cried and made a tantrum towards her and almost fucked her entire school year simply because of racism.

Words, tears and feelings can be weaponized easily. This is the world we live in, where everything is way more nuanced than we all think it is, and these blanket statements like “you should have freedom to say whatever you want” or the complete opposite are just the biggest load of horseshit that someone will ever hear.

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Dug From The Earth

The human race has not learned or adapted to social interaction properly without visual and physical queues.

Thats pretty much the sum of it.

Humans inherently rely on cause and effect. IE: I say or do something and see the result of it. Act toxic to someone, you see the reaction in the persons facial expression, which then creates a proper social mental note on if that action you took was “good” or “bad”.

Interacting virtually, without the visual queues, removes half of this element, creating a vastly broken social experience that results in extremes.

And, despite what many may think, being told “this is bad” and SEEING how something bad affects someone, WILL often result in a vastly different mindset to the person performing the act.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I owned a pair of pet rats for a while. When I was researching what kind of pet to get, everything I read said that “if you want your rat to stay sane, get at least two.” Rats are highly social animals. If they’re raised around people, they love interacting with people. But people are not rats, and they don’t “speak rat.” No matter how much attention you give them, they won’t get the feedback they need, and they won’t understand all the feedback they get. A solitary rat will start getting… weird.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with cats and dogs – I call it “only-kitten syndrome.” Such as a cat that wants to play, bats your hand, pounces on your finger… then *seriously* tries to bite your finger off. If they had grown up with another cat and gone too far, the cat would have smacked them upside the head, growled, hissed, folded back their ears, and basically said “Knock it off, you moron! That hurts!” Humans can’t do that, and mostly just make amusing squeaky toy noises. Right up until they go way to far, and the human reacts with aggression of their own.

Text is a terrible medium for conveying emotion. I can say something jokingly, and without the context of my tone of voice and sarcastic smirk, it doesn’t sound like a joke. It sounds like a deadly insult. We’ve created an environment were all but the most patient and/or verbally skilled are constantly suffering from “only-kitten syndrome.” Some people really do know they’re being jerks. Other people don’t mean to be jerks, and are honestly surprised when it’s taken that way. And there’s no way to even know which it was until after all the yelling stops.

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Dug From The Earth

Rats are great pets, have had probably close to 12 over the years (usually in groups of 2 or 3) Ive always been a firm supporter of never getting a solo pet too. Like you said, it makes a huge difference.

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Bruno Brito

I have 7 cats, do you guys want some?

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I like cats too. I just probably wouldn’t let the rats and the cats play together. That would be asking for tears.

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Bruno Brito

Rip and tears :^)

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Now you’re just being mean. ( OnO )

(Disclosure: Ratcatcher 2 is probably one of my favorite characters in a comic-book movie over the last couple of years.)

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Bruno Brito

I actually love rats and i can’t have a single weird small pet because my cats destroy everything that moves. Sadge.

But to be fair i don’t miss having other pets either. I have too many cats and i would like having 2 or 3 tops.

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Harbinger_Kyleran

Nope, happy with the four I already have.

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Bruno Brito

Nice.

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Morgan Filbert

You have seven cats Bruno? Why do you only show off the one? What’s wrong with those six other cats?

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Bruno Brito

Cuz Mimi is ungodly photogenic, so i’ll never change this picture. She’s older now, fluffier. But she’s fine. The others are way more reserved. Some still fear other humans.

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Morgan Filbert

Well you’re definitely right about the photogenic thing. Thanks for the run down.

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Bruno Brito

Here, enjoy a oldie of Antonia when she was younger <3

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