Very Fine Day #30: Hussein Kesvani
“Wherever there’s conflict, there’s content to be made out of it.”
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“For them, it’s very much like their identities and their reasons of existing online are primarily oppositional. So there are no incentives for them to get anything right. Because that would kind of go against everything that they stand for”.
HUSSEIN KESVANI is a writer, researcher, editor, reporter, and digital anthropologist. He currently lives in the UK and is studying the way religious groups create communities and identity online ( we get into that pretty early). Hussein has this ability to unpack the causes behind the confusion and anxiety that is so commonplace online, while also interrogating just what it means to be yourself in the digital world. This whole interview left me staring at a wall for a while afterwords, just trying to think a bit. Like I told Hussein, I know I’ve done a good interview when I’m already thinking about how I’ll be thinking about it while the interview is still going. I really enjoyed it, and I hope you do, too.
[NOTE]: This interview is two emails long. The second part is exclusive for paid subscribers. For the last week of Australian Winter, we’re doing 50% off!
VFD: Hey, thanks for doing this.
Hussein Kesvani: No, thank you for having me on.
VFD: When I first messaged you about this you said you had “academic stuff” that was taking up all of your time. What is that?
Hussein Kesvani: Oh, yeah. I'm doing a master's degree in digital anthropology at UCL. So that is a research masters. It's kind of a new field of anthropology, which is very much on the fringes of the profession, but it's trying to understand how communities form in digital space.
I guess the broader question is: what is a community in digital space? And that isn't just social media, but also the other areas of online. They both could be communities that share code, for example, they could be hackers, they can be local groups that use WhatsApp and now have this augmented experience of mutual aid.
It started off by looking at religious conversion rituals online, because I was really fascinated with a group of people that I found who were converting to Catholicism. They’d gone through the whole conversion process during the lockdown. So their entire process of conversion and education happened on the internet. And as I got into that I've also been looking at the narratives around anti-maternity and the whole traditional Catholic – or trad-Catholic subculture – that has been around for a while but is at a very interesting point at the moment. It has intersections with not only the alt-right but also aspects of the left who feel very disillusioned by postmodernism. They feel very disillusioned by liberalism, and how they define liberalism is very different. So I'm sort of looking at how digital space makes that a possibility, but also whether whatever conversion ritual that takes place on digital spaces are legitimate compared to one that takes place in an offline, religious institution, like a church.
VFD: How do you find that community – did you start your studies being like: I found this and I want to spend a lot of time unpacking it.
Hussein Kesvani: Kinda. I mean, it started in a really funny way. I used to work at Mel Magazine up until May, 2020. And during the lockdown it was very difficult to do the types of stories that I wanted to do. I found that I was doing a lot more internet culture stuff, because it was really the only place where I could find things. I did this story which I thought was a very distinctive, very funny, and slightly silly thing about bodybuilders who were drinking raw eggs. And I was really fascinated by why they were choosing raw eggs, because their thing was like: This isn’t just about health. This isn’t just a body hack. It’s also an ideological and political choice. Because we feel that the companies that make protein powders and creatine are junk. They were like: if you drink chocolate flavoured whey protein you’re a pussy. Like, in the Bronze Age they just ate raw animal protein and everything. So, if you want the classic physique, then you should be doing that.
When you investigate that further you realise that the ideological bent behind this is actually a lot more interesting than any of the health things that they suggest. I spoke to a few nutritionists and they were like: yeah, y’know, raw egg has some protein but the reason why you don’t drink it is so you don’t shit yourself.
VFD: Haha, yeah, right. Like: it doesn’t take long to cook an egg.
Hussein Kesvani: Exactly. Cooking them even just for a few seconds is probably better than drinking it raw. So the interesting stuff that was happening was the political ideology.
When I published the piece a few of them were getting mad at me and trying to dunk on me, calling me a soy boy and doing a meme of my face being like: you look this way because of protein deficiency.
But I was looking at the accounts that were talking about me and I found them really, really fascinating. This was also just nearing the post-Trump period where a lot of them had jumped on the Trump train in 2016 and then by 2018/19 had realised that they weren't going to get the political revolution that they signed up for.
Hussein Kesvani: So a lot of their posts were just filled with this sense of nihilism and this sense of trying to figure out what “trad values” were.
VFD: Sorta like a “Pleasantville” life?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah. The best way to describe it is “how to live in a painting from the 1950s, when the patriarchy was just fine and everyone just accepted it”, right? I found similarities with when the left – post-Brexit and Trump – were trying to figure out: how do we live now? Like: what type of society should we be fighting for? And is it even possible?
So I kept a list – a Twitter list – just following these accounts. A bunch of them got deleted after January 6 because Twitter was cracking down on Trump accounts. But I'd been keeping tabs on that list and with the vaccine stuff and the Qanon stuff it has been interesting to see how that's developed and where the intersections take place. I'm still trying to make sense of it.
I'm working on my thesis at the moment and I have interviewed maybe 12 people. I wish I did more, but a lot of them just won't speak to me, as you'd expect. So I'm trying to make sense of what's going on and I’m hoping that even post dissertation I might be able to turn it into something else further down the line.
VFD: How do you convince them to talk to you? I imagine most of them are in the US, right?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, mostly US. Some of them are in the UK. One of them is in Germany. It’s a mixture. Some of them are just very willing to talk. I've just got to tell them I'm not a journalist. I'm, like, a pseudo-academic and this will probably be read by six people if I'm really lucky. So this is entirely just for my benefit, but I would really like to learn more.
Often I find - especially internet subcultures - like to put on this veneer of being kind of exclusive and having this suspicion of outsiders. But I think for a lot of people – especially young people or young millennials who grew up on the internet – you really just have to show even a little bit of interest in what they're doing and they'll talk to you for a long time.
Hussein Kesvani: And also just don’t be overly dismissive. I think this is one problem with some journalists, especially when it comes to subcultures that have very distasteful elements and are things that we would not agree with or that we will sometimes think are actively dangerous: even if you think that, if you're going to speak to people in this group you kind of have to show that you're even vaguely interested.
So for me, it's just kind of like: I know the type of stuff you're talking about. I also know the underlying feelings. Even that basic understanding, you'd be surprised how many people would be receptive to you.
VFD: Yeah. What do you mean by underlying feelings?
Hussein Kesvani: A good example of this might be the whole incel thing that happened in the UK a couple weeks ago.
VFD: What’s that exactly?
Hussein Kesvani: So a couple of weeks ago a guy in seaside town called Plymouth went on a shooting rampage.
VFD: Oh, right. Yes.
Hussein Kesvani: He killed about five people and then his social media accounts had basically been talking about being an incel and taking the “black pill”. And he was part of various alt-right adjacent things. I think this was on his YouTube channel as well.
So immediately, a lot of discourse, a lot of the columns, and a lot of the writing around it was about the dangers of incels and how it should be treated as a terrorist group and stuff like that. And I found that really weird and frustrating, partly because designating something as a “terrorist group” can have really big societal implications in terms of how people are surveilled and watched and who gets targeted with surveillance infrastructure. And that tends to be people of colour, or mostly poor people of colour. And this was something that I feel is constantly, actively, ignored – despite how much evidence there is to suggest it’s the case.
The second thing was that it also showed a real lack of understanding of what an internet subculture is, and how you can't just designate it as a “thing” because of the nature of how groups form online and the fluidity of identity. Even in these types of red pill, manosphere groups, a lot of it comes from people who come to these groups from this place of vulnerability and frustration and nihilism. They have a distrust of institutions. Things that are actually very universalised. And then the way that they interact online may become a lot more of a dependent pathway. That's what I'm trying to say: the kind of feelings that people have on the internet when they're that type of person that enters the internet is very universal. This sense of isolation. And the sense of confusion. It’s something that I think all of us who have spent a lot of time online are familiar with.
Hussein Kesvani: Even when I'm doing my research right now, I see similar things. You’ve got these young, often men, who convert to Catholicism. And they’re really just searching for religion. The reason why they’re searching for religion is because they don't feel that politics really has answers. And they feel like they have also been left behind by society. They're feeling the brunt of this weird economy that we all feel the brunt of.
So their feelings are very similar in the choices that we make, or choices that certain people make, becoming a centre point.
And I don’t know if that makes sense because it’s something that I think about a lot and get really frustrated with, because there’s no universalized theory behind it, and there’s no dilution of it.
Internet policing isn’t great anyway, and there aren’t really a lot of reporters who do quite serious internet reporting. So when something like this happens, I don't think they really understand what's going on. And then there's this framing where everything that happens online is “dangerous”, and it should be treated with suspicion, and therefore the solution is rooted in additive policing. It's how we get to the situation where we don't understand what's happening.
We don't understand what online means for a lot of young people in particular, and whatever kind of universal effect, like feelings, impacts how they drive the particulars of content and also how certain communities form. And as a result, you just end up with a very distorted view of what's going on. It’s very frustrating, because you can shout at them as much as you want and very little every changes.
VFD: Yeah, it doesn't help that we have a whole media production line built around headlines. It would have been like: “Young British Man Found To Be INCEL In Mass Shooting Event”. Like, that’s the takeaway. That’s the headline. And once that starts doing the rounds it just gets republished on dozens of outlets all across the world.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, right. I would imagine that in America it's a little bit better, just because there are more people working on the beat. There's a whole community of internet reporters and internet researchers. When I was in New York, in 2019, I went to one of these meetups to meet with people who study this stuff and who really have a very deep understanding. And that just made me realise how absent that is in a lot of Britain.
VFD: Australia is the same in a lot of ways.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah I can imagine.
VFD: So what was your internet footprint? How did you get your chops in the internet and become a super sleuth subculture expert? Were you a 4chan guy?
Hussein Kesvani: When I was younger, I definitely was a 4chan guy in the sense that I was a very big lurker and maybe did a couple posts on /b/ when /b/ was great.
This must have been when I was 14-years-old or something like that. But I was mostly a lurker. My primary way of getting into internet culture was really just anime. There’s this channel in the UK called Toonami and they used to play “Dragonball Z” and “Ninja Scroll” and just lots of anime after hours. And I always felt very cool by watching it because none of my friends did. They were just, y’know, living their normal lives. So I was looking to download bootleg anime and that was how I found various forums. And it was the various flash game websites as well where people would make their own animations and everything. That was really, really fun.
The main forum that I really liked going on was called Temple Of The Screaming Electron: TOTSE. And they used to have this very interesting forum which was all about technology and hacking and stuff. But they would also have guides to vices like drugs, violence, all that stuff. The more nefarious elements of the internet, before the dark web, or at least before the mainstreaming of the dark web. It was very much rooted in that.
I used to spend a lot of time on that because it just felt very cool and different and very removed from the quiet suburban way of living that I had for most of my childhood.
I don't think I’m an “internet person” in the sense that I have a comprehensive knowledge of moments in time in the way that someone like Ryan Broderick might. I’m always fascinated by that whenever I read [his newsletter] Garbage Day. But I just used to spend a lot of time online, because I did live in the suburbs and I really wasn’t allowed to go out much because my family ran a business and I would have to around to work. So going online was really a way of simulating a social life that I couldn’t really access in any other material way.
VFD: Where did you grow up? In London?
Hussein Kesvani: So I just grew up outside of London, I grew up in this place called Dartford, in Kent, which is just outside. And my parents owned a grocery store in Southeast London and I worked there for most of my life and spent a lot of time on the internet, out in the back office when I wasn’t working. That’s how I spent a lot of my time.
And then when I went to university I started writing for the student newspaper. And that was just a way for me to bring up my extracurriculars because I was trying to just get a normal corporate job as a management consultant, or something.
VFD: That’s always very fun.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah. Well, I thought I liked strategy consulting and I didn’t really know why. It was very much about wearing a suit and going to an office. I was like: fine, maybe this is what is destined for me.
But I just found that I really enjoyed writing for the student newspaper, and I really enjoyed trying to synthesise the things that were happening on campus.
I was very interested, for example, in social hierarchy and how it manifested in this university I went to. It’s a very, very British thing. The reason I say it’s a very British thing is because the university I went to – which was called the University of York – is deemed one of those colleges that people who aren’t able to get into Oxford or Cambridge end up going to. And they end up really resenting not having gone to Oxford or Cambridge so they try to simulate the Oxford/Cambridge experience in these other universities. And often that means just trying to amplify its worst elements. So I wrote some really fun stories about student societies. We had one that was trying to emulate itself around the Bullingdon Club, which is this elite secret society at Oxford. The one Boris Johnson was part of. They’re basically just posh private school kids who get drunk and go to restaurants and smash them up. All that stuff.
Except the one in York couldn’t do this, because obviously they cared too much about their careers and their livelihoods. So you end up having this group of private school kids who still really resent not going to Oxford or Cambridge but who dress up in waistcoats and bowties and do Scottish dancing. But it’s still an exclusive club. It just felt very cheesy and a bit corny to me, and I always found it very funny. I was really fascinated in how the social hierarchy is created, even back then, and how the internet kind of influenced that through the notion of exclusivity.
I guess when I think about it now that’s the thing that has really driven a lot of my work: even as a journalist when I was covering other areas – whether that was politics or religion, I was always thinking about how do platforms, and how does the internet, influence the way that people organise themselves and see themselves within an hierarchical structure. Especially because online is supposed to be this place where hierarchy doesn’t exist. Or at least where you can transcend hierarchy.
Even with my research now, with some of the people I’m interviewing for my thesis, I’m thinking about this and how a lot of them talk about looking for stability and order and they’re just trying to find that in online communities, which is fascinating because it’s completely antithetical to what “online” was supposed to be.
VFD: Do you find that when you talk to these guys – I shouldn’t say guys, it could be girls – but when you talk to these people do you find that, well, I imagine it could go along the lines of a therapy session. They could be unpacking in their own minds why they’re doing what they’re doing and then they say it out loud to you and realise: Oh, shit. This is different.
Hussein Kesvani: Y’know, I don’t think I’m that good of an interviewer. The thing that I found is that – and I don’t know whether this happened to you or not – but I find that whenever I speak to people from the point of view of: You are part of an online group, or: You are part of an online community that I’m interested in, their very human persona comes out in very subtle and very small ways.
For the most part, from my experience, they've been very guarded about their motivations and stuff like that. Even for conversations that have been one or two hours long where you’re asking them sidebar questions, they’re still very guarded in terms of not giving out personal information. Because again, a lot of these people are very well-versed in internet culture anyway. So it’s not the case that they ever forget who they’re talking to. Even when you try to find out anything personal about them they’ll avoid it.
Instead, I’ll just be listening to them go on these rants about the decadent society we live in and the degradation of the world due to modernity, and post-modernism, and all that stuff. It sometimes feels like I come into this bizarre forum where people are just yelling at me about their vision of the world.
And I try to deduce from that: OK, this is why you go online. It’s because you’re trying to figure out and simulate what a world might look like without these problems that you’ve identified. But because these problems are so abstract and inherently ideological you’re never going to be able to resolve them, right? And the cycle just continues.
So it has been very interesting to look at what happens when someone loses themselves entirely to the mechanics of online, where they can’t even identify how to fix problems they think they have because it’s wedded to being part of this online community. A good example of this is actually what happens when an incel gets a girlfriend, or finally gets a partner or something. And like: what’s the point of being a part of an incel community after that?
I found something on Reddit a long time ago and I hate that I forgot to save it. But it was this incel subreddit which I think is now deleted. They were having a go at this guy because they weren’t convinced that he was actually an incel. He had been on this incel forum for a long time but had recently found a girlfriend and was like: I still want to hang out with you guys.
And they’re like: no, you can’t be here, because you’re not an incel anymore. You found someone who thinks you’re attractive so you can’t be an incel. And there was this whole discourse around whether you could still be part of this community that you were part of for a very long time if you all of a sudden resolve the ideological problem that they’ve identified and said is unsolvable.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. That’s so funny.
Hussein Kesvani: It sucks that I forgot to save it because it was so good.
VFD: I can imagine it going viral super quickly.
Hussein Kesvani: Well, I don’t know if anyone else saw it or if any of your readers saw it, but I would love to find it.
VFD: OK. Yeah. We’re looking for the incel who has fallen in love, folks. That’s the story. Anyone got it, send it my way.
When did you transition your degree into communications, or was it journalism?
Hussein Kesvani: Oh, no, so when I went to university I was studying history. I did a degree in history. The idea being that after I finished that I would go to law school and then become a lawyer or work in professional services like a consultant. But when I decided I wanted to be a journalist…
York is a university that produces a lot of journalists in the UK. We have a campus with a lot of newspapers and there are a lot of British journalists who go to York because you can work for six different magazines and stuff like that. Most people when they graduate go do their Masters degree at City Journalism School, which is sort of like Columbia if you live in England, with Columbia-style fees, too. It’s a very expensive school.
So I got into City but I couldn’t afford to go. And after I graduated I did this very short course in newspaper journalism, which was basically a four-month course in how not to get sued for libel and how to do basic shorthand so you can report in court and stuff like that. So I did four months in a local technical college there and then I got very lucky after I finished and got an entry-level job with a trade magazine. And the trade magazine was all about the grocery industry, so I was very lucky because I’d worked in grocers my entire like and I understood the level of the business and what needed to be done.
I worked there for a bit and then I did some local TV. Then I worked at Ruptly, which I didn’t know until after I joined was an arm of Russia Today. Like a wire service. And I had been set up in the UK and had no idea, I was just looking for a job with a salary, and for six months I was like: Oh, shit, now I’m in this weird ideological political front. And I joined a month before Russia invaded Ukraine so all of a sudden I was just like: Fuck, I really need to get out of here.
And then, very luckily, BuzzFeed was hiring in the UK, and I was like: I will literally do whatever you want me to do. This was when Luke Lewis was running BuzzFeed UK. So I was very lucky and he saw that I needed to get out of Ruptly somehow and he gave me a job. And that’s how I started at BuzzFeed.
VFD: I hope the transcription reflect how quickly you went to explain your time working for a pro-Russian media empire.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, I’m mostly used to it now. Because I didn’t know before that the place was a little dodgy. But when I was there it’s like: OK, this place is a little dodgy, I’ve worked in dodgy places and weird places and it’s fine. And then the invasion happened and it was just like: oh, shit, I don’t know if I can justify this in the future and just say I didn’t do the research. I just applied because they were looking for entry-level people. But it’s something I’m used to now. Like: look, this happened. It’s on my resume. However, even though I learned lots of very good technical skills I did not agree with anything that happened. Please don’t ask me any more questions. Hahah.
But yeah, BuzzFeed I found to be very stressful. I was working on the religion beat and you had eras while working, at least in the UK, where it was very difficult to discern what the objectives of the news desk were and what we were trying to do.
VFD: Yeah. And the leaderboard is public and you’re watching all the other international outlets go nuts and you’re just trying to find your spot…
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah. It’s also just a lot of pressure as well that came with being this young outlet that was constantly trying to prove itself, right? So I found that at times it was very difficult to focus on my work because I was so preoccupied on what other people and other outlets were thinking about me and how I was performing next to my colleagues and stuff like that. So I left just over a year afterwards because it wasn’t a healthy place to be. And I did some work with some charities doing public relations and then I joined MEL Magazine in 2018 and was there until 2020, working as a writer and editor and writing stories about men’s issues and digital culture. It was a lot of fun. And then when the pandemic hit everyone starting thinking about, well, what they’re actually doing.
And for me, I was really just thinking about: what is the point of internet culture reporting? Like, why are we trying to do what we do? I felt that I just needed some space and some distance to examine it from an outsider’s perspective, rather than someone who was working inside it. And I just couldn’t do it churning out three or four articles a week, just being a machine.
So when I decided to leave in May 2020 I was thinking about writing another book. But a friend of mine posted details about this research course at UCL in digital anthropology and it kind of covered all the based that I felt were necessary to try and really reflect on what I’d been doing for the past five or six years. And that’s how I’ve ended up where I am right now.
VFD: It’s interesting that you say you were struggling to figure out what the point of internet culture reporting was. I wonder how many other people feel that way who have done it, because I had a very similar moment. It was just like: this is just a fading machine and no one understands why it matters. Like: people think it matters, but not for the reasons I do. They care for the wrong reasons.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, you’re completely right. I felt the same way. It’s clear that online matters, because online has really affected the way that we speak to each other and how we understand and relate to each other. It has led to particular election outcomes, it has caused major and minor genocides. And surely there’s a point of internet culture reporting that’s trying to figure out what’s going on. But to do that you need time and you an understanding and you need to piece together certain things.
There was a really good essay that Ryan Broderick wrote about how everything is suddenly feeling like it has derailed. And he was looking at the phenomenon happening here and in Brazil and Eastern Europe. And I think so much of how we explain how the internet affects politics, usually, comes down to Trump and Britain leaving the European Union, but in reality so many of these small forces that come from the very niche areas of the internet are just as important.
Y’know, GamerGate has never really died. It has mutated and infected every kind of facet of social experience. And I think that really holds true because even GamerGate wasn’t really about gaming and video games. It was about all this stuff that had been brewing underneath that just manifested in an unexpected way. And that’s kind of what we’ve seen happen in other iterations, quite regularly, to the point where we don’t even associate it with GamerGate anymore. It’s just: Oh, this happens online. This niche conflict ends up evolving into mass hysteria and ends up being made into content.
So you’re thinking to yourself about this as someone who produces content which is designed to distil what’s happening, while also having the labour pressures of having to produce stuff at breakneck speed and make sure that there are no inaccuracies because your news organisation can’t afford the libel and can’t afford to defend you and pay your legal fees. Suddenly, now, you’re in this position where you not only have to produce at a breakneck speed but you also have to really dance around the edges to make sure that you can still do what you’re doing. And by dancing around the edges you’re not actually describing what’s going on. And it just becomes more and more confusing, and then the digital content that you produce ends up becoming objectified and rarefied, even if it’s not about what you write. It could be about the fact that you write on BuzzFeed, or the fact that you have a blue checkmark on Twitter, or all of these aesthetics that represent you in a very abstract, social media hierarchy that doesn’t really exist.
But again, as I was saying before about how people conceive of themselves in hierarchy, that kind of reflects and influences behaviour based on what people think that hierarchy is. It’s confusing. It’s the reason I think so many people who work on the digital culture beat burn out, and it happens really, really, fast because you’re dealing with so much and there isn’t really a language of articulation. There isn’t newsroom support, either, because for them, this is just the digital culture beat.
VFD: Like you’re writing about the internet and they have other reporters in literal warzones.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, and you get to sit at your desk and they give you lots of snacks and sugar and caffeine.
VFD: And you can tweet all day! It’s part of your job!
Hussein Kesvani: And if people get mad at you just shut off your computer and go for a walk for five minutes and then go back to your desk. But yeah, it’s a really confusing minefield. I don’t have to produce content anymore and I’m just sitting on the outside looking in. It’s still really difficult to articulate what’s going on, or describe the particular behavioural phenomena that happens in certain digital spaces. The really interesting thing about anthropology, for example, is that if you’re doing a really serious bit of anthropology work the minimum you can do is about a year’s worth of fieldwork.
Hussein Kesvani: And that’s, like, full immersion. So for that entire year you are just immersed in this community and you’re acting the way they do and you’re using the same language and symbols. And if you’re actually in the field then you’re getting a firm understanding and doing all of this stuff to ensure you’re fully immersed. And this idea that you can only really understand the social, and relational, dynamics of this community by having that full level of immersion, I find it really funny to think about how even with COVID and everything this has still required me to spend more time looking at this community than I ever did for an article or feature.
Like, before I did this course, the longest I had ever spent trying to study a group was two weeks, right? And I look back on my stuff and I kind of understand why certain groups get angry with journalists for making assumptions and putting inaccuracies in everything. Because the amount of time that a lot of us have to spend with these groups and communities is so, so small. And then we have to still write for an audience of people who aren’t part of this community and who are coming in as outsiders. And no one wants to be written about as an object or something, to be gazed and looked upon. It makes sense, then, especially with internet culture reporting where people are so protective of their identities and the subcultures they belong in, that they would be hostile to journalists who they feel have made it look frivolous and unserious. Because it’s serious to them.
VFD: Yeah, and it doesn’t help that often the first beat is like: What Are Incels, Everything You Need To Know! and the people in that community are just reading it like: this fucking loser doesn’t understand us at all.
But really, you also have to write for your audience, right?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, and you’re trying to make it easy and accessible but you’re also trying to keep your job and everything. So to imagine writing with that level of anxiety, knowing that someone’s going to get mad at you, but you would rather it be the group that you have spent time interviewing than the people who decide whether you’re able to pay your rent each month.
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