Draft 2004 27 Defending the Norm: Exploring Sites of Tension in Audience Engagement with aids-related Television Abstract

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Defending the Norm: Exploring Sites of Tension in Audience Engagement with AIDS-Related Television


This paper explores the tensions that exist between young adults' understandings of 'official' safe sex advice and their common sense understandings of the practices thus advocated. Some of the ways in which these tensions are negotiated are explored; particularly the ways in which audiences negotiate television messages that challenge their lived understanding of sexuality. Since young adults gain much of their knowledge of safe sex through media and popular culture, these issues are addressed here via analyses of audience conversations about AIDS-related teen television programmes. Ten audience focus groups viewed an episode of the American teen-drama Beverly Hills 90210 and another ten groups viewed Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls, an Australian public health video made in the style of a teen-drama. Conversational analyses indicate that audiences draw on several genre-related discursive devices to create a distance between their lived understandings of AIDS/safe sex and contradictory television representations. Change to the social norms surrounding these issues becomes a greater possibility as these distance-producing devices are closed-off to audience groups.

Defending the Norm: Exploring Sites of Tension in Audience Engagement with AIDS-Related Television
Little is known about the role television plays in the formation of attitudes and beliefs, or where its power to create and sustain meaning lies. There is a considerable body of research on the 'content' of television AIDS messages (Grover, 1987; Lupton, 1991, 1994, 1996, Treichler, 1998; Watney, 1989) and an abundance of research on the 'facts' viewers have gleaned from such messages (Fullerton, Holland, & Oakley, 1995; McEwan & Bhopal, 1991), but there is scant research on how the content of media messages come to have meaning for viewers. Yet, despite the lack of research evidence of a conclusive link between television messages and health-related attitudes and practices, health educators continue to depend on television as the dominant form of presenting health education campaigns in Britain, USA and Australia. This faith is not unwarranted. For example, in the area of HIV/AIDS education, it is commonly reported that television is the most important source of HIV-related information for adolescents and young adults (Rothenthal, Hall, & Moore, 1992). Furthermore, cohort comparisons indicate that over the past fifteen years there has been normative change to the sexual practices of this population, precisely in the direction of these media-derived health messages (Patel, 1995; Robertson, 1995; Rodden, Crawford, & Kippax, 1996; Rosenthal & Shepherd, 1993). There is little research evidence, however, of a relationship between each of the three components: between television-derived information, sexual knowledge and practice.
This lack of evidence is not surprising given the individualistic and linear approach taken to the TV-viewer relationship in much of this research. On the whole, traditional approaches to television messages conceptualise this relationship as a one-way process, whereby a passive audience is expected to show an immediate response to a fixed stimulus, the television programme (Kippax & Crawford, 1993). The focus of research is usually on the 'effects' of television at an individual psychological level. In such research the programme is seen as a pre-given set of meanings representing the starting point of a linear process of communication in which a discrete message has a direct influence on the audience. From this point of view, there is no room for an active audience, meaningfully engaged with the programme.
The limits of the 'effects’ paradigm can be accounted for by the fact that messages are not absorbed in a passive way. Those who ‘receive’ media messages transform them in ways that make them personally intelligible. These culturally entrenched interpretive processes are simply beyond the scope of effects models of communication, which ignore the essentially social nature of human actions and meaning-reception. In particular, they fail to take into account that 'official' media facts often contradict the 'cultural' facts about AIDS and safe sex (Gavin, 2000, 2001). Negotiating these clashes of meaning requires a great deal of work on the part of the audience. The current study examines the ways in which audiences negotiate the meaning of two teen-television programmes that challenge their lived understanding of safe sex, in particular the use of condoms in both casual and long-term relationships.
The Lived Ideology of Safe Sex: When Safe Sex is Not Common Sense

Within heterosexual encounters condom-use can have several contested and contradictory meanings (Crawford, Kippax, & Waldby, 1994). Understood in terms of sexual safety and risk, condoms signify sexual safety. Understood in terms of gender relations, however, they can signify infidelity, lack of trust, promiscuity, an absence of love, or a lack of commitment. Research indicates that it is these relationship-related understandings that often impede the implementation of safe sex. The issue is not whether one should put official public health advice into practice, but whether one feels this advice can be put into practice in the context of one’s current sexual relationship (Edgar, Freimuth, Hammond, McDonald, & Finch, 1992; Kippax, Crawford, Waldby, & Benton, 1990; Wight, 1992). The risk to the relationship is often understood as greater than the risk to one’s health. That is, assumptions surrounding gender relations often play a larger role in shaping safe sexual practice than assumptions surrounding sexual safety.

This difference between what ought, or should, be put into practice and what can be put into practice can be understood in terms of Billig’s distinction between ‘lived’ and ‘intellectual’ ideology (Billig, Condor, Edwards, Gane, Middleton, & Radley, 1988). Intellectual ideology, often the product of professionals, is a pre-established set of political, religious or philosophical assumptions. Lived ideology, on the other hand, represents the ‘contrary or dilemmatic’ themes that are intrinsic in the ‘common sense’ of a society.
Such a distinction can be used to elucidate contradictory meanings of safe sex. ‘Official’ safe sex messages (what ought to happen) represent the intellectual ideology of safe sex; a system of knowledge produced by professionals, which in this case includes the advocacy of condom-use and getting to know your partner. Numerous international research studies indicate that this system of knowledge derives primarily from media (Abraham, Sheeran, Abrams, Spears, & Marks, 1991; Harris, Harris, & Davis, 1991), with television the most common source of HIV/AIDS information (Rothenthal et al., 1992; Rosenthal & Reichler, 1994). Young people’s practical understanding of safe sex (what can, or does happen) represents the lived ideology. It is the contradictory resources drawn upon as a part of the common sense understanding of safe sex. This ideology draws on opposing images, discourses and assumptions informing understandings of sexual relations, and often contradicts 'official' media representations of safe sex.
This paper explores those moments when the 'lived' and the 'intellectual' ideologies of safe sex collide during the viewing and discussion of AIDS-related television programmes and how audiences negotiate these clashes of meaning.
Following a social constructionist approach to meaning construction (Shotter, 1984), this paper argues that knowledge is constructed, maintained and transformed through group interaction. In studying the 'meaning' of television it is therefore necessary to see meanings in action, or more precisely in interaction. This necessitates a cultural studies approach to the TV-viewer encounter. Unlike the causal and linear 'effects' model, the cultural studies paradigm conceptualises audiences as active participants in meaning construction. From this point of view, ‘the process of information flow is less a matter of passing a message effectively from source to receiver to achieve a particular effect, more a matter of different subcultures 'reading' messages according to their own norms and values’ (Crawford et al., 1992, p. 36). With its emphasis on ‘…the ways in which social structures and meanings are both passed on and amenable to change’ (Tulloch & Lupton, 1997, p. 19), a cultural studies approach is ideally suited to investigating the potential of television to transform social norms.
Using genres as diverse as current affairs (Morely, 1980), soap opera (Hobson, 1982) and children's television (Hodge & Tripp, 1986), researchers working in the cultural studies tradition have examined the shared, social meanings of television. More recently Tulloch (1995a, 1995b; Tulloch & Lupton, 1997) has explored the processes whereby audiences negotiate 'interpretive communities' within which to understand AIDS-related television. Although offering a dynamic account of television viewing, these studies primarily focus on audience understanding at an interpersonal level, rather than situating the collective group work in its wider cultural context. Similarly, using an eclectic set of media exercises, Kitzinger (1990, 1991, 1993) demonstrates that the meaning of HIV/AIDS messages is shaped by understandings that the audience shares with the media, as well as with other members of their group. Her research suggests that the audience knows what to expect of the media, and explores the ways in which media frame people's understandings of AIDS. She does not, however, elucidate how this 'knowledge' is appropriated by audience members in order to frame such understandings.
The current research overcomes these limitations by treating the television programme itself as a constituent element in a conversation. Specifically, it conceptualizes the TV-viewer relationship within a Bakhtinian framework, with the television programme being understood as a live utterance. From this point of view, rather than simply responding to a text, audience members are acting into a space of possibilities made available between the text and the audience. The focus of television research therefore shifts to the kinds of activities occurring within this space.
The Television Programme as a Bakhtinian Utterance

In Bakhtin's (1986) responsive account of communicative interaction the fundamental element in meaning-construction is the utterance. An utterance can consist of anything from ‘a short (single-word) rejoinder in everyday dialogue to the large novel or scientific treatise’ (1986, p. 71). Although they come in many forms, utterances have certain discernible features. The most fundamental feature is the clear delineation of a beginning and an end. The boundaries of a concrete utterance are determined by a change in speaking subjects; that is, a change in speakers. The marker of this boundary is called the 'pause'. This pause, or gap between speaking subjects creates a space of dialogical action. It represents a space where the context of meaning and experience is created.

John Shotter (1993) conceptualises Bakhtin's 'pause' as a space where joint action subsists. Joint action is a sphere of activity consisting of a flow of responsive and relational activities and practices. It is a process through which, and by which, people construct between themselves organised settings of enablements or constraints 'into' which they direct their future actions. The space thus created between speakers calls forth a response in the addressee, and this represents the second fundamental feature of an utterance: ‘[T]he first and foremost criterion for the finalisation of an utterance is the possibility of responding to it or, more precisely and broadly, of assuming a responsive attitude to it’ (Bakhtin, 1986, p.76).
Although Bakhtin limits his discussion to oral and written communicative interactions, it is possible to understand the viewing of a television programme within a Bakhtinian framework. A difficulty arises, however, in conceptualising the television programme as an utterance because there is no clear 'speaker' of such a communicative unit. The actors, the characters, the writers, or even the television set itself could all be considered the 'speakers'.
The relative indeterminacy of a speaker represents a fundamental difference between oral communication and communication via a television programme, and in this respect the television programme as an utterance bears a closer resemblance to written communication than to oral communication. Unlike oral communication, the 'speaker' need not be present at the time the programme enters into a dialogical relation with the audience, although a sense of the audience is present at the time of production, and a sense of the 'speaker' may frame audience interpretation. The television programme is produced in anticipation of a response from the audience, and the audience draws on assumptions about the media (including those about the 'speaker') in constructing their responsive attitude to the programme (Kitzinger, 1990). Thus, drawing on Shotter, the television programme is best thought of , not as marking the boundaries between speaking subjects, but marking out ‘…the boundaries (or the gaps) in the speech flow between different “voices”’ (1995, p.21), where these voices are in part socially constructed by the interlocutors.
In the discursive practice of television viewing, the 'change in speakers' that is so crucial to the programme's status as an utterance can occur without the physical presence of a speaker. The 'change in speaker' occurs when the programme enters into the social worlds of the audience; when the audience takes up a responsive attitude to the programme. It is this process that is explored in the current research.
The research presented in the remainder of this paper examines the ways the lived and the intellectual ideologies of safe sex are negotiated by television viewers within this space of joint action, in the space of possibilities opened up between the programme and the audience. It explores how audiences grapple with those conversational moments when the common sense understandings of safe sex are called into question by television representations of safe sex. Specifically it asks: How are these contradictions negotiated by audience groups? And, can social norms surrounding AIDS and safe sex be transformed in this process?
These processes are explored via focus group conversations revolving around the viewing and discussion of one of two AIDS-related teen-television programmes. In the US, UK and Australia, sexual health advocates often work with the makers of entertainment television to incorporate health messages into existing dramas and soap operas. For example, in recent years, the UK soap Hollyoaks featured a story on gonorrhea, while the US dramas Dawson's Creek and Felicity featured stories on sexual health and date rape. Both government and non-profit organisations consulted in the making of these programmes.
Recent research indicates that issue-related episodes of teen-drama are understood by audiences as if they are public health videos (Gavin, 2001). Therefore the current study focuses on audience engagement with an AIDS-related episode of a teen television series and a public health video. Because of the current dearth of Australian teen series airing on Australian television, and the local popularity of American teen series such as Beverly Hills 90210, Buffy, Charmed, Dawson's Creek and so on, an AIDS-related episode of the American teen-drama Beverly Hills 90210 was chosen for this study. Although no longer in production, Beverly Hills 90210 is on 'high rotation' on both Foxtel in Australia and Sky in the UK, and the episode used in this study has been aired at least twice a year for the past three years in Australia. Furthermore, Media Project, a joint initiative by Advocates for Youth and the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation have provided editorial consultation for this series in an attempt to insert responsible health messages for teenage audiences (Keller & Brown, 2002). Ten groups viewed Episode 9 of Beverly Hills 90210 ('Isn't it Romantic') and ten groups viewed Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls, a New South Wales Department of Public Health video made in the style of a teen-drama, and starring several actresses from long-running Australian series.


Focus group discussions were conducted with twenty groups, comprising a total of sixty-five individual participants. There were six all-male groups, seven all-female groups and seven mixed-sex groups. Participants’ ages ranged from sixteen to twenty-five, with a mean age of 21.6 years.

The groups were recruited according to the criteria outlined by Lewis (1991) in his audience research. As partial fulfillment of course requirements, twenty first-year psychology students enrolled at Macquarie University in Sydney were each given research credit for organising an audience focus group. These students were instructed to invite two to four friends or family members to a viewing/discussion session, requiring that group members be familiar with each other, comfortable watching and discussing television together, and between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. Although not specified as a requirement of the selection criteria, all but two participants identified as heterosexual. In all but one case, the location of the sessions was an audience member’s home.
Although, it would be naïve to think of the data obtained through such artificial encounters as 'natural' in the sense that these discussions would have taken place without these groups having been convened for this purpose, the use of pre-existing social networks enables an exploration of how participants might talk about television and HIV/AIDS within the everyday groupings that they actually operate. Flatmates, colleagues, friends and family are exactly ‘the type of people with whom one might “naturally” discuss such topics, at least in passing’ (Kitzinger, 1994, p. 105). That these audience groupings existed prior to these sessions allowed fragments of interaction which approximate to these naturally occurring data to be tapped into (Kitzinger, 1994).

After viewing a programme, group members were encouraged to discuss it. The discussions were open and informal, and respondents were encouraged to converse rather than simply respond to questions. Great care was taken on the part of the researcher to avoid introducing terminology, closing-off meanings, or influencing the terms of the discussion. It was essential that the respondents be free to use their own everyday ways of talking.

After the initial question, ‘Tell me the story you have just been told’, the researcher said as little as possible. In most sessions, a single word, such as a character’s name was enough to elicit lengthy discussions without further prompting. The conversations were audio taped and transcribed for analysis, and typically lasted between forty-five and ninety minutes.
Transcript Analysis

The data were analysed at both a conversational and a thematic level in order to examine the processes by which audience groups constructed the meanings of these television programmes. Clichés, similarities, differences, contradictions, absences, and what was taken for granted were examined. Specifically, the transcripts of audience conversations were analysed following the audience research of Lewis (1991), who in turn drew on Barthes' (1974) concept of lexias. The identification of lexias enabled Lewis to break audience transcripts into manageable segments, or chunks of meaning that corresponded to the ways an audience thinks, talks about and interprets a programme. These lexias include ‘sometimes a few words, sometimes several sentences; it will suffice that the lexia be the best possible space we can observe meanings’ (Barthes, 1974, p. 13). Although Lewis used individualistic terms, the current study treats lexias as representations of shared assumptions. On this basis, these 'chunks of meaning' are referred to as 'discursive units' throughout the following analysis. These discursive units can be seen as the building blocks of more general meanings, which are labeled and identified here as themes.

When the term 'discourse' is used in this study, it is in reference to broader, socially constructed categories such as the 'safe sex' discourse (which would include understandings of the use of condoms, sexual negotiation, official health messages, and so on). A number of themes could inform a conversation on the different components of the 'safe sex' discourse, and different groups could draw on different discursive units and themes to understand the same discourse.
Given the aim of exploring those moments when the lived and intellectual ideologies of safe sex clash, transcript analysis focussed on audience accounts of action problems. As argued by Mead (1934), an action problem occurs when an individual's experience calls into question the social validities or shared expectations of the group. The first stage of analysis, therefore, was to identify those conversational moments where audience groups expressed the experience of an action problem with some aspect of the programme or with the comments of other group members. Action problems represent informative sites about the cultural resources drawn upon by an audience, because when individual experience collides with socially shared expectations, audience members are likely to offer an 'account' (Shotter, 1984). If some unusual or unanticipated act intrudes, an account lends articulate form to what would normally remain unspoken; namely, the taken-for-granted assumptions of the group. Having identified action problems, the second stage of analysis therefore sought to analyse the accounts offered to explain these clashes of meaning.
The Programmes

Beverly Hills 90210 (Episode 9, 1990). Against opposition from her father and brother, Brenda begins to date Dylan, and is soon convinced by her best friend, Kelly, to take condoms on her next date. In a parallel plot, the students of West Beverly High are taking health education classes. As part of this course, Stacey, a peer educator, talks to the students about how she contracted HIV after her first sexual encounter. Later that night, Brenda explains to Dylan that she wants to slow down their relationship. They discuss his sexual history (including the fact that he has not always used condoms), and he agrees to be tested for HIV.
Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls (1990). This 17 minute safe sex video is described by the makers as a comedy/drama, and is set in a suburban hairdressing salon where five women discuss their experiences of sex, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, romance, and relationships. During this discussion, issues emerge such as negotiating safe sex and overcoming the barriers to such negotiation. The video is also informative regarding activities that place people at risk of HIV infection, how to use condoms, and who is at risk. The main characters are: Kerry, Marge and Toula, the three hairdressers; Joanna, the client to whom the safe sex information is directed; Phil, Joanna's boyfriend who is about to be released from prison; and a young delivery man.
Beverly Hills 90210: 'It's Just a Message'

Immediately following the viewing of this episode of Beverly Hills 90210, the audience groups were asked to tell the story they felt they had just been told. It was during this part of the discussion that most groups spontaneously articulated their understanding of the programme's main message:

It showed like that anyone can get AIDS, even people on 90210

{Mixed-Sex Group 1}

You know, anyone can get it. Even if you're beautiful you can get AIDS

{Female Group 1}

The message was that AIDS… AIDS isn't… I've lost the word… doesn't discriminate

{Female Group 2}

S1 You don't have to be a big pro to get AIDS

S3 Yeah, like it happens to anyone

{Male Group 3}

S3 She fit in with the rest of the show

S2 Oh, right. She was attractive

S3 I suppose the message was that like even attractive people can get AIDS

{Mixed-Sex Group 3}

All ten groups articulated this message in strikingly similar ways. For discussion purposes this message has been labelled 'Anyone can get AIDS', although the label 'Even attractive people can get AIDS' could also have captured the essence of this theme. Inherent in this message is the theme that 'You cannot tell who has AIDS by looking at them'. That is, judgements about whether someone may have AIDS cannot be based on appearance. This notion was called forth by the unexpectedly attractive appearance of Stacey, a peer-educator with AIDS who spoke to the students of West Beverly High School:
The message certainly came across loud and clear because it shut everyone up. Everyone listened. And the fact that she was attractive made you think sort of, you know, it can happen to anyone

{Male Group 2}

Although every group agreed that 'You cannot tell who has AIDS simply by looking at them', most groups simultaneously believed that Stacey did not look 'the type' to have AIDS. Clearly this contradiction needed to be resolved. Rather than question their lived understanding of 'the look of AIDS', however, several groups understood the look of Stacey as simply a rhetorical device used to get a message across.
S2 … but they wanted to get a message across, true, but they can't lose all their little teeny boppers and stuff like that. They don't want to be bombarded with a message that throws up this woman...

S1 It's alienating if they do that so they do it nice and teeny-boppy as well as a message

S2 Mmm, it's 90210 really

S3 That says it all

S2 In a nutshell (all laugh)

{Male Group 1}

So, rather than grapple with the broader assumptions framing the look of AIDS, the majority of groups turned to their expectations about the teen-soap genre in accounting for the programme's representation of a 'nice' woman with AIDS. Specifically, this unexpected representation was accounted for in terms of the deliberate production of a message.
S1 Like if you could imagine a girl getting up there who was not like one hundred per cent attractive and more like, you know, small skirt or something and just looked…

S2 Less normal

S1 …or like more to the point of being sleazy or something. Then if she had have got up their and said the message 'Oh like I've got AIDS' then people wouldn’t have been so shocked. Then it would have been a message…

S3 Then the message would have been completely different

S1 … like maybe you asked to have sex or you're promiscuous or something

S3 Yeah. Instead, she was presented as a nice girl. It can happen to anyone

{Mixed-Sex Group 2}

At such moments of contradiction, when the lived ('the look of AIDS') and the intellectual ('Anyone can get AIDS') clashed, audiences were able to smooth over the contradiction by invoking shared understandings and expectations related to the genre of the programme. Rather than construct the meaning of the programme in terms of their lived experiences of AIDS-related issues, these audience groups consistently discussed their experiences of AIDS-related television. In this way the groups did not engage with the text at a personally relevant or meaningful level, and the threat to their lived understandings of safe sex was diffused. This method of smoothing over ideological contradictions was used repeatedly by each group in this study. In each case, action problems rarely elicited discussions about the assumptions surrounding safe sex, but instead elicited discussions about the genre of the target programme. Rather than bridging the gap between experience and expectation, audiences invoked genre to maintain the gap between the lived and the intellectual ideologies of safe sex.
A clear illustration of this method can be seen in audience accounts of the action problems associated with Brenda's and Dylan's actions in the last scene of this programme. In this scene Brenda and Dylan discussed each other's sexual and drug-taking histories, decided to delay having sex, and agreed that Dylan would be tested for HIV. This series of events was experienced as unrealistic by all ten Beverly Hills 90210 audience groups, despite the fact that these practices were endorsed by the respondents at an intellectual level.
S2 But it's, I think it's fairly unrealistic too, seriously...

S1 Well it is Hollywood

S2 Yeah. I know they want that to happen, but it would happen bugger all in real life...

{Male Group 2}

Oh, I agreed with what Stacey said, but I know it should be done, but it doesn't happen

{Male Group 1}

But I mean, it's not majorly realistic to do something like that. When people have sex they don't sit down and talk about it… and find out if they've had partners without precautions and whatever else like that. Maybe it should be done, but it's just not

{Mixed Sex group 2}

Again, audience groups dismissed this problematic representation of safe sex as 'just a message':
S4 Oh, but what it did… It's just a lesson for people. It's a moral, you know

{Male Group 3}

Understood as 'just a message', Brenda's behaviour does not need to be accounted for in terms of the lived ideology of safe sex. Instead, it is accounted for in relation to understandings surrounding media.
Genre as a Distancing Device

As already discussed, this research takes the television programme as a single complete utterance, the completion of which is marked by a pause which is responded to, or acted into, by the audience. The results of the current analysis indicate that this Bakhtinian understanding of the television programme is appropriate and potentially useful. Consistent with Bakhtin's account of interpreting the meaning of an utterance, a recognition of the genre to which the programme belongs was central in constructing the meaning of Beverly Hills 90210.

Bakhtin (1986) argues that it is at the beginning of an utterance that we sense a developing wholeness. One begins to develop a sense of what the utterance is and what it means. Listening to, as well as viewing, any utterance requires that ‘we imagine to ourselves what the speaker wishes to say’ (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 77). One guesses at the author's 'speech plan' or 'speech will', and this speech plan is revealed through the interaction of different hermeneutic strategies available both to the listener and the speaker. These strategies include the subject matter and the generic form of the utterance.
An immediate recognition of genre and speech will (the intentions of 'the producers') were manifest in the developing understanding of Beverly Hills 90210. The hermeneutic strategies made available included the notion of the deliberate production of a message and the unresolved quality of the soap opera narrative. The majority of discussions were framed within an understanding of American television, and the discursive units informing this theme were developed from the outset of discussions. The 'speaker' producing an utterance within this particular genre was imagined to have a definite speech plan or will: to satisfy commercial interests; make viewers watch the following episode; and to impart a clearly defined message to teenagers.
This 'speech will ' of imparting a message to teenagers takes on further significance when the TV programme is conceptualised as an utterance, for, as Bakhtin states: ‘An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone, its addressivity’ (1986, p. 95). The perceived addressee of the programme was implicit in the accounting practices of these Beverly Hills 90210 audience groups, but was never explicitly drawn upon as a way of distancing them from the programme. In most cases, a reliance on the 'speech will' was enough to smooth over any contradictions. This was not the case, however, for the Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls audience groups. They too engaged in co-operative work to distance their lived understandings from contradictory television messages, but with more effort and less success than the teen-drama audiences.
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