On Literature

    What Next for the Iranian Blogosphere?

    It’s a little more than a decade since many Iranians were infected with blogging fever. It wasn’t long before blogging came to be seen as a sign that freedom of speech and democracy might be about to spread. Iranian bloggers were greeted internationally with enthusiasm, admiration and encouragement. In Iran, however, they were targeted by the security organisations and the victims of Internet censorship. So what status does blogging have in Iran today?

    The Internet is an inextricable part of most people’s daily lives nowadays – even in Iran, where some refer to it as the ‘oil-fired Net’, an ironic reference to its slow connection speed. Iranian families, which are scattered all over the world, are reconnecting with their relatives on Facebook, or forming groups on Viber where they can catch up on how the others are doing. Many people follow the news on Twitter, or find their partners in chatrooms. In this short-lived virtual realm, the Iranian blogosphere has just turned fourteen. And in the virtual world, fourteen years is like a century.

    The Persian blogosphere was one of the first Internet phenomena in Iran. It attracted not only a great many Iranians but also international attention. However, for some time now critics have been bemoaning the declining quality of its content. People are even speaking of the demise of the blogosphere. This is usually ascribed to the prevalence of other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

    Arid blogosphere?

    In May 2014, Deutsche Welle’s Persian website published an article with the title ‘The BOBs and the Persian blogosphere’s empty hands’. DW has been organising the BOBs, an international blogging competition, since 2005, in collaboration with Reporters Without Borders. 2014 was the first time in its ten-year history that none of the prizes went to a Persian blogger. In a DW interview Arash Abadpour, who judged the Persian entries, spoke of the declining creativity of Persian weblogs. In his opinion, the reasons for this are systematic Internet censorship, political and social conditions in Iran, and political disenchantment.

    This is despite the fact that in 2004, according to the Blog Census of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, Persian was the fourth most common language in the global blogosphere. It's difficult to estimate the number of Persian blogs, but the generally accepted figure for active blogs written by Iranians in 2009 was 70,000.

    This is a remarkable number, but it is important to bear in mind that, while new blogs are appearing every day, many others also become inactive. The increased number of weblogs is therefore highly relative and cannot be used as a criterion for judging the quality of the blogosphere and its content.

    There's no denying the success of Persian blogs in the past, their influence on Iran’s media landscape, and their popularity among Internet users. However, before examining their status today one has to ask why blogging suddenly became so popular among Iranians. And in order to answer this question, one has to examine the various different dimensions of the phenomenon, its development in recent years, and the political and social conditions in Iran. The question can also be put differently: what is different about blogging in Iran as opposed to other countries?

    A window on freedom

    In September 2001, the young journalist Hossein Derakhshan published instructions on his blog on how to blog in Persian. Within two months, the number of Persian blogs rose to more than 200. The new phenomenon came to be known as ‘Blogistan’, and more and more people came to hear about it.

    In the 1990s, Iran was the first country in the Middle East, after Israel, to gain access to the Internet. The number of Internet users rose rapidly towards the end of the decade. Many young Iranians, who had a high level of education, were in a position to be able to use the new technology. At the same time, new, free software came onto the market that made blogging easier for those who wanted to write. The necessary conditions were established.

    The rise of blogging was especially fuelled by the political situation in the country. Blogging in Iran started up at a time when the power struggle was raging in the political system between conservatives and reformists. After a short period of relative press freedom in the late 1990s, Iran’s political sphere was overwhelmed by a wave of censorship and repression. Reformist newspapers were banned and journalists critical of the regime were suppressed by the security organisations.

    In these conditions, the Internet was the only free, uncensored realm where authors were able to publish their critical opinions on politics and society. They quickly realised that access to the Internet had opened up a window for them, for the first time in years. They were now able to make their texts available to the public without having to overcome the hurdle of censorship.

    However, freedom in the virtual world did not mean becoming blind to the dangers of political reality. For this reason, many bloggers wrote under a pseudonym, but most well-known journalists, authors and political activists continued to publish under their real names.

    Another distinctive feature of online writing is the two-way connection between author and public, established via the option of commenting on the blog. Many authors and journalists use this medium to exchange views and conduct dialogues. Numerous blog discussions evolved, sometimes preoccupying both bloggers and readers for weeks on end, and increasing the liveliness and appeal of the blogs. A wide range of topics were discussed, including subjects such as human rights, the right to life and rejection of the death penalty, discrimination against women, political corruption, the environment, music, and literature.

    The blogosphere as a mirror of society

    As the work of Iran’s state media is biased, and opinions that run counter to the prevailing ideology have no place in this media, Persian blogs reflect more political and social themes than blogs in other countries. In this sense, the people have created the kind of medium they want: one that acts as their voice and examines their demands.

    Although the texts understandably prioritise political subject matter, personal texts also play an important role, as the bloggers are not only journalists and political activists. Many ordinary citizens also use this technology to express their feelings, desires and aspirations.

    Many years ago, when the word ‘blog’ was still unknown to many people, the term ‘Internet diary’ was one of the first and simplest definitions used to describe it. This term illustrates the first and simplest application of this modern technology: writing down what preoccupies the author in their daily life, and the things that are on their mind. Together, these mundane texts by ordinary people build up a complex and differentiated picture of society.

    In this case, the society is one where the state interferes in even the most private realms of life. The state wants to control everything, from music and literature to the way its citizens dress, and their social relationships. For many bloggers, the mere possibility of expressing their feelings and their own views of life was, in this context, a big step – a step on the path to understanding themselves, finding themselves and being themselves, regardless of what the state, society, or their family wanted from them.

    Female bloggers and the break with tradition

    The question ‘Who am I and what do I want?’ is an especially significant one for women bloggers. Iranian women – far more than men – are under observation by a traditional society with very strict moral standards. Not only are they discriminated against by the laws of the country, they also have to contend with gender stereotyping on a daily basis. Women who do not see their identity as being bound up with the traditional roles of wife and mother, and who aspire to an independent identity, are especially likely to experience inequality and discrimination.

    In these circumstances, women have found in the blogosphere a place where they are able to talk about social taboos and other unspoken issues. In their blog entries they challenge the traditional feminine ideal desired by the state. According to previous stereotypes, marriage was the only conceivable way for women to live, but many are now writing openly about their various romantic and sexual relationships. Whereas in the past divorce was a stigma, divorced women are now writing about their new, liberated lives and declaring that they are glad to have found themselves again.

    Female Iranian bloggers abroad play an important role in connecting Iranians at home and facilitating the exchange of information and opinions. Migration has afforded them many different experiences, and they have liberated themselves from the narrow confines of tradition: consequently, they write from a different perspective. Their texts are often very simple and mundane, yet effective. Some write about their experiences of separating from their partners, or the difficulty of starting a new relationship. Others write about the experience of becoming a mother, or sexual discrimination in the workplace. As their private struggles and feelings are not all that different from those of women living in Iran, they find an audience there, too. These sorts of networks demonstrate particularly well how borders and distances fade away in the virtual world.

    However, the breaking of taboos in these blogs does not mean that majority opinion in society has changed. It’s a small step that is only significant for part of society, but a step nonetheless. Topics that were previously only spoken of in small, private, female circles can now potentially be discussed before a global audience.

    Suppression and intimidation of the bloggers

    In the first few years of blogging, many people referred – optimistically and hopefully – to the conversations and discussions on the blogs as ‘practising democracy’, and regarded the new phenomenon as a step towards freedom of speech. After long years of experience of censorship, Iranians suddenly had a free environment in which they could express their thoughts and opinions. However, this freedom did not last long. Iran is believed to be the first country in the world to arrest a blogger for what he wrote online. This happened in 2003, to the journalist Sina Motalebi, who left the country a few months later. Since then, many bloggers have been arrested or have had to seek asylum abroad after enduring threats and oppression. Some have lost their lives in Iranian prisons. For the Iranian state, the Internet signifies the weakening of its media monopoly and the loss of control over the flow of information. Those in power therefore see the free Internet as a threat to the interests and future of the political system in Iran. Whereas critical media, NGOs and Internet activists endeavour to express nuanced and marginalised points of view in order to instigate social and cultural changes, the state has for years been doing everything it can to put a stop to the free flow of information and block these developments in civil society.

    Over the years, the Iranian state has introduced comprehensive measures and a complex system of censorship to suppress freedom of speech on the Internet. This systematic censorship includes the strict regulation of Internet cafés and companies providing Internet access; the blocking and deletion of unwelcome websites and blogs, or cyber-attacking them; the criminalisation and demonisation of the Internet; slowing connection speeds, and suppressing and intimidating Internet users. Although many Internet users in Iran manage to gain access to blocked Internet sites and social networks via proxies, such restrictions do make it more difficult to use the Internet, and can also create dangers for users – the use and dissemination of proxies are included in the list of Internet-related crimes under Iranian law.

    For Iranian bloggers, censorship can take a variety of forms, such as threats, arrest, or having their blog blocked. Another bitter blow for many, particularly in the early years, was the entire content of their blog being deleted. Iranian providers of blogging software deleted critical content, under pressure from legal authorities. Many bloggers lost several years’-worth of articles. Some said they felt like a mother who has lost her child.

    The need to be everywhere at once

    With the spread of the Internet and social networks like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, as well as the advent of smartphones and apps like Viber and WhatsApp, many Internet users expend a great deal of time and energy on these sites. In other words, the increasing range of social networks on offer has resulted in a fragmentation of the virtual sphere. Whereas in the past Internet users’ discussions and conversations were concentrated on the blogs, these conversations are now scattered across different networks.

    On the one hand, the bloggers have the possibility of publishing their blog entries in different networks. On the other, in order to be successful and retain their audience, they have to invest a great deal of time and energy in these networks – time and energy it would be better to put into creating high-quality content.

    Active participation in several networks at once can be both time-consuming and exhausting. Few Internet activists in Iran have succeeded in establishing a balance between active participation in social networks and the creation of high-quality content. It’s easy to see that far more is consumed in the social networks than is produced in terms of Persian content. Many well-known bloggers who, ten years ago, would update their blog with a new entry about once a week, on average, now do so every couple of months. Many others share their articles on Facebook, believing that this will bring them closer to their audience.

    Yet in spite of all these changes, the bloggers’ accomplishments and successes must be acknowledged. They have succeeded in making made their voices heard, and have altered the closed media landscape. Nonetheless, observers who thought democracy was just around the corner when the Internet and blogging arrived in Iran were being overly optimistic.

    Realism instead of optimism

    There were a few points that these optimistic evaluations failed to take into account. First of all, it is important to consider the extent to which blogs and other social networks are able to have an effect. The question is: who are the Internet users, and what percentage of the population has access to the Internet? During the first few years of the Internet in Iran the technology was confined to large cities. It was also very expensive, when compared with average incomes. Furthermore, only the upper and upper-middle social classes are in a position to own a private computer. This meant that in 2008, according to statistics, only 35% of the Iranian population had Internet access. Although this figure had increased to 60% in 2013 and is still growing, it must be taken into consideration that not all Internet users are also Internet activists, and not everyone is necessarily interested in political and social issues.

    Another point is that one has to take a realistic view of the Internet’s technological potential. Just as this technology can serve as an instrument for Iranian critics of the regime, it can also be deployed to spread the system’s own ideology. Years after the dissemination of the Internet in Iran, many observers still regard blogging as a revolutionary act, characteristic of democratic movements. It seems that this view is definitely overstated, as the Iranian regime has been active in this field for years. It even has special centres where it trains its supporter groups, such as the Basij militia, teaching them how to blog and participate in the virtual world.

    Iran’s closed media landscape on the one hand and, on the other, the ease of publishing content online have resulted in the virtual realm developing at lightning speed. However, this quantitative development does not necessarily mean that the quality of the content has developed simultaneously, and that new creative content has been produced. In this field, conscious interaction with the Internet may be of far greater significance is. People can only make meaningful use of this technology if they also have a realistic perspective. Simply spreading information and news on blogs and in other social networks is not going to bring about political, social and cultural change. For this to happen, what is needed is intensive, focussed work.
    Parisa Tonekaboni is a German journalist with Iranian roots who lives in Duisburg.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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