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Analysis

Does 'Tiananmen + Web = Tehran'?

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009; 4:23 PM

Twenty years ago this month, Thomas Ho was aboard Amtrak en route to Washington, pressing his pocket transistor radio to his left ear, sitting by the window to get better reception. A fourth-generation Chinese American, he couldn't stop listening to the latest news on the standoff at Tiananmen Square. The only thing he could do then, Ho recalled, "was listen."

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Not any more. Not with Iran.

Upon hearing that Iranians took to the streets when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory, the 60-year-old from Indianapolis immediately went online. In addition to reading mainstream news sites, he scoured the blogosphere for postings on the disputed election. On Facebook, where he lists 260 "friends," he changed his profile picture to a slogan that reads "Where is their vote?" -- showing solidarity with supporters of opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi.

Ho then signed on to Netvibes.com, where users can create their own Internet mix-tape, and built a real-time, multi-page hub of user-generated content: photos, videos, blog entries, Twitter messages, all in one spot. He named the hub "Azadi 4 Iran." Azadi means freedom in Persian.

In the past week or so, a meme has circulated on the Web: "Tiananmen + Twitter = Tehran." But it's not just about the so-called "Twitter Revolution." That's a nifty catch-phrase -- the YouTube election, the Facebook effect, etc. -- for many in the mainstream media who are still trying to understand how people live their lives in this social networking age. In this world, a tweet from Canada leads to a Facebook fan page created in the United States, which then leads to a YouTube video from Iran. But these platforms are merely tools that allow people to connect over ideas. A more accurate equation, said Ho, who teaches information technology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is "Tiananmen + Web = Tehran."

Yet, what this online activity ultimately will amount to -- inside and outside Iran -- is an open question.

"The only thing I don't like about that analogy," Ho said of his take on the meme, is "that I hope Tehran ends better than Tiananmen did."

Will online energy concentrated in various pockets of the Web translate to offline activism?

Will things hit such a fever pitch that President Obama, no stranger himself to a bottom-up, grassroots campaign, be forced to take a harder line against Ahmadinejad?

Will the video of the gruesome death of 26-year-old Neda Agha Soltan prove to be a true, lasting rallying cry -- more than just the YouTube sensation of the moment? (Asked at a news conference today if he has seen the video, Obama said he has and added: "It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that.")

Minh T. Nguyen, a software engineer in Los Angeles, isn't sure about the answers. But he was the 30-year-old who created Soltan's Wikipedia entry late Saturday night. Less than two days later, it had been edited at least 300 times.

"Is writing on a Facebook wall while you're peacefully sitting at work, is watching a YouTube video of what's happening in Iran on your iPhone -- all these things we're doing -- are they enough? I don't know," said Nguyen, 31, in a phone interview Monday afternoon.


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