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Does 'Tiananmen + Web = Tehran'?

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."

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.

For Alireza Naghavi, who was born and reared in Tehran but now lives in Houston, it's more than enough. Around the same time Nguyen created Soltan's Wikipedia article, Naghavi formed a Facebook page in honor of Soltan. As of 3 a.m. Tuesday, it had 2,180 fans. Twelve hours later it had 16,000.

"They're all individual people reaching out to other families and friends and co-workers online, telling them what happened to Neda. That's powerful. I've been getting a lot of e-mails. They're powerful," said Naghavi, 28, who works in real estate. "Now the group is thinking of petitioning the United States to declare June 20 Neda Day," he said.

Technology alone does not an uprising make. But it can be a tool for democracy.

Iranian authorities know this. The Iranian government limited Web access shortly after the June 12 election. Text messaging is down. Still, some Iranians are getting past the Iranian government's censors through ingenuity, and with help from Web-savvy supporters outside Iran who've set up proxy servers for Iranians to use. Some proxies are working, others not. There's confusion.

Early Monday morning, a Twitterer sent a message to his 108 followers: "Running a proxy? Are you sure it's helping? Test it using instructions here." Twitterers are also instructing each other to change their location to Tehran to throw off the Iranian authorities targeting Twitter users in the country. Last week David Jenkins, a 45-year-old computer analyst from Canada, changed the location in his Twitter account from Ontario to Tehran.

The rush of content has been so constant that Mashable.com, which tracks social networking sites, posted "a social media timeline" on Monday. It's a day-by-day history of the election's aftermath, showing that the online connection has been a primary information source for many.

On the first day of protests in Iran, some on Twitter complained that news channels were too slow with coverage. It's been nearly impossible since to keep up with the flood of information online, and just as difficult to figure out what is accurate and what is not.

But that hasn't stopped the online masses from being gripped, or the online giants from rushing to keep up. Google recently added Farsi to Google Translate, its free online translating service. Not to be outdone, Facebook has made its entire site available in a beta version of Persian.

"This is the moment where the world participates in world politics," said Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." "We're seeing the continued extension of the desire to actually participate in the media landscape by people formerly relegated to the role of mere consumers. Now, and from now on, media is behaving not just as a source of information, but as a site of coordination."

Though not everyone in Iran has Internet access, the country is home to a vibrant blogosphere, not surprising, given that 70 percent of its population is under the age of 30. A two-minute online video called "Iran: A Nation of Bloggers," created by students at Vancouver Film School last November, said Iran has at least 700,000 blogs. About 100,000 of them are active, and most are written in Farsi, with bloggers discussing such "forbidden topics" as politics and romance. And though conservative blogs write in support of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian state, liberal blogs speak out for women's rights and demand political reform, according to a study of the Iranian blogosphere by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Said Kate Tremills, who wrote the video script: "You can see with what's being written in the blogs, with what Iranians are saying online, that Iranians critical of the current regime are using technology to present themselves in a different light to the outside world."

The first thing Chas Danner does when he gets off the R train, riding from Manhattan to Brooklyn, is check his iPhone for new tweets on Iran.

Danner, 30, got hooked when Iranians started posting photos and videos on Twitter more than a week ago. He started blogging about it on the blog that he'd had for months but had seldom used. Then he created an Iran-centric YouTube channel, uploading mostly videos taken by Iranians. A nearly pitch-black, two-and-a-half-minute video-- recorded by a young Iranian speaking in Farsi about the state of her country as her neighbors shout "Allah-o Akbar" ("God is Great") from the rooftops -- moved him so much that he uploaded it in his own channel, complete with an English translation. "When we in America hear people say 'Allah-o-Akbar,' it's mostly in the context of 'Oh, that's what terrorists say before they attack us.' But that's so myopic," Danner said. "When I heard 'Allah-o-Akbar' in that video, I heard hope, hope for something better, hope for a better life." As a volunteer for Barack Obama's campaign, he felt connected, he said, "to young Iranians seeking change."

On Friday night, he sent the translated video to Huffington Post, which hosts a continuous live blog that has attracted more than 85,000 comments. It was one of the most viewed videos on YouTube over the weekend and so far had clocked in 107,000 views.

"Ultimately, we don't know what kind of impact all of us on the Web, from all around the world, are actually having on what's happening in Iran," Danner, a writing student at The New School, said in an interview. "But take us -- us being the rest of the world -- out of the equation. At the end of the day, people in Iran just want their voices to be heard."

Imagine, Danner said, if Anne Frank had been able to get online.

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