Iran became a “nation of bloggers” between early 2000 and 2009, as a vibrant, diverse set of online blogs became the platform for expression for thousands of Iranians, ranging from political activists, poets and sports fans to the often-overlooked class of hardline religious conservatives. Those blogs emerged as a space for active, intense, ongoing discussions on everything from politics to poetry. Regardless of whether these blogs played a role in the “Green Movement” demonstrations that followed the fraudulent 2009 election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they helped to redefine Iran’s politics and the nature of public discourse.
This Persian blogosphere, or “Blogestan,” however, is not what it used to be. As we demonstrate in our new report, “Whither Blogestan,” there have been remarkable changes in the Iranian blogosphere since the late 2000s. Building upon the pioneering 2008 study “Mapping Iran’s Online Public” to evaluate how the landscape has changed, we conducted a survey of 165 blog readers, interviewed 20 active bloggers, and used a Web-crawling analysis of 24,205 blogs. Of the survey respondents, 92 percent reported a change in their blog reading habits since they began reading blogs. Only 20 percent of the prominent blogs from 2008 to 2009 were still online in fall 2013, while 70 percent of the remaining bloggers publish one post per month or less. What happened? And what does it mean for the once-bright hopes of the emergence of an alternative public sphere in Iran?
State intervention, from filtering to repression, is a big part of the story. The Iranian regime introduced a wide mix of repressive techniques, from domain and keyword “blacklists” to deep packet inspection, bandwidth throttling and filtering of virtual private networks (VPNs). Many bloggers cite personal reasons for abandoning their efforts. They noted the most important reasons for starting a blog as “saying things that cannot be said in public” and “sharing news not covered by mass media,” while the key reasons for no longer blogging are “fear of censorship” and “too many blogs filtered.” But the fading of Blogestan does not mean that online engagement has disappeared: One crucial reason for the decline of blogging has been the increase in time spent on other social media platforms.
Filtering hit Blogestan hard, modifying the diversity of voices within the Persian blogosphere. As one writer explained: “They showed me a stack of papers, each one a blog post that I had written, and they had highlighted portions and sections. After I was released, my blog in effect became my case file.” Reformist blogs are 17 times more likely to be filtered or removed than conservative blogs. In our sample, nearly half of the reformist blogs were filtered or removed in comparison to only 2.8 percent of conservative blogs. In addition, nearly all blogs hosted on the two popular platforms operating outside Iran, WordPress and Blogspot, are blocked. These conditions drove many prominent bloggers to alter or cease blogging, which transformed the blogging landscape. The closure of popular services such as BlogRolling and Google Reader disrupted the connections between bloggers. The loss of Google Reader was particularly significant because it had been a vital tool for circumventing the censorship of filtered blogs.
But there is another side to the story: The emergence of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook is among the most important causes for the erosion of Blogestan. Just because blogs have declined does not mean that online public expression has withered alongside it. Of the survey respondents, 30.9 percent reported that their increased time spent on social media had reduced their blog consumption, but 28.5 percent said that social media had made them spend more time on the blogs. While in the earlier period 68.2 percent of respondents said that they went directly to blogs, now only 30.6 percent do, and 47.3 percent said that they instead access blogs through social media. Social networking sites have become the primary location for comments and discussion.
The rise in SNS has not only significantly affected how and what types of blog content are produced and promoted, but it has also fundamentally altered the nature of the blogger to audience relationships. Over time, most bloggers migrated to SNS to promote their blogs and reach their audience. Although this parallel use of SNS and blogs helped some bloggers be efficient and responsive, most agree that the consequence of this platform migration is that social media has become the de facto owner of blog content. The flood of content produced by thousands of social network users undermined the unique social status of the bloggers, flooding their once unique contributions in a sea of voices.
What does this shift toward SNS mean? Already the nature of Facebook and Twitter as a platform of communication between members of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and Iranian and non-Iranian Internet users has begun to change the nature of Iranian public diplomacy, despite the prevailing filters on these Web sites. The Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance has also stated that more than 4 million Iranians are members of Facebook (although an exact figure is hard to find) – a number far beyond the amount of Iranian bloggers that ever existed. This transition has in effect expanded the participatory potentials of Iran’s online public sphere. While membership on these social networks remains restricted by state censorship, it is almost ubiquitous with the use of circumvention software. Similarly, while there are more Iranians within SNS, the nature of their interaction with the content has changed. Discussions are often now relegated to likes and shares as opposed to the discussions and debates that long-form blog posts used to incite.
“Blogs have now become the personal archives of individuals. It is a common practice now that an individual would set up a blog in order to keep track of his writing elsewhere,” says one blogger. The firepower the blog maintained has in effect become a secondhand library. Just as vinyl records are still listened to, and considered better than the digital format, they exist without having a real impact on the music industry. In effect ,blogs are the vinyl records of the Internet.
Fred Petrossian is online editor-in-chief of Radio Farda. He co-edited and co-wrote “Hope, Votes and Bullets”(2010) on Iranian protest movements based on citizen media. He is co-founder of the award-winning March 18 Movement to raise awareness about bloggers’ safety around the world. Petrossian was involved with leading digital projects such as Harvard Global Voices. He has been an international speaker on civil society and citizen media in media and academic centers such as Yale University. Arash Abadpour holds a PhD in electrical and computer engineering. He has been a blogger since October 2004, under the pen name Arash Kamangir. His Persian blog Kamangir is among the 20 most-read blogs in the Persian blogosphere. Arash is regularly consulted and interviewed on matters related to the circumstances of the Internet in Iran by the mainstream media. He provides commentary regarding the Persian blogosphere and has been involved in a number of research projects on the relationship between Iranian users and the Internet. Mahsa Alimardani is the research manager of ASL 19. Her focus is on the intersection of technology and human rights, especially as it pertains to freedom of expression and access to information inside Iran. This piece is associated with the report “Whither Blogestan: Evaluating Shifts in Persian Cyberspace” written by Laurent Giacobino, Arash Abadpour, Colin Anderson, Fred Petrossian, and Caroline Nellemann.