Two years ago, Iranian activists used social media sites as engines to organize massive anti-government demonstrations. But now, activists say, the limitless freedoms available online are proving to be a distraction from real-world dissent.

Instead of marching in the streets, the same doctors, artists and students who led the demonstrations in 2009 are playing Internet games such as FarmVille, peeking at remarkably candid photographs posted online by friends and confining their political debates to social media sites such as Facebook, where dissent has proved less risky.

“We have become couch rebels, avoiding the dangers that real changes bring,” said a 39-old Iranian artist who spends most days juggling between two laptops and 1,300 online friends. “Our world online is like an endless party with no rules, and that keeps us very busy.”

The artist insisted that she be identified only by her first name, Jinoos, to avoid government retaliation. She said she had attended a demonstration in February but, on returning home, found that all of her friends had remained online, posting news about the protest from the safety of their homes.

More than anything else, the relative quiet on the streets of Tehran can be explained by the ferocity of the government crackdown that followed the protests of 2009. Dozens of protesters were killed, hundreds were arrested, and many were sentenced to long prison terms; since then, critics of the government have preferred to vent their anger in private.

But many Iranians also acknowledge that they increasingly have been drawn into virtual worlds, which serve as outlets for self-expression in forms otherwise unimaginable in a country where a boy and a girl walking hand in hand along a boulevard could be arrested on charges of improper relations.

Iran’s government has sought to block access to Facebook since the protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested victory in the 2009 election. Organizers had used the power and speed of social media to quickly mobilize crowds. Ultimately, the authorities managed to quell the protests but not the deep dissatisfaction within the urban middle classes.

Iranians have used special software to bypass government firewalls and maintain access to Facebook, Twitter, Badoo and other Web sites. Iran has one of the largest Facebook communities in the Middle East and is one of the most densely Web-connected nations in the region, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site.

Online, Iranians brazenly show the parts of their lives that they used to keep secret from the state and others. Pictures of illegal underground parties, platinum blond girls without head scarves and couples frolicking on the beaches of Turkey are all over Iranian social media. They illustrate the rapid modernization that the Islamic republic has gone through during the past decade, changes that have left clerics, revolutionaries and many families struggling to understand.

“Within a period of 10 years, Iranians went from breaking social taboos to breaking everything,” said Bahar Rezaie, a popular Internet poet, model and designer. For her, social media in Iran illustrates what happens to a society that has a deep understanding of the world but is living under a government that has made laws out of traditions.

“Our state has appropriated the official monopoly on values, so everybody constantly feels like a rebel when they have an alcoholic drink, use any kind of drugs or sleep with someone before marriage,” said Rezaie, a tall, dark-haired 25-year-old who designs her own clothes.

Many say that social media postings in Iran illustrate that life for those who made up the bulk of the 2009 protesters is still too comfortable to risk it all in the kind of game-changing protests that have rocked other Middle Eastern nations in recent months.

In 2009, Iranians used social media to coordinate protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested election victory. Now, some activists say online tools are becoming a distraction from real-world dissent. (2009 file photo/GETTY IMAGES)

“People see no viable alternative to the current leaders, and their stomachs are still full,” said Abbas Abdi, an analyst who is critical of government policies. “They are trying to live their lives.”

Jinoos, the artist, said changes are not taking place on the streets but online. She pointed to the open, heated debates on politics, relationships and other sensitive Iranian issues on social media sites. For instance, her sister, who covers herself in a shapeless chador, discovered online that three of her acquaintances were gay. Homosexuality is taboo in Iran but is increasingly accepted in urban circles.

“In real life, how would we ever have found out?” Jinoos said. Iranian culture tends to sweep secrets under Persian carpets, she said, but online realities are not as easy to ignore. Jinoos said that through the use of social media, a whole generation of plugged-in Iranians is quickly learning to deal with dialogue and other opinions and to compromise.

“We might not be organizing protests for now, but we are writing the first steps of democracy for Iran on Facebook,” she said.