Jordan Halevi (online alias) is a young Canadian researcher who has conducted a survey on Iranian blogs. In this interview conducted by Global Voices‘ Farsi language editor Farid Pouya, he discusses, among other things, his research project and the Iranian reaction to the questions in his survey.
FP: Can you introduce yourself and your research project?
JH: Certainly. My name’s Jordan. I’m a Canadian graduate student with a research interest in how new media are shaping socio-political realities in the Middle East.
Not long ago, I became intrigued with the phenomenon of Iranian blogging, and decided to conduct a bit of independent research on the topic. My main aim was to gather some basic quantitative data on the demographics and surfing patterns of the readers of a few popular Iranian weblogs. My hope was that such information, however incomplete, could add some richness to our understanding of how blogging, as a medium, is coming to play a role in the Iranian public sphere.
My methodology was quite simple. First, I created an online survey, offered in both Farsi and English, aimed at gathering the kind of information from respondents that I mentioned above. Then I simply asked a couple of prominent Iranian bloggers to post a link to the survey on their websites.
I actively ran the survey for a few months, and gathered between 300 and 400 usable responses, which I then queried for patterns. While there were no big surprises in the data, they did reveal some interesting trends.
FP: What got you interested in Iranian blogs? Have you compared them with the blogospheres of any other countries?
JH: If my memory serves me right, I was first alerted to the topic of Iranian blogging by the surprising amount of media coverage the phenomenon was receiving. A bit of preliminary research also revealed that the Iranian blogosphere was one of the largest, and fastest-growing, blogging communities on the web at the time. The fact that this ‘weblogestan’ was flourishing, despite the notoriously restrictive policies of the Islamic Republic, intrigued me, to say the least.
With regard to your second question, the short answer is ‘no’. During the early stages of my research, I did explore whether there was a comparable phenomenon occurring in the Arab world. However, at the time, it seemed that was not the case.
It’s my understanding that things have changed remarkably since then. A comparative study would definitely be interesting at this point.
FP: What are the main questions that you asked in your survey?
JH: I guess you could say my questions were divided into two main “sets”. The first set was aimed at gathering basic demographic information on the respondents, and included questions pertaining to things such as their age, gender, language, location, computer-literacy, education and religious and social self-perceptions.
The second set of questions was intended to flesh out the surfing and blog-reading habits of the respondents, as well as to ascertain the degree to which blogging is permeating the Iranian social fabric in general.
Included in this second set were questions on respondents’ internet access, browsing frequency, favourite blogs and blog content, and so on. They were also asked to share any experiences they may have had with state censorship, and to estimate the degree to which they discuss ideas they’ve read on blogs with others.
The survey is actually still online, so, if you’re interested, you and your readers are more than welcome to check out the questions first-hand: http://www.iranblogproject.squarespace.com.
FP: How did Iranians react to the survey?
JH: With perhaps only one or two exceptions, all the respondents were highly supportive of my efforts, and they demonstrated this by providing me with encouraging comments and even private contact information. I also received quite a bit of positive feedback and support from the Iranian community here in Vancouver.
Moreover, word of my survey rapidly spread from two or three blogs, to sites I’d never even heard of, and numerous Iranian bloggers with whom I’d had no correspondence were kind enough to enthusiastically promote my survey on their sites.
Basically, the response was heart-warmingly positive. I’m sincerely grateful for all the thoughtfulness and energy expended by the hundreds of people who participated in the project, from Tehran to Paris to Toronto. Despite its humble scale, I guess you could say the project’s success is a testament to the collaborative power of the internet.
FP: Could you share some of your conclusions with us?
JH: Absolutely. First of all, despite the fact that the survey targeted readers of specifically ‘Iranian’ weblogs, about half the participants were in fact Iranian expatriates, answering the survey from countries such as Canada, the USA, and France. To my mind, this highlights the transnational nature of the blogosphere and, specifically, the role it can play in maintaining ties between a vast diaspora and a home country.
Second, while there was some degree of variation, a striking majority of respondents fit the following demographic mold: a 20-32 year-old highly-educated university student or graduate, well-off, living in a large urban centre (most often Tehran, Vancouver, Toronto or Esfahan), who is fairly computer-literate and an avid internet user.
In terms of gender, 60% of respondents were males, while 40% of respondents were females.
Something that definitely stood out was the wide array of respondents’ views on religion. Despite their demographic similarity, respondents ranged from the devoutly orthodox, to the outwardly atheist. A number of contrasting comments were offered up, and this served as an interesting reflection of the diversity of opinion amongst young Iranian adults (or at least amongst those who answered my survey) regarding the ideal role of religion in society.
In terms of censorship, just over 22% of all respondents claimed to have persistent state censorship problems, and another sizable group said they’ve experienced problems with state censorship at least occasionally. While not overwhelming, this implies that, for those within the Islamic Republic, the censorship of blogs is at least somewhat of a hindrance, (if not a palpable danger for those whose blogs are specifically targeted).
Regarding the pervasiveness of blogging within Iranian society, the numbers were modest. 60% of respondents said they were the only ones amongst their family and friends who actively read blogs. However, a majority did say that they at least occasionally share ideas they’ve read on blogs with others. Together, this suggests that while the influence of the blogosphere is by no means ubiquitous, it is slowly percolating throughout various spheres of Iranian society. This is something that’s really hard to quantify, however.
FP: Did the outcome of the survey surprise you?
JH: On the whole, the results were pretty much what I expected. That being said, the respondents were, on average, even more highly educated than I would have guessed, and there was certainly more religious and social diversity than I expected amongst the participants.
For instance, I did not predict that so many of the respondents would characterize themselves or their families as “government employees” and, at the same time, I was genuinely surprised by the range of views expressed on religion.
Finally, what was really interesting to me was how word of my survey spread so rapidly – and in such an asymmetrical way – throughout the Iranian blogosphere (resulting, for instance, in a slew of respondents who’d found my survey via sites I had never heard of, such as a group blog run solely by Iranian librarians). That sort of ‘organic’ growth was really fascinating.
FP: Any new project on blogging to share with us?
JH: Well, I’m currently looking for an appropriate academic venue to publish my findings in their entirety.
That being said, I’d love to see a synthesis of the sort of provisional quantitative research I’ve been doing with some of the qualitative studies done by researchers such as Celine Petrossian or Nasrin Alavi. The effects of blogging on Iranian society may be more subtle, and fundamentally cultural, than they are urgently political, and I think that’s something worth exploring in depth.
Apart from that, I also think it would be interesting to study how bloggers have been covering recent events in more overtly troubled places such as Iraq and Lebanon.
I’m sure we could all think of countless more topics like this, each of which could be a fascinating research project unto itself.
On that note, let me end here. Thanks for your interest in my research, Farid, and all the best with Global Voices – I think it’s an awesome site and I look forward to watching it evolve.