Danish researcher Caroline Nellemann has done her Master's thesis on Iranian blogs and was involved for three months with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Harvard. In order to meet Iranian bloggers and to be more in touch with Iran she took a trip to Iran recently. Caroline shares some of her ideas, photos and research experience with us in this interview.
The photo is from a blog event where “The Frogomist Award” (Golden Frog)  for the best Iranian blogs in various categories was given. (Caroline is on the second right with the back pack).
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your interest in blogging and especially Iranian blogs?
I have just finished my master's thesis which focuses on the Iranian blogosphere. The purpose of the thesis is to examine how blogs become a part of the public sphere. Iran is an interesting example for several reasons. First of all, blogs in Farsi are extremely widespread both in Iran as well as within the Iranian Diaspora. Secondly, it is interesting to look at blogs as an alternative, freer media in a country where public discussion is restricted. When I talk about the public sphere in this context I primarily refer to the press.
I had the chance to go to Iran in April for three weeks on a grant from the Danish Institute in Damascus, where the purpose is to encourage cultural and scholarly exchange between Denmark and the Muslim worlds. When I got to Iran I was completely overwhelmed by the friendly and hospitable atmosphere I met as well as intrigued by the many contradictions e.g. the great contrast between public and private life.
What are some interesting characteristics about Iranian blogs and what is their presence in Iran's media?
Unfortunately I do not read Farsi but I have read a lot of examples from blogs that were translated, and have followed some of the Iranian blogs in English. My primary source of information was communication with Iranian bloggers who discussed the content of their blogs as well as their experiences and ideas about blogging. In Iran I met with ten different bloggers, and I would like to thank the many helpful people in this process, including Hamid Tehrani from Global Voices. The bloggers I met had very different profiles regarding age and gender. Some of them focused on social and political matters, while others had blogs that were more personal.
It does not seem like blogs are on the list of favourite subjects in the mainstream media in Iran, although one of the reformist newspapers has a column that discusses what is currently happening in the Iranian blogosphere. Some of the people I talked with explained that blogs are described in Iranian media as a phenomenon for well-to-do youth. In that respect one might get the impression that the authorities are not interested in promoting this medium. On the other hand, the current Iranian president has launched his own blog as well as an official blog festival with awards for the best technical and religious blogs. These initiatives should be seen in the light of the constant upgrading of Internet filtering and no Internet speeds over 128 kb. One could argue that this dualistic approach to blogs and the Internet reflects the continuing schism between tradition and modernity in the Islamic Republic.
During your trip to Iran, did you find a radical difference between how Iran is presented in western media and real society?
Going to the airport in Copenhagen on my way to Iran the taxi driver asked where I was going. When I told him my destination was Tehran, he thought I was out of my mind to go there. Of course not every one has that idea, but I believe that the Western media have presented Iran in such a way that only a very limited aspect of an otherwise highly complex society is shown. At the same time I think that it is exactly this one-sided picture of life in Iran that the Iranian authorities want to present to the world. When I was in Iran I experienced that a lot of people were very concerned about how Iran and the Iranians were depicted in Western media. They were very eager to point out positive aspects of Iranian society and requested that the “other side of the story” be told to as many people as possible.
How can we make a dynamic bridge between Iranian and Western bloggers?
A lot of the bloggers I talked to were only writing in Farsi even though their English was extremely good. They said that they felt that the subjects they wrote about were mostly relevant for Farsi speaking readers inside or outside of Iran. A few even expressed that they did not want to add to the negative picture of Iran that Westerners seem to have. So they would rather keep their critique to themselves and their fellow countrymen.
On the other hand, I believe that blogs are a way of opposing prejudice. The blogosphere enables a pluralistic exchange of opinion and contributes to the eradication of prejudice. Most of the bloggers I talked to explained that they are participating in the blogosphere regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the blogs they read. This indicates that the blogosphere is not just a free-for-all for ideas, but at the same time promotes networking and allowing people to be better informed as well as more politically conscious citizens. Reading about everyday life in Iran and seeing pictures on a photo blog from Tehran might change a lot of Western idea about Iranian society. One of the Iranian bloggers I met developed a more nuanced view of the hejab after reading about women who actually wore it voluntarily.
Do you have any ideas to share with GV's audience?
The conclusions in my thesis have changed somewhat after my trip to Iran. Before my departure I was very optimistic about the possibility of mobilizing public opinion by means of internet and blogosphere. I am still optimistic, but perhaps a bit more realistic. Although the virtual and real worlds are interconnected, there are still important distinctions between the two. On the one hand, the internet can have a very positive effect on the people who communicate with each other, but from there to real life outside cyberspace is something else. The society-transforming potential of blogs depends on how the medium is utilized, since technological media are only instruments for social interactions. As with all other media, the social context determines how blogs function as a part of the public sphere.