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A glimpse into the heart of Iranian society

calexander.jpgChristian Alexander is an American blogger who has written his BA thesis on Iranian blogs. Here, he shares with us his his opinion on Iranian blogs. He is also a contributor to Sounds Iranian blog where people who do research on Iranian blogs and exchange their ideas.

Q: Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your interest in blogging and your interest in Iranian blogs?

My interest in blogs was a little accidental. I've always had an interest in technology, and specifically the Internet. The web is the defining technology of our times, and a revolutionary invention that will have – indeed already has had – an incredible effect on human civilization.

In college, for my final honors thesis I decided to interlace my interest in technology and its influence on society with my major area of study, colonial and post-colonial non-Western history. My advisor, a specialist on 19th century Iranian and Middle Eastern history, suggested that I look into the recent hype over blogging in Iran.

I spent the better part of a year investigating Iranian blogs and relevant literature on them. In the process I developed an interest in Iranian society and culture. I took an independent Persian language course and began my own metablog that I used to track the Iranian blogosphere.

Since submitting my thesis a little over a year ago I have continued to follow Iran both in the news and through the blogs and other sources I accumulated during my formal study. While I am actively looking to broaden my study of blogging to include other countries and regions that share many of Iran's issues (such as accessibility, poverty, etc.), I maintain a specific interest in the Iranian blogosphere.

From taxi culture to nuclear crisis

Q: Do you think Iranian blogs can give you an image of Iran that we do not find in the mass media? Can you cite an example?

I definitely think that, especially in the case of Iran, blogging gives a welcomed alternative perspective that often diverges radically from what traditional mainstream media provides us here in the US. In my mind this is one of the most important contributions that the Iranian Weblogestan makes.

One of the most interesting and exciting discoveries I made during my study was the perspective of the Iranian blogosphere. The odd mix of familiarity and strangeness of their worlds provided a much more complex, nuanced, and sympathetic picture of Iranian society than traditional sources of news did.

The fact that I had such access to these people also gave me an important sense of empowerment. Learning about the intricacies of taxi culture in View From Iran's “Taxi Talk,” or about daily street life from Mr. Behi gave me a glimpse into the heart of Iranian society that traditional media stories left out. Daily coverage of the Iranian-US nuclear stand-off and Iranian involvement in Iraq by the mainstream media continually creates a false impression of Iran that blogs often work to deconstruct.

But the Iranian blogosphere represents a very small demographic. As in other “developing” countries, the internal “digital divide” between those with access and those without significantly shapes the perspective and climate of the Iranian cyber-society.

Reading Iranian English-language blogs in the months and weeks leading up to the 2005 presidental elections, it would have been hard, if not impossible, to predict that Ahmadinejad would win. Clearly the views of these bloggers were at odds with a substantially large portion of the rest of Iran. The surprise/shock/denial illicited by many of these blogs in the aftermath illustrates how specific group this group was/is within the broader Iranian population.

Technology and ideology of modernization

Q: What are the main topics of your thesis about Iranian blogs?

As I said before, my project looked to combine my interest in technology and the Internet with the history of non-Western post-colonies. Now, I understand that Iran was never a formal colony. Nevertheless, its semi-colonial past bares many of the similarities to other parts of the world that at one time were dominated politically, militarily, and culturally by Western Europe and/or the United States. I am interested in how this part of history has shaped the world we live in today.

The overarching theme of my thesis was an investigation of the way technology and the ideology of modernization interacted within Iran throughout the previous century or so. Looking back on the recent history of Iran, technology has always played a central role in the ideological pursuit to become “modern.” The idea of modernity itself is something that is flexible and subject to change, depending on who and when you ask. For 19th and early 20th century Europe, modernity was reflected in the rational, scientific, transparent ideology that developed from the European Enlightenment.

Tangled up in this ideal were the cultural norms of European society, which were often labeled as objective truth rather than subjective perspective. Predictably, this view of modernity clashed with the cultural norms of other regions of the world, such as Iran, who came to be dominated by European countries. Confusion over the definition and meaning of European modernity and its compatibility with Iranian culture created tension within the political, social and cultural hierarchy of the region.

Over the last hundred years Iranians have wrestled between the desire to be modern and the fear of political and cultural domination by the West. The 1979 Revolution signified a swing towards anti-Western “traditionalism” and a rejection of Euro-American “modernity.” However, the regime's mixed ambivalence towards technology hints at a greater ideological incoherence that is not sustainable in the contemporary world.

Blogs are radical

Q: How do you evaluate Iranian blogs’ importance in Iranian society?

This is a difficult question for a number of reasons. First, being an outsider (and with a very limited grasp of the language to boot), it is very difficult for me to ascertain the importance of Weblogestan within Iran and Iranian society. I've read many bloggers inside Iran complaining about the warped perspectives of those outside the country, both foreigners and members of the diaspora. I acknowledge the complexity of Iran's social and political situation, and question how accurate my analysis is.

The second difficulty is in determining the larger impact of blogging itself on politics and society in general. No doubt, blogging can have a significant impact on societies, as has been demonstrated numerous times in Iran, the US, and around the world. Blogs play an important role as disseminators of information and ideas. They are radical because they introduce a (relatively) cheap, accessible and anonymous medium for expression (the last factor is what has made them such an attractive and potent political tool in repressive societies, such as Iran).

However, when it comes to specific, sustained political and social change, blogging seems more effective as an indirect and supplementary contributor. Can bloggers by themselves change policy, elect a president, or preserve a cultural monument? They are only indirect players. Citizens and/or leaders must still make the decisions and take action.

The most effective campaigns for social or political change that have utilized blogs have had some sort of real-world backbone, some means of connecting ideas in cyberspace with action in reality. Can this change? For most purposes I believe blogging to be just a tool. In essence, for grassroots social/political change to be effective, bloggers must also be active citizens.

From a purely cultural perspective you might argue that blogging has a more direct effect by actually changing the structure of human interaction and socio-cultural norms. I think this is very significant, but this change too is in my mind a slower, more subtle process. Bloggers (and everyone else) have less direct control over this change.

In general, I think that blogs have had more of an impact on Iranian society and politics than they otherwise would have because of the repressive nature of the regime. The freedom of expression and ideas that blogging facilitates has been an important development for Iranians, and this phenomenon has already shown its power and influence over the country's leadership. Socially too, blogs have allowed many Iranians to bypass restrictive policies and engage each other in discussion, share opinions, flirt, etc.

However, I would also say that much of the hype produced about the democratizing power of the the Internet and blogs has proved to be just that. Thus far, the new technologies themselves have not been effectively utilized as a tool to reform the repressive regime. Instead, the Iranian government has learned to manipulate or censor technologies such as the Internet. Despite the efforts of many reformist bloggers, it still remains to be seen whether the pressure they have placed on the government will be enough to move it towards a more just and tolerant society.

Iranian blogs vs. American blogs

Q: How do you compare Iranian political blogs with American ones?

I would say that in many ways Iranian political blogs and American political blogs are very similar. In both communities there is a variance of positions and opinions (thanks Hamid Tehrani for blogging about conservative Iranian blogs). A fragmentation of the blogosphere along ideological/political lines is probably also a characteristic of both. Of course government censorship is a much bigger factor in Iran, and so the number of anonymous blogs in the Iranian blogosphere is, I imagine, much higher (although I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back this up).

Q: Have you got anything else to share with the Global Voices audience?

I'd like to thank GVO and all of its contributors for their work. I've enjoyed learning about new places and people through its pages, and hope that GVO and its partners will continue to facilitate meaningful dialog between different groups. I hope to continue to contribute in my own way and encourage others to share their thoughts and ideas as well. Feel free to contact me through this GVO post, SoundsIranian or my personal blog.

1 comment

  • I have always thought that there is a silent majority in Iran, college educated , middle class Iranians who want good relations with the west, and the economic advantages it brings. The unparalled economice engine of the United States has always been a very good carrot.
    I think we could see the mullahs run off and a modern, western friendly government established.

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