Six years is a long time to be away from cyberspace—especially when you're known as the Blogfather.
At one point, 20,000 visitors came to Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan's site every day. Words, it turns out, mattered – too much, perhaps, for Iran's repressive government.
In 2008, after returning to Tehran after nearly a decade of living and studying abroad, Derakhshan was jailed for his blogging activities. He was initially sentenced to nearly 20 years in Evin Prison, and spent much of his first years in prison without charges. After being locked up for six years, he was pardoned by Iran's supreme leader and released in 2014.
In the years after he lost his freedom, the Internet shifted priorities and platforms. Blogging was no longer king; social media was queen. Because of the brevity and speed of social media, he had to adjust his writing style to package truthful stories in an interesting way.
For the last few years, he has been advocating for telling accurate stories on the web without getting caught in, well, a web.
I discussed these online changes with Derakhshan, who is living in Tehran. Some of the answers have been slightly edited for length and flow.
You had to trade the web for a jail cell for six years—an eternity in internet speak. Given your experience, how can one balance freedom of speech while protecting privacy amid these challenges? How has your time away from the internet taught you about not getting tangled within the worldwide web?
The decline of the web in favor of social media entails grim consequences. Hyperlinks were the founding principle of the web; it secured a diversity, nonlinearity, decentralization and interactivity, which made the web so powerful. But social media's very philosophy and monetization strategy, or the stream, cannot be friendly to hyperlinks, since they do not want their users to leave their space. This new environment, in addition to the currently dominant algorithms, which favors popularity and now-ness rather than diversity and quality, is worse than television in its potential damage to representative democratic societies, where majority is supposed to take informed decisions without jeopardizing minorities. The rise of identity politics and intolerance for diversity is directly linked to the current form of the internet. This is the deepest shock of this transition to me since my release. This shift from what I call books-internet to TV-internet.
You started a petition to request that places like Medium, which serve as today's form of blogging, adopt right-to-left languages, such as Farsi and Arabic. Do you suppose that adding new languages into the web will enrich our experiences?
Definitely. Most of the current social media platforms are obsessed with videos and photography and therefore encourage and favor emotionally provocative content. Any typography-dominated platform which respects text is of great value these days, for it re-enables reason and thinking. Our world is in visible danger over this curious decline, or even undoing, of the ideals of the enlightenment at the center of which rationality sits.
All current social media platforms favor the flashy and viral (most frequently posted by celebs). Our feeds tend to look like a never-ending stream of carefully curated reality TV shows, happening simultaneously, broadcasting live, in many cases. How can one mindfully navigate this?
Thanks for bringing this up. I've been saying this for over two years that television has captured the Internet and all the dark features of television are now reincarnated in social platforms. Plus, some new negative ones. However, I cannot find an immediate solution. This shift is caused by larger sociopolitical structures. Welfare states are collapsing, and therefore people are growingly overworked. Manual jobs are disappearing and people's brains are consumed at work. So during free time, people would obviously prefer to be entertained than to be intellectually provoked. On the other hand, neoliberal systems are increasingly dispensing public education and, as a result, they fail to equip children with critical thinking skills, which is the basis for a healthy democratic society. Sad thing is the re-emergence of pre-Enlightenment social formations, where a small elite had access to text and intellect. A huge majority were basically illiterate. Most people around the world are dangerously becoming incapable of accessing complex typographic content. They can still read, but when you can watch, why read?
It seems that the hyperlink was democracy to you. Has the hashtag sort of taken over?
Hashtag is a curious concept. It does come across like a hyperlink, but it is not. Links usually establish a relation between two known objects. From A to B. They're outward-looking and this is usually done by a human being, who consciously picks a specific target web page to be linked to. Hashtags are self-referential and their target is unspecified. They classify, rather than connect. They comfort rather than challenge or surprise. We have enough categories I think in this new world of identity politics. What we need is connection and challenge.
You wrote in your Guardian piece that when you were freed from prison in Tehran, an inmate said to you that the "bird of luck" had sat on your shoulder. Do you think that in some ways, that metaphor morphed into Twitter?
Ha-ha. That's a humorous reading of this Persian allegory where luck is seen as a bird that sits on one's shoulders. But yes, I guess apart from Medium, which is struggling as a widely popular platform, Twitter is the most typographic and hyperlink-friendly platform out there. Ironically, this explains why it is doing not so well as a public company.
For those of us who grew up in places where the freedom of movement may not be as prevalent (I'm Saudi), how did social media influence your recent interactions? Do you ever miss the days in which this did not exist?
No, it is fun. I'm not against social networks per se; I use many of them, especially those where you can communicate through text, like Twitter. What makes me worried is, first, their current type of algorithms, which only encourage "likes" rather than "agree/trust" or emotions vs. reason. And their growing monopoly in distribution and, gradually, publication and production of news and opinion. As a blogger, I never knew my readers. This is fantastic when I'm able to get to know who reads my stuff now. It is immediate gratification and it is addictive. But it also can make us like clowns. Our purpose is quickly becoming to please than to challenge. This is inevitably affecting public intellectuals and political leaders as well as ordinary people. Demagogy is when audience precedes thinking, and social media is turning us all into little and big demagogues around the world.
You were jailed just days after your first tweet in October 2008. It read: "I'm going to move back to Tehran after 8 years in the next few weeks." Did you think that you'd be using the same platform all these years later under such different circumstances?
Yes, but what surprised me was how a personal microblogging platform had grown to have such political impact, with so many journalists and politicians using it to bypass intermediaries. In fact, this was what I expected from blogs, and, ultimately, Twitter is still a blogging platform.
Do you suppose that the innocuous-sounding first tweet played a part in getting you arrested? Do you worry now that travelers from certain countries are required to sometimes disclose their social media accounts?
No, my charges were mostly related to my blog posts from 2001 to 2008. Twitter has so far never been a source of trouble for anyone in Iran, as far as I know. I don't think checking people's social media accounts by border officers in North America and Europe is limited to people from certain countries. Many rights activists and groups in the West are now advising people to deactivate their social media accounts when they travel. Sadly, I think security is becoming more and more an excuse to impose self-censorship on dissidents around the world. But what is worse than what you write is what you do on social media. Western states are pressing many private social media firms to share user data with them, and that is where you are less safe in the West than in countries like Iran. Because the FBI can force Facebook or Google to hand them your behavior (likes and shares) and search histories with them, which enables them to know you so that they can even predict what you're going to do. But states like Iran, ironically, have no access to these firms. So I always find it funny when Facebook asks "What's on your mind?" They are being too modest, since with an analysis of your behavior, they pretty much know what is on your mind—and even what you might be thinking about next. This is Huxley's "Brave New World," because we give them all this willingly and happily.
How has prison changed the way you write?
Prison hasn't changed me—but aging has. I'm now much more careful to explain myself clearly so as not to create more misunderstanding for anyone. But it has also inspired me to create art. Art is the most durable thing one can leave behind. The problem is if you haven't been to art school, it is really difficult to get into the art scene. I came out of prison with dozens of ideas for performance, video and installation art projects. But without access to curators, galleries and art spaces, I've had a hard time making any of them happen.
You have Canadian citizenship, so what made you decide to stay in Tehran?
Iran is where I was born and where my family still lives. Canada is my other home, and I'm proud of its resistance to the creeping xenophobia and racism which is haunting many countries in the West now. Diversity is in decline, both online and offline. Being a dual citizen is like being bilingual. You can learn a lot and contribute a lot.
The more we tend to immerse ourselves and connect to the world, the more we seem to be trapped within a cycle that feeds into itself. Our images are filtered, our messages are condensed to 140 characters, and our movements within the web are tracked and translated into zeros and ones (binary numbers). Why is social media our new storytelling tool?
I don't think this over-digitization of life will last. Soon, and it's already started, boundaries between real and virtual will vanish. We'll be using analog (or mostly analog-looking digital concepts) much more again. Analog will bring our diminishing senses, such as touch, smell and taste, back. We will also be leaving this over-visualization of our lives soon. Already the rise of podcasts and audiobooks, and developing of voice-recognition technologies such as in [Apple's] Siri are great signs of a massive backlash to this excessive dependence on vision. Consumerism, demagogy, social inequality, identity politics, and many of our modern society's ills are enormously driven by the tyranny of eyes, and thereby hearts. As the great Persian mystical poet, Baba Tahir Oryan, once said:
Beneath the tyranny of eyes and heart I cry,
For, all that the eyes see, the heart stores up,
I'll fashion me a pointed sword of steel,
put out mine eyes, and so set free my heart.
When it comes to news, I think there is much more to imagine and develop. I'm personally working on a type of journalism that I call "performative journalism," which explores the intersection of performance arts, journalism and technology, and would love to develop it into a feasible project, if I manage to get a research grant or opportunity somewhere.