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Pioneering Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan spent six years in prison for his work. He was disappointed by how trivial the internet had become upon his release. He told DW why.
Hossein Derakhshan was born in Iran in 1975. In 2001, he went to study in Toronto, Canada. There, he started blogging under the pen name Hoder and translated a guide on how to blog in Farsi, initiating a Persian blogging surge. In 2004, Iran was among the top five countries with the most bloggers worldwide.
These bloggers were living dangerously, however. Derakhshan was imprisoned by the Iranian government in 2008 and kept in prison for six years.
Since 2015, Derakhshan, now living in Teheran, has been writing essays and giving talks about the impact of social media and the decline of online political exchanges.
DW: Mr. Derakhshan, you spent six years offline while you were imprisoned. The internet changed tremendously during that period. What did you notice when you were released?
Hossein Derakhshan: I observed a shift from an internet which was very decentralized, diverse, link-based, connected, curious, outward-looking and text-centered to a space which is image-centered, which is more about entertainment than discussions or debates or thinking. It is quite centralized and it's dominated by social networks. It's much less diverse. It is more about entertainment now. It has less serious content - including politics.
What happened to all the bloggers you were working with?
Many of the former bloggers and activists are co-opted in that new space; they actually seem to have forgotten that politics played a big role in their life at some point. Now they are happy with the little things they see on social networks. But I think there are less and less people who are interested in serious news and serious discussions.
[Eds.: Many Iranian activists and bloggers were imprisoned - like Derakhshan - and have not been released.]
When the internet emerged in the 90s, it created a new window of opportunity for serious discussion. After 20 years, this window is now closing, and the internet is becoming like television. It is actually forming a new kind of television which is internet-based and personalized and it is available on all kinds of devices.
I am just very sad that everyone is into videos now rather than reading, because video is a limited medium for conveying complex messages. It simplifies everything and it is the most convenient environment for the rise of demagogues and populists.
Social media may have helped the Egyptian revolution of 2011 at the beginning, but their success was limited, says Derakhshan
Do you believe social networks aren't useful at all? After all, noteworthy political movements rallied through social networks over the last years…
Social networks may be useful to have emotional reactions to certain news or certain events. Maybe even to bring people to the streets in some cases. But as an Egyptian activist has brilliantly put it, this has not helped the Egyptian revolution. Social networks were successful in bringing out people and giving them a negative voice about the status quo, but that did not lead to anything positive. They started to fight each other.
Once the Mubarak regime was gone, the same social networks became the best device to foment internal rivalries and differences. So I think that as much as they can help people to organize against something, they cannot unite people in doing something positive, because they can not replace leadership.
How did you see this development in Iran?
Like everywhere else in the world, there are less people interested in reading more than a few paragraphs and you can see that in Iran as well, through the very very low circulation of books and newspapers and the sales for anything that is printed. It is going down very rapidly.
At the same time, there is a huge rise in the number of people using some sort of social network, for instance Instagram is extremely popular in Iran. There is also this messaging application called Telegram which is extremely popular in Iran. I think more than 25 million people in Iran are using it now. This is completely different from how things were 10 years ago when there was a lot more text and reading and serious discussion going on.
So much of the stuff on the web has been abandoned, many people used to have their own domain names, but they let them expire. It has become a graveyard. In the best cases, you have some tombs saying there used to be blogs here.
Don't you use any social networks at all?
I use Twitter because relatively speaking it is much more open. It supports hyperlinks and it can be very informative and useful to link to other places, to introduce and share ideas and articles. But generally speaking, there is a trend towards videos. Even Twitter as a text-based platform is going towards video and they are encouraging more live videos.
What should happen to save the internet you knew and appreciated?
We have to do certain things to disrupt this algorithm-based kind of gate keeping, which is creating comfort zones for everyone. I don't necessarily know what the solutions are because I think it is a very general problem and it can probably only be solved by big social structures like states. On an individual level, we can't do much but be unhappy about how things are changing. Still, we can push governments to intervene if they value representative democracy and informed citizenship and informed political participation.