Iran's blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web by Hossein Derakhshan(TheGuardian), 29 December 2015
For a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact’ ... Hossein Derakhshan. Photograph: Arash Ashoorinia for the Guardian
Late in 2014, I was abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. In November 2008, I had been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly over my web activities, and thought I would end up spending most of my life in those cells. So the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I was sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer – another prisoner – filled all the rooms and corridors: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”
Outside, everything felt new: the chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colours of the city I had lived in most of my life. Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I had been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean TVs. Women in colourful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kind of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.
Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan – it means book-reader in Persian.
Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it is an entire era online. Writing on the internet had not changed, but reading – or, at least, getting things read – had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become, so I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. It turned out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.
It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.
Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, even those who hated my guts. I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. I felt like a monarch.
The iPhone was a little over a year old, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, WhatsApp. Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.
It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: this is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I was writing on hoder.com, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.
Then, on 5 November 2001, I published a step-by-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top five nations by the number of blogs. I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-20s – it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.
The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans . But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.
There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.
The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.