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Excavating The Ruins Of ‘Blogestan’

Iran -- A youth browses a political blog at an internet cafe in the city of Hamadan, May 27, 2009.
Iran -- A youth browses a political blog at an internet cafe in the city of Hamadan, May 27, 2009.
Blogs are an endangered species in Iran, according to Fred Petrossian, Online Editor in Chief with Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian language service.

Or maybe they are the vinyl records of the internet--widely recognized as the better format for individual expression, but now only used by a small group of aficionados. Choose your metaphor, says Petrossian, but blogs are clearly on the decline, not only in Iran, but globally.

Petrossian and his fellow researchers recently published “Whither Blogestan: Evaluating Shifts in Persian Cyberspace,” a report tracking trends in the Iranian blogosphere, dubbed “Blogestan” after the profusion of blogs in the country in the early 2000s. They found that the number of blogs has dwindled since that heyday of Iranian blogging in the early aught years, and examined the factors that contributed to this diffusion in the community.

The report draws on surveys of 165 Persian-language blog readers, interviews with 20 active Iranian bloggers, and a web-crawling analysis of 24,205 blogs. The research builds on the 2008 study “Mapping Iran’s Online Public,” which revealed the fallacy in mainstream Western thinking about Iranian blogging that it is a predominately reformist enterprise.

“We like to see what we want to see, and that’s why from the early days of blogging, there was a trend in Western media to portray Iranian bloggers as young and pro-democracy,” said Petrossian. “But the Iranian blogosphere is much more divided than that.”
Radio Farda Online Editor-in-Chief Fred Petrossians speaks at the Ars Electronica conference in Austria on "myths and reality of Twitter."
Radio Farda Online Editor-in-Chief Fred Petrossians speaks at the Ars Electronica conference in Austria on "myths and reality of Twitter."
As Petrossian and his colleagues explained recently in a guest post for “The Monkey Cage” blog in “The Washington Post,” between 2000 and the crackdown following the contested presidential election in 2009, the Iranian blogosphere flourished, with bloggers seizing on the platform to write about everything from poetry to sports to democracy, but also about hardline religious views, a fact often overlooked by Western media.

Despite the diversity of viewpoints and interests in the Iranian blogosphere, the researchers found a steep drop-off in the number of blogs and blog activity. Their data shows only 20 percent of the prominent blogs from 2008-2009 were still online in September 2013; moreover, 70 percent of the remaining bloggers publish only one post per month or less. On the other hand, consumption of blogs has remained relatively stable over the years.
Researchers' findings in "Whither Blogestan."
Researchers' findings in "Whither Blogestan."

Petrossian says the causes of the drop-off in blogging are two-fold, citing state intervention and the availability of new platforms. Intensified filtering and intimidation by the authorities after 2009 silenced many pro-reformist bloggers. As one survey respondent explained, “[The authorities] showed me a stack of papers, each one a blog post that I had written, and they had highlighted portions and sections. After I was released, my blog in effect became my case file.”

Indeed, the report found that reformist blogs are 17 times more likely than Islamist or apolitical blogs to be filtered or removed by authorities.

However, the rise of social media around the same time also drove a natural migration to Facebook and Twitter, where online commentators and activists could reach a wider audience, but only by forfeiting the depth and longer form offered in blogs.

“If you are a concerned citizen in Iran today and you want to launch a campaign, you’re not going to start with a blog,” said Petrossian. “You’ll start with a Facebook page or Twitter.”

But social media is no less susceptible to censorship than blogs. Both Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Iran, and users have to go through proxy servers, despite the fact that several Iranian officials have debuted their own profiles on both sites.

The report concludes that this shift to social media has “significantly altered the participatory dynamics, experimental character and potency of the early Blogestan scene.” Bloggers interviewed for the report suggested that in order for blogs to survive as a viable and useful platform, bloggers will have to find a way to integrate with social media rather than compete against it.

Whither Blogestan: Evaluating Shifts in Persian Cyberspace was co-written by Laurent Giacobino, Arash Abadpour,Collin Anderson, Fred Petrossian, and Caroline Nellemann and published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Iran Media Program at the Annenberg School for Communication.

--Emily Thompson