As Strong As Our Signal: An Evolving Novelty

This piece was originally written for and published in the Spring of 2011 in the first issue of Arseh Sevom’s zine “The Civil Society Magazine.”  This first issue was focused at looking at net­works and net­working, including tra­di­tional, social, and dig­ital platforms. Read the full zine here.

To many social media is a nov­elty: some­thing for par­ents to worry about, for kids to abuse, for school admin­is­tra­tors to lock-down, for friends to keep in touch, rel­a­tives to over-share, and even now, for e-guilt from those of us with par­ents tech-savvy enough to join.

Thinking back, there wasn’t really a sudden emer­gence of online net­works; rather (like most sus­tain­able net­works) they grew organ­i­cally. It’s funny to think that AOL chat-rooms, MySpace pro­files, and angsty LiveJournal entries would be the new forums for cre­ating and sharing. In the last ten years I’ve gone from pleas­antly excited to get a non-chain letter e-mail to being mildly annoyed by the onslaught of noise and dis­trac­tion from Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Linkedin, IRC, Skype, Xbox Live, and Google. Every action from every friend is a simul­ta­neous alert, flash, bleep, bouncing icon that makes fol­lowing a single nar­ra­tive almost impos­sible.

It’s not that we can’t tell sto­ries, it’s that there are too many being told, at the same time, shouted over one another, in the same channel that often seems more like a cesspool than a foun­tain of knowledge. What hap­pens to all those nar­ra­tives we post, like, re-tweet, for­ward, share, for­ward, and paste after we’re done with them? Is that nar­ra­tive, that thin line of story, doomed to thirty sec­onds of rel­e­vance before drowning in the Internet’s Styx? I often wonder how many people actu­ally read the links they re-tweet. And yes, some­times the stars will align so that the right post timing com­bined with an emo­tion­ally packed title can drive people to do more than hit share.

The truth is that Internet nar­ra­tives will never rest as com­fort­ably as those sit­ting neatly in between book covers, with the great luxury of being picked up, put down, and remembered. Knowing this, how can we ensure, then, that the nar­ra­tives do not fall into the cracks of the Internet? How can we strengthen our sto­ries, and not just share them, but also use them to fur­ther dis­course? How can we ADD some­thing to the nar­ra­tive rather than just con­tinue adding to the noise?

A Not-So-New Phenomenon
360_iran_tweets_0616.jpgIranians took to the streets en masse after the 2009 elec­tions, with stu­dents and union workers protesting along­side bazaar mer­chants and women cloaked in chadors. Ordinary Iranians evolved into cit­izen jour­nal­ists as they cap­tured the brutal vio­lence on camera phones and shared the grainy videos on YouTube. That many of the sig­nif­i­cant events of the 2009 elec­tion protests were orga­nized, broad­cast, and dis­sem­i­nated through social-networking sites and mobile phones became a tes­ta­ment to the poten­tial energy of online media. Social media’s kinetic energy became more apparent after the 2009 elec­tion – it wasn’t invented because of it.

Iranian activists have long used internet plat­forms to engage, dis­cuss, and orga­nize; to peti­tion and fur­ther their goals, aspi­ra­tions, and demands; and to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion and offer the Iranian people an alter­na­tive to the State’s pro­pa­ganda machines. Iranians have evolved their net­works beyond dis­sem­i­na­tion; the real power now comes from the net­works’ power in deliv­ering a nar­ra­tive that drives action. Iranian activists are among the most savvy in the battle for rights online, despite aggres­sive mon­i­toring and out­right oppres­sion by the regime’s Cyber Police.

Iran’s gov­ern­ment has become increas­ingly adept at lim­iting e-mail and tele­phone com­mu­ni­ca­tions, espe­cially during times of height­ened ten­sion. But Iranians them­selves have also become better adept at cir­cum­venting cen­sors and fil­ters. The régime’s increasing uneasi­ness about Internet com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms hints at its fear of the power of social media and the poten­tial for “neti­zens” not only to share infor­ma­tion, but its capacity to move in con­cert with the people.

Screen Shot 2017-01-04 at 10.47.06 PM.pngThe One Million Signatures Campaign (now the Change for Equality Campaign), a female-driven grass­roots move­ment, began as an effort to col­lect one mil­lion sig­na­tures for a peti­tion calling for an end to Iran’s writ-in-the-law gender dis­crim­i­na­tion. Initially the cam­paign involved (mostly female) activists wan­dering the streets col­lecting sig­na­tures; even this sub­dued activism was deemed a threat by the régime. Despite author­i­ties breaking up events, shut­ting down real and vir­tual media of expres­sion, and detaining activists for “endan­gering state secu­rity,” the Campaign has not only sur­vived, but con­tinues to flourish across Iran, with sol­i­darity net­works emerging in coun­tries worldwide.

Parvin Ardalan, a founding member of the Campaign, has said that it was because they lost their print plat­forms that they turned to the Internet: “We cre­ated a new world for our­selves in cyberspace.” Much of its sus­tain­ment is no doubt due to its web-based advo­cacy plat­form, Change for Equality. What started as the Campaign’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion avenue has since evolved beyond sharing con­tent and into a plat­form affording the everyday Iranian (and these days, the dias­pora and its allies) a plat­form for action. The draw­back to web plat­forms, to take a point from Parvin Ardalan, is that not everyone con­sumes media online. And let’s be honest, even if they do, there’s no real guar­antee that the con­sump­tion leaves a lasting impact – it’s a share at best, often drowned and buried before Facebook reg­is­ters the Like.

The Diaspora’s Use
Iranian activists have built plat­forms where aspi­ra­tions are born and ideas not only shared, but evoca­tive enough to drive its par­tic­i­pants to action. (Think of the One Million Signature Campaign’s use of an online peti­tion to help sup­ple­ment its on the ground grass­roots work). While Iranians have man­aged to har­ness social media to plat­forms that drive dis­course & fur­ther the nar­ra­tive, and are evoca­tive enough to get a bazaar mer­chant to sign a peti­tion for gender equality, the dias­pora seems a little behind, stuck in a circle of retweets and recommendations.

There is a need to dif­fer­en­tiate between social media plat­forms driven by con­tent and those plat­forms that push infor­ma­tion around. We cannot con­fuse writing an article with sharing it. These some­times noisy social plat­forms are inte­gral for they let activists every­where work beyond the con­fines of geog­raphy, funding, acces­si­bility or the 365-day-a-year cal­endar. The major ben­efit of using dig­ital plat­forms is just that: the lack of con­fines.

Take for example, the case of death row Kurdish pris­oner, Habibollah Latifi, whom the regime attempted to exe­cute during Christmas 2010. Instead, because the Internet knows no hol­iday, office hours, and never closes its front doors, activists sent 48,220 messages to influ­en­tial world leaders, attracting just enough inter­na­tional atten­tion to have played a role in the stay. A Twitter campaign resulted in Member of the European Parliament, Sophie in’t Veld, tweeting regarding Habibollah Latifi’s situation on Christmas Day in 2010: “We are highly aware of this horrible situation, the repeated calls and pressure from the int’l community have little influence on regime. but efforts will continue. Give support to democracy activists where ever possible.”

The (Some­times Pol­luted) Information Stream
Ultimately, even the most casual “click­tivism” cre­ates a ripple in the band­width stream. The problem is not casual clicking, but the short length of time the ripple remains. The ques­tion remains, then, how we can cut through the Internet cacophony. How do we not only “digg” some­thing, but keep it “dug”? How can we reach beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of traditional activism, and the almost too lim­it­less and too clut­tered world of online activism, to find an effec­tive way to take online action in a way that will affect real life change? How can we mit­i­gate the tug of war for our atten­tion, the broad­casts shoved in our faces, the murky, pol­luted stream of infor­ma­tion, and realize that for all our good inten­tions, fas­ci­nating sto­ries, and revs to action, we – our stories, our aspi­ra­tions, our move­ments – are only as strong as our signal?