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
Iranians 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.
The 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?