Arash Abadpour on Archetypes of Iranian Internet Use

//CGCS interviewed Arash Abadpour, blogger, researcher, and engineer about his recently published report Fights, Adapts, Accepts: Archetypes of Iranian Internet Use, with independent researcher Collin Anderson and the support of the Iran Media Program. Arash blogs here and his professional homepage can be found here.

How did you get involved with the Iran Media Program?

I had just finished some research work on Internet filtering in Iran when I got in touch with IMP. The first few conversations were on how I could extend my work in a way that would also fall under topics of interest for the IMP. I was also given the opportunity to suggest something different. This tied in beautifully with a book that I had read some time before on statistics and numerical entities in the news and how they are misused and abused. I had initially contacted a publisher and had plans for translating the book to Persian and publishing it in Iran but the June elections and the aftermath made that project really irrelevant. So I suggested to IMP that I would redefine the work within the context of a webinar series. That meant selecting content from the book and contextualizing it for Iran (finding news in Persian sources which committed the same mistakes as the examples in the book, etc.) We did that and I have actually been asked to teach that course twice since then.

Then we went to Budapest. That was quite an experience. I actually flirted with the idea of quitting my job and moving to Budapest and finding a position at Central European University (CEU) for some time. I managed to meet two long-time e-friends in Budapest and had the first experience with hard-core hacktivism and hacking culture. I ended up reading two books on the concept afterwards. The conclusion of the trip for me was that it is possible to do amazing things and at least at the beginning escape the structures and processes of conventional creative work, as one might experience in the corporate world, for example.

How did you become interested in examining the archetypes of Iranian Internet users?  How did your work with IMP fit into this research?

I have been amazed at the diversity of Iranian Internet users. I have been a blogger since 2004 and have first-hand experience with blogging and social networks in the context of Iran. Therefore, for example, it was surprising to me to see the Green Movement being watered down and christened as the ‘Twitter Revolution.’ I wasn’t sure, and I am not still sure, if a majority of Iranian users care for Twitter. I do. They may not. To construe the Green Movement as the Twitter Revolution is like calling a civil liberties protest the McDonald’s Revolution, simply because some of the protesters had a Big Mac for lunch.

So, I knew that there were inaccuracies in how the story was being told and I was reading others’ analyses of what was happening in Iran. I knew some things were being simplified, but that was only criticism of the available theories and I also needed to have an alternative. It is easy to say “no, not that,” but I needed to be able to provide an alternative description. This was the starting point with the IMP and they were both supportive and at the same time critical, which was a great combination. After a few long conversations the idea was further defined and then the work started.

I found the two sides of the IMP approach beneficial. First, they supported me to do the work. Second, they wanted to make sure that there is substance in the work. My background is in Computer Sciences (I have a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering and my professional line of work is Machine Vision and Robotics). That gave me the tools. My presence in the blogosphere gave me the connections. But, it was the IMP that helped me shape the third side of the triangle.

What do you think are the most important implications from this research?

For one thing, I am hoping that international media representation of Iranian online space becomes less of a caricature.  This work is one brick in the path towards recognizing that the Iranian web, unfortunately some might say, is not necessarily the “route to freedom.” There are people who wish to see Iran advancing into a developed country, in the Western definition of it. It doesn’t matter if one agrees or disagrees that this is particularly good, or the “cure,” for Iran, but I think one should avoid romanticizing the problem, whatever approach to the solution one might choose to follow.

In this work we tried to understand and describe the Iranian internet userbase with more nuance, underscoring the diversity of use and individuals’ reasons for going online. We wanted to let the data speak for itself, which meant considering the possibility that a fraction of the Iranian Internet userbase may actually agree with or prefer some of the components of the Iranian Internet in its current state. It turned out that that was in fact the case. Some people support filtering. Some are afraid of a “free” Internet. The next step, in my understanding, is to try to figure out the possible marriage between the values of the user-base, as is, and concepts which many hold dear, such as freedom of expression, rejecting radicalism, and giving space to minorities.

What are you currently working on? How are you continuing to explore this topic?

I have recently started conversations with a small group of other individuals who are interested in the Iranian online sphere (Iran-born and otherwise). We are joining forces in the work that each one of us would have been doing separately before.

For example, I am helping a friend put together a platform that gives voice to local politics and we are starting a separate study on the Persian blogosphere. I am also teaching an online course in data visualization for news reporting and I coordinate production of content inside Iran for publication in the outside world.

There are a few other projects floating around as well. I am trying to move towards creating a research collective on the Persian blogosphere and social networks.

As a blogger based in Canada, how do you view your own role as part of the Persian blogosphere?

I’d really like to answer this question from the opposite end, i.e. what my role isn’t.

I am a blogger. And that’s where it ends. The fact that I can enjoy freedom of expression and no one is going to bang on my door at the middle of the night because of what I have written the night before does not make me special. It actually makes Iranian bloggers based in Iran special. I am the castaway. The guy with a laptop sitting on an island far from where the action is.

My supplementary role, and it ties in with the IMP’s work, is to bring in rationality, whereas it is easy to slip into extreme views when you are experiencing an event unfold firsthand. I live in a multi-cultural and secular country and can raise a voice when excessive nationalism and religiosity jump into the scene. I can be vocal when the mass media reduces the multiple millions of Iranians online into one particular category. I guess what I try to be is a self-appointed ambassador, facilitator, and critic… all at the same time. And then I report to the rest of the world what Iranian Internet users are doing.


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