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Hoder’s talk at Berkman

My global wanderings have now taken me quite close to home – I’m in Cambridge late this week for Berkman’s Internet and Society conference, Votes, Bits and Bytes. Rebecca Mackinnon and I are leading a Saturday session of the conference, Global Voices, a discussion of “bridge blogs” from around the world, and we’ve both been involved with hijacking the program of the conference, ensuring that the discussion is broader than yet another Dean campaign postmortem.

When Rebecca and I started talking about who we’d like to get included in the conference program, Hossein Derakhshan – better known as Hoder – topped both of our lists. Hoder was Iran’s first prominent blogger, and did an enormous amount of work to make the Internet accessible to Persian-language bloggers. I’ve had a great time hanging out with him for the past two days, wandering around Cambridge and talking about blogs, the universe and everything. In the process, I was lucky enough to get a preview of the talk he delivered today. Here’s a quick outline of that talk:

There’s about 70 million people in Iran, and 70% of Iranians are under 30 years old. There are roughtly 5-7 million internet users in Iran, and, amazingly, about 70 – 75,000 active iranian weblogs, most of them in Persian. The Internet in Iran is the most trusted medium for journalism, more trusted than satellite broadcasts, either from the middle east or from the United States. (There are a couple of Persian-language satellite channels broadcast from Los Angeles.)

Unlike in the US, where the Internet came online a good five years before blog-like interactivity, the Internet was introduced in Iran with blogs… and this may mean the Internet gets used very differently in Iran. As in the US, it took a while for the Internet to move beyond entertainment to politics – many of the Iranian blogs are basically entertainment, but politics are starting to become more important.

Here are three possible metaphors to think about the role of weblogs in Iran: weblogs can be windows, bridges and cafes.

Using a window, you can see inside Iran, and Iranians can see outside of Iran. You can see changes in social expression and individual morality. You can discover that individual Iranians are far more tolerant, open minded, and cool than people might think they are.

Blogs can build bridges: bridges between genders, ages, and social class. Women in iran can talk about how they see the world and have these conversations, anonymously, with men. Parents and children can talk about shared and different values. Blogs build bridges between voters and politicians, like Iran’s former vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who blogs in English, Persian and Arabic.

Blogs even build bridges to the hardline religious people – hizbola-izi – individuals who are deeply religious and politically radical. They’ve got blogs, too, and we can use them to see what’s really going on in their minds.

Blogs can be cafes – they create a social space for discussion that doesn’t exist any other way. In Iran, there’s no newspaper or TV channel that’s not controlled by the government. There’s a red-line you can’t cross: talking about Iran’s relationship with the US, or Iran’s relationship with Israel. Because of this red line, Iran isn’t engaged in a discourse about the nuclear program. Blogs are the only place where this discussion can take place.

Blogs have replaced “taxi talks” – in Tehran, five or six people packed into a shared cab, and political debate always takes place in cabs. (Incidently, the US elections were a hot topic in cabs. Turns oiut that the Iranian government was so against Bush that many Iranians were for him…)

The upcoming presidential election in March is likely to see effects of the Internet, and weblogs, in this upcoming election. Hardline conservatives are so angry and frustrated that they can’t control the Internet that they’re sponsoring a huge crackdown on political websites. These days, most political sites are filtered, and readers need to use proxies.

There’s a conspiracy theory in Iran that all these websites – the “spider’s web”, a Koranic reference – is a CIA plot to undermine the regime. And the crackdown on blogs has already put dozens of people in prison.

If Ayatollah Khamenei was a blog reader, you’d see very different decisions being made. Like Bush, he’s unconnected from reality, insulated by advisors, and rarely needs to encounter real Iranians… which he’d be forced to encounter if he read weblogs.

During the question session, Jeff Jarvis – who is passionate about the role of the Internet in increasing freedom in the Middle East – asked Hoder “What do Iranians need? What can those of us in the US do to help?”

Hoder’s response: Blogger is a great tool, but because it hasn’t been localized, it’s hard to encourage people to use it. There are local services in Persian, but because their servers are in Iran, they can’t operate freely. What countries like Iran really need is free, localized blogging services that don’t get shut down by oppressive regimes. (Unsurprisingly, that will be one of the main topics of conversation at Global Voices tomorrow…)