An Iranian blogger has described what it was like being introducedto the internet for the first time after spending six years in prison and why we should be worried about the changes that have occurred in the last decade.
Nicknamed the “blogfather” for his work in advocating for the blog format, Derakhshan was one of Iran’s most high-profile bloggers, and lived in Canada for eight years prior to his return to Iran in 2008 and subsequent arrest and sentencing. “I opened my laptop and posted to my new blog. This, though, was the first time in six years. And it nearly broke my heart,” he writes in a piece for Matter.
Hossein Derakhshan was sentenced to 19 years in prison in November 2008 for “conspiring with hostile governments, spreading propaganda against the Islamic system, spreading propaganda in favour of counter-revolutionary groups, blasphemy, and creating and managing obscene websites,” according to the BBC.
He was finally released in November 2014, and quickly found that the internet was very different than before he was put behind bars.
“Six years is a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online,” he said, noting the “seismic shift in how people consume media.”
Derakhshan’s blog had an audience of 20,000 people each day in 2008, but even he points out how sparse the social media landscape was at that time: “There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, no Viber, no WhatsApp. Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis,” Derakhshan writes.
After his release, Derakhshan discovered that social networks were now king. As a result, the internet was profoundly more “linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking,” much like television, he says.
Hyperlinks have become devalued, as Facebook and its rivals try to encourage users to spend more time on its site. We’re currently seeing the clearest indication of this trend yet, with Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant now natively hosting news articles on its platform so its users never have to venture to the outside web.
This nominally provides a smoother experience for users, but Derakhshan fears this is to the detriment of what the web was originally designed as, and what it could be. The reliance on algorithmic “streams” to provide relevant information to users “doesn’t just make vast chunks of the Internet biased against quality — it also means a deep betrayal to the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned.”
He goes on: “The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.”
This reliance on social media is a constant concern for those in the media, who risk effectively surrendering their means of distribution to the opaque algorithms of private tech companies. Facebook in particular is responsible for upwards of 50% of traffic for many media companies.
However, Derakhshan’s concerns relate more to the experience of the web for the users themselves. The malaise he identifies is similar to what is known as the “filter bubble” the phenomenon where Google, Facebook, etc.’s algorithms identify what a user (apparently) likes and uses that to guide what content it shows them — thereby hiding vast swathes of content deemed uninteresting, placing the user in a “bubble.”