Niki Akhavan, Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Niki Akhavan (NA): As an early and eager participant on the Iranian Internet, I was both excited and disturbed about the kinds of content and communities that were flourishing online. I saw new connections being made across geographical and ideological borders, participants pooling resources together, experimenting in new modes of self-expression, and generally having a good time. But alongside these, I noticed troubling tendencies. For example, I saw that the spaces on the Iranian Internet seemed particularly well suited for the rise of exclusionary ideologies. At the same time that the Internet allowed for the gathering of dispersed Iranians with similar views, it provided the mechanisms for blocking opposing voices. One could easily create private or semi-private spaces where participation was exclusive or heavily moderated. Even in cases where participation was relatively unimpeded by site administrators, many participants took it upon themselves to shout down contrary views. In other words, the Internet was not functioning to transcend polarized politics among Iranians outside and inside the country; it was reproducing and reinforcing them.
Similarly, the connections enabled between and among diasporic and resident Iranians did not always have positive consequences such as enhancing mutual understanding. Individuals or small groups with a website could claim to represent broader political currents and constituencies when none existed. Following the 1999 student protests in Iran, for example, a number of websites sprang up claiming affiliation with the student movement and its leadership. For diasporic Iranians, these websites were often the only link (literally and figuratively) to the student movement. Given that the Iranian press did not give fair coverage to oppositional movements, it was easy to take the claims of such websites at face value.
At the same time that individuals or small groups could use the Internet to make exaggerated claims about representing Iran and Iranians, there was an increasing influence of state actors and state funding (both Iranian and non-Iranian). Funds coming directly or indirectly from the United States and European governments enabled the creation of various media outlets that were either exclusively online or included prominent online components. The Dutch-funded Radio Zamaneh, which started Internet broadcasting in 2006, is one such example. The Iranian state was also active in encouraging particular types of digital political and cultural content. The Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, for example, openly sponsored websites and online competitions as early as 2003.
Despite these complexities, popular and scholarly discussions about Iran remained optimistic about its possibilities and largely silent about its actual or potential pitfalls. This was all the more surprising given that discourses on New Media in general had become more nuanced by the turn of the new millennium, dampening some of the enthusiastic fervor that had accompanied such media in the previous decade. In the 1990s, the confluence of the popularization of the Internet with the information technology bubble inspired much excitement among participants and observers alike. In 1993, Howard Rheingold, who is credited with coining the term “virtual community,” lauded the Internet for allowing the creation of communities based on choice that are unimpeded by physical or political restrictions. Similarly, some argued that the shrinking of geographical space enabled by the Internet would erode the importance of political borders and nationalisms. As early as 1998, however, Benedict Anderson warned of the opposite tendency: namely, new communication technologies provided ideal conditions for particularly intense forms of nationalism, or “long distance nationalism,” as he called it. Vinay Lal’s 1999 study of the relationship between the rise of fundamentalist Hinduism and the Internet and Ien Ang’s 2001 analysis of ethnic Chinese militancy online are two early case studies confirming Anderson’s argument. Other celebratory claims about the Internet, such as its potential for strengthening democracies and democratic values, were also tempered during the first decade of the new millennium. On the one hand, some (such as Cass Sunstein) argued that new technologies were undermining pluralist principles by allowing individuals to sequester themselves from any opposing view-points; on the other hand, others claimed that both authoritarian and democratic states alike use new technologies as a means of enhancing their political power and control.
Again, however, much of the discourse around Iran and the Internet remained immune to such nuanced readings of the role of the Internet; instead, claims about its democratic and liberating potentials remained dominant. All of this motivated me to take a closer look at the Iranian Internet. I was especially keen to explore those aspects of the Iranian Internet that were rendered invisible in dominant accounts and to attempt to explain this exclusion.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NA: I consider the book to be both a response and supplement to both mainstream and scholarly accounts of contemporary Iran. I focus on works that address Iranians’ engagement with digital media, such as pseudonymous Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs, as well as Annabelle Sreberny and Gholam Khiabany’s Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran. There are also countless journalistic reports (almost always generated outside Iran) about the Iranian Internet. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with these accounts will likely recognize a number of recurring cliches about the liberatory potentials of new media for Iranians, and for women in particular. In many instances, these accounts are right to point out the ways that digital media offer unique opportunities for circumventing or challenging repressive state policies and/or social mores. Yet a focus on these aspects of the Iranian Internet both overblows its promising aspects and obscures its various other facets.
Happily, a number of new and emerging works have questioned some of the prevailing sensibilities related to Iran and Iranian media specifically, and the book also situates itself in conversation with this range of literature on Iran. For example, Sima Shakhsari has revealed the ways that the Iranian blogosphere functioned as a site of heteronormative disciplining where gendered subjectivities are produced. Babak Rahimi is another scholar who has highlighted under-examined aspects of the Iranian Internet, such as the active role of the state online; he is currently working on a manuscript entitled “i-IRAN: The Internet Publics and the Politics of Technological Imaginary.”
Outside of the literature specifically on Iran, the book has greatly benefited from conversation with two categories of scholarship on New Media. One comes from within Media Studies, especially the work of historians that helped me situate digital media in relation to their predecessors. Lisa Gittleman’s Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture, as well as Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New, are examples of two well-known books in the field that interrogate the notion of “newness,” providing much-needed perspective for researchers of contemporary media. The other set of works that have influenced my thinking are diverse case studies of various transnational “locations” online that have also addressed some of the issues I cover, such as how digital technologies are uniquely suited for the flourishing of absolutist nationalisms and politics. In addition to the earlier mentioned work of Ien Ang and Vinay Lal on the Chinese and Hindu diasporas respectively, for example, Matsuoka and Sorenson have examined the rise of Absyninnian fundamentalism among the Ethiopian diaspora online.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
NA: I started working on the cultural politics of the Iranian Internet in graduate school, and while only parts of one chapter from my dissertation ended up in this book, it is very much in continuity with my previous research interests. What is significantly different is my heightened attention to the role of state actors and supporters as cultural content producers, something I touched on in my past research but was not focused on. While the Iranian state’s attempts to control and restrict Internet access are well-known, little attention has been paid to the role of state actors and institutions as media users and proactive members of the New Media landscape.
I became particularly interested in looking at the Iranian state as a producer of knowledge and culture that is uniquely situated to magnify and expand offline content onto online spaces. Whereas oppositional and/or independent users without ties to the Iranian or foreign states face various limitations in terms of access or funding, state actors not only have the benefit of financial resources and freedom from speed and content filters, but they also have access to offline media such as television (including archival materials). For these reasons, they are at an advantage when it comes to making the most from the convergence of online and offline media. Some examples of this that particularly fascinated me were the online appearances of war footage and films related to the Iran-Iraq war and how they were being used to enhance official versions of the war and its legacy. Of course, while state actors and state institutions may have an advantage in their ability to get this content online, the digitization of this material opened it to being challenged and re-purposed by opposing voices from within and outside of the ruling system. I found such diversity of views and intense contestations of national narratives very interesting.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NA: Among academic audiences, I hope to draw readers working on Iran and West Asia as well as those interested in New Media (whether or not they work on Iran). I hope that both my approach and my findings will prove useful to other scholars in these fields whose research also critically engages dominant accounts of Iran, West Asia, and New Media more broadly. For readers outside of academia whose only exposure to information about the Iranian Internet comes from mainstream media, I hope that the book prompts them to question widespread cliches and misinformation about contemporary Iran.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NA: In keeping with my interests in state power, media, and cultural production, I am working on two separate but related projects focusing on women in post-revolutionary Iran. The first looks at state-endorsed media projects aimed at addressing a perceived crisis in the institutions of marriage and family in Iran. The second, which is a much larger project, considers the construction of a post-revolutionary, militarized culture in times of crisis and the ways that women’s roles have been defined in relation to those crises, as well as how women have challenged these prescribed roles.
Excerpts from Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution
Few aspects of the Iranian Internet have been more widely celebrated than the blogosphere. Weblogistan, which was at its prime from late 2002 to 2008, has been the subject of scores of popular and scholarly accounts, most of which emphasize its oppositional and liberatory goals. Such characterizations of the Iranian blogosphere generally take two overlapping forms. Drawing on several high-profile instances of the government’s persecution of bloggers, one set of accounts identifies the blogosphere as primarily a political and politicized space (Bucar and Fazaeli 2008; Rahimi 2003). Other accounts highlight how Weblogistan broke taboos. Such accounts often mention how blogs provided a liberating space for women (Alavi 2005; Amir-Ebrahimi 2008b). Whether their focus is on the social or political aspects of Weblogistan, these analysts usually emphasize how bloggers push against the state. The non-governmental and think tank sectors have played a key role in providing knowledge about the Iranian Internet and its blogosphere in particular. Although such accounts underline the repressive measures of the state, they also emphasize the potential of digital media, especially blogging, to circumvent restrictions and create conditions for democratic change.
To be sure, the government’s repressive measures, in particular those directed at online spheres, are important for understanding the development of the Iranian Internet. All bloggers writing from Iran, regardless of genre or political persuasion, at some point will have to get around blocked access to content. And although the well-publicized accounts of persecuted bloggers did not prevent Weblogistan from thriving and expanding, they likely played a role in the decisions of at least some bloggers to protect their identities and to go to great pains to remain anonymous online. In addition, the blogosphere’s role in opening avenues for pushing social boundaries cannot be discounted, nor is it unique to Iran. However, reading Weblogistan primarily through this lens overshadows the richness of its landscape, in some cases providing skewed assessments that exaggerate the extent to which security concerns and resisting the ruling power structure dominate the blogosphere.
Several works have stepped outside the strict confines of these models, providing revealing glimpses into largely unexamined territory. Alireza Doostdar’s 2004 study offers a linguistic analysis of blogging as a new kind of speech genre and highlights how Weblogistan created opportunities for intellectual confrontations among those with disparate access to cultural capital. Annabelle Sreberny and Gholam Khiabany (2007) have gone beyond a focus on sensationalized bloggers to highlight Weblogistan as an arena of diverse intellectual production. They have also critiqued accounts that draw a monolithic portrait of the Iranian blogosphere, instead calling for frameworks that understand digital media in relation to previous and existing policies, technologies, and political dynamics (Sreberny and Khiabany 2011). Others have critiqued the liberation model, pointing out that narrowly conceived narratives can be exclusionary: focusing only on secular or anti-state forms of resistance, they leave out other forms of challenging social and political systems. (Akhavan 2011). Others argue that far from breaking free from gender-based constraints, bloggers are subject to gendered discourses of militarism and neoliberalism (Shakshari 2011). While Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi’s work on gender on the blogosphere has repeated some of the claims about its liberatory powers, her work on religious Iranians online casts light on often-ignored segments of Weblogistan. Her work considers blogging and other Internet practices of seminary students, showing that their engagement is not confined to the officially promoted activity of propagating state sanctioned ideas about Islam (Amir-Ebrahimi 2008a).
Even in policy-oriented publications—a body of work that has largely followed the model of Weblogistan as one that is almost exclusively dominated by oppositional writers—at least one observer has argued that it is important to pay attention to the large numbers of bloggers who do not fit this mold and who offer policy makers a more accurate sense of the Iranian public’s views on key topics, including the nuclear issue (Pedatzur 2008). Similarly, in an interdisciplinary study combining human and automated content analysis, researchers at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society concluded that “the early conventional wisdom that Iranian bloggers are mainly young democrats critical of the regime” contrasted with their own findings that the Iranian blogosphere is diverse in terms of political opinions and topics covered (Kelly and Etling 2008, 24). This small but compelling body of work indicates that there is much unexplored terrain in the transnational blogosphere that reveals the complexities of contemporary Iran and Weblogistan itself.
For entirely different reasons, the Iranian state has also fought to challenge the prevailing portrayal of Weblogistan as primarily oppositional and/or secular. The Ministry of Culture and Guidance took an interest in examining the blogosophere, and in 2006, it published the first of a multiyear series of studies about Weblogistan. This study and a range of proposals by the ministry and other governmental institutions or affiliates (discussed below) are an indication of the state’s acute interest and active investment in using the blogosphere as a site of cultural and political production.
Examining the conditions of the Iranian Internet’s conception and the trajectory of its development provides some clues about what the future might bring. The conflicted situation surrounding its infancy inside Iran, when state organs promoted the technology and enabled the telecommunications infrastructure at the same time that they devised the parameters for restricting it by filtering content and limiting speeds, set the stage for the state’s active but often contradictory relationship with digital media. Outside the country, the embrace of the new medium within the Diaspora brought the promise of reconnecting with a lost homeland, but it also provided evidence of the depth of the chasm between an imagined Iran and the real Iran.
 I use the term “nongovernmental” with caution here. Many self-described international nongovernmental organizations receive direct or indirect funding from government entities. While commentators are often astute at pointing out the state connections of Iran-based organizations that claim nongovernmental status, foreign funded organizations based in Europe or North America whose work focuses on human rights, civil society, and/or the prospects for democracy in Iran often escape such scrutiny. A body of work has raised critical questions about the implications of hidden sources of governmental funding. See, for example, Rodriguez (2008). Similarly, others have questioned the interventionist drive behind the work of such organizations: That is to say, they have criticized interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries, especially when such interference is state funded and/or is justified on the basis of values that are asserted to be universal. See, for example, Wallerstein (2006).
 See, for example, Reporters Without Borders (2008); and Freedom House’s annual publication Freedom on the Net; A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media.
 The fact that the inconsistent and largely inexplicable restrictions force even the most hardline supporters of the government to use illegal proxies to access content online has raised some noteworthy debates in various arenas on the Iranian Internet. These debates, which are most visible in the realm of social media such as Friendfeed, where users of various political orientations can face each other in real time, reflect the diversity and contradictions of the Iranian Internet.
[Excerpted from Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution, by Niki Akhavan, by permission of the author. ® Copyright 2013 Rutgers University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]