Web 2.0 and The Destiny of a Nation

Following Iran’s disputed tenth presidential election on June 12, the world witnessed how new digital technologies have provided opportunities for younger Iranians to rise up and revolt. The rallies in favor of democracy and reform within the Islamic state quickly gave way to demonstrations against the regime. Web 2.0 technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, IPTV and iReport — still fairly new among Westerners — proved to be powerful enough to potentially change the destiny of a nation.

The older generation naively underestimated young Iranians, assuming that they had no goals or motives in life other than pursuing pure entertainment and materialistic pleasure. Yet, as the current events have shown to everyone, the young in Iran are determined to control their own destiny.

There had been a generational gap among the 1979 revolutionaries and their children, who were born post-revolution. The idea of the 1979 revolution was denigrated by the children of the revolutionaries, who were disdainful of its extreme Islamic fundamentalism. But in the recent protests, the children have come to echo their parents. The urge to protest and revolt for liberty during the presidential election of 2009 helped the younger generation to come to terms with their parents’ revolution. All of a sudden, the same revolutionary songs of the 1979 revolution were chanted by Iranians in Iran and in protests around the world.

Prior to the election, my Iranian contacts in Iran born post-1979 compared the presidential rallies of Mousavi supporters, members of the “Green Party,” to the demonstrations of their parents’ generation that brought about the Islamic Revolution. Bardia, a filmmaker in Iran, wrote the following post on my Facebook wall on June 10th, 2009, just two days prior to the presidential election:

“We are experiencing the most astonishing days of our lives. Everyone is on the streets chanting: death to the dictator; doesn’t matter if it is Shah or Doctor. Doctor refers to Ahmadinejad.”

Protests in foreign lands

In many different cities around the world, Iranian protested against the “stolen election.” Although many Iranian-Americans were not even eligible to vote, they held posters that said “Where is My Vote?” and supported the Iranians in Iran virtually through social networking sites. On Facebook and Twitter, Iranians all around the world made their profile picture green as a sign of solidarity with those protesting on the streets of Tehran. Many changed their entire profile picture to the slogan “Where is My Vote?” And with the death of many Iranian protesters at the hand of Basijis, some changed their profile pictures to black (as a symbol of mourning) and others added blood.

As the crisis evolved, Iranian-Americans changed their last names to “Irani” to support the young Iranian protestors. By doing this, they told the world that they belonged to the greater community of Iranians. And as the news of huge number of arrests of journalists and twitterers in Iran spread, Iranian-Americans on Twitter told others to set their Twitter location to Tehran and time zone to GMT+3.30 to confuse Iranian security agents scouring the internet for activists.

Beginning of an end?

On June 20th, Khameneyi, Iran’s supreme leader, announced that any protester on the streets henceforth would also be protesting against him, and therefore against the Islamic Republic. Still, hundreds of thousands of people went to the street the next day. But the police and undercover military, including the imported Hezbollah militia, descended on the protest. Many were killed, including Neda Agha Soltan, who became the icon of Iran’s unfolding revolution. Neda’s picture and the video of her death circulated on every social networking site. Within a few hours, the world saw Neda’s last breaths on YouTube. Conspiracy theories and personal life stories circulated through e-mail and Facebook. It seemed as if every Iranian knew Neda before her death.

The video of Neda quickly became a rallying point for the reformist opposition. It is fitting that someone with this name died in a protest — in Farsi, “Neda” means “calling” or “voice.” Even prior to 1979’s revolution people would use the phrase “Nedaye Azadi,” meaning the “voice of freedom” or the “calling for liberty.” In the years immediately after the revolution, when people believed they had succeeded in earning their freedom, many parents named their children after the words that referred to liberty: “Raha” (free), “Azadeh” (freed), “Sahar” (dawn) and “Neda” (calling). Since Neda’s death, the chants of the protestors changed to “Death to the Islamic Republic.” If Mousavi and the stolen election was an excuse for people to come to the streets and protest, it is now nostalgia for Neda that keeps them on the streets.

As communications technology evolves, we will witness a fast-paced change among Iranians around the world, who have been dealing with a hermetic culture for thousands of years. Today, tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs are changing the face of Iran and the culture among the young generation. The global digital revolution has created significant changes among nations, but in countries such as Iran, cut off from other cultures, these changes have produced an even larger impact on our understanding of its place in the international community.

The internet has brought Iranians around the world together. Everyone can now participate in the formation of a new Iranian identity. But it is still crucial to keep a close eye on the emerging technologies that will potentially allow people to shape and reform the destinies of nations. As the geopolitical map of the world changes, nationalism takes on new meanings. Communication technology that brings people together can be used to shape these new national identities. YouTube and Twitter are opening a new chapter in the story of nations. Iran’s presidential election is a poignant study in the new grammar of globalization.