I would like for you to dream for a moment. What would be like if you went into cave in 2008 and walked back into the daylight six years later?
You rub your eyes and look around at your surroundings. So much has changed. Everything feels unfamiliar and new: new buildings, new cars, new technology everywhere you look.
After a good meal, you get on the Internet to see what you missed in those years. But the first thing you discover is that the Internet itself has changed so dramatically that you hardly recognize it. Six years was a long time to be in the dark, but it is an entire era online. You can hardly believe what has changed … and what has been lost.
The start of a new science fiction piece? No, this is exactly what happened to Hossein Derakhshan.
Derackshan is credited with starting the blogging revolution in Iran and is called the father of Persian blogging. He was arrested on November 1, 2008 and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. His sentence was eventually reduced and in late 2014 was released from prison after six years of no outside view of the world.
A few days ago he wrote an article about this experience for the London Guardian claiming that Facebook and Instagram are killing the Internet. Well, that got my attention. His opinion piece is easily one of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in the past five years.
At the top of my blog it says “Marketing, Social Media, Humanity” and this post from this remarkable man is an exceptional exploration of this intersection.
It had such a powerful impact on me that I decided to feature some of his most profound observations in this post and add my commentary. I hope you enjoy these insights as much as I did …
As a blogger, I felt like a monarch
“Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, even those who hated my guts. I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. I felt like a monarch.”
My view: I started blogging in 2008 and count myself lucky to have experienced the golden age of blogging. For me, it was an age of something more than individual power. It was an age of intellectual greatness. Before we became overwhelmed by Kardashian fluff and Facebook controlling your news, bloggers created a web on intense intellectual challenge and debate.
Social media cul-de-sacs
“The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web … a way to abandon centralisation -– all the links, lines and hierarchies -– and replace them with a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.
“Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object –- the same as a photo, or a piece of text. But links are not objects, they are relations between objects. This objectivisation has stripped hyperlinks of their immense powers.
“Facebook doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul-de-sacs of social media, and their journeys end there.
“But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.”
My view: This is something I started writing about early in 2015 — the power of the link and its central power to inbound marketing — is evaporating. Many marketers are going to be waking up to a dramatic new world in 2016. The inbound model is being turned on its head. Social media has become a dead end for content.
The power shift away from content creators
“No matter how many links you have placed in a webpage, unless somebody is looking at it, it is actually both dead and blind, and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page.
“Apps like Instagram are blind, or almost blind. Their gaze goes inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside of social media are dying.”
My view: The author is suggesting that content that is not seen and shared is powerless, the primary theme of my book The Content Code. This suggests we need entirely new strategies to get our content to “breathe.”
Power comes from popularity not intellect
“Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.
“The likes, the plusses, the stars, the hearts – are actually more related to cute avatars and celebrity status than to the substance of what’s posted. A most brilliant paragraph by some ordinary-looking person can be left outside the stream, while the silly ramblings of a celebrity gain instant internet presence.”
My view: This is quite an interesting topic that hints of the power of social proof. At least in the short-term, power and authority can be established by Likes and Twitter followers. However, in the long-term these things sort out and I do believe there is power in establishing true expertise and authority in the long-term. At least I hope so.
Unintended consequences of data and power
“Ironically enough, (countries) that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the internet but does not have legal access to social media companies. What is more frightening than being merely watched, though, is being controlled. When Facebook can know us better than our parents with only 150 likes, and better than our spouses with 300 likes, the world appears quite predictable, both for governments and for businesses. And predictability means control.”
My view: This is a topic I have been thinking a lot about. In the near future, a combination of threats from hackers and terrorists will require governmental control and regulation. This will be a wildly unpopular move but eventually the Internet will have to be regarded as critical economic utility like energy, water and air travel. Who do we want to have the upper hand on the Internet?
The fluffy web and the war on social media
“I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: a loss of intellectual power and diversity. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some – Instagram, for instance – serious enough to block.
“I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares, and best time to post.
“That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.”
My view: I don’t think there has necessarily been a loss of intellectual power and diversity but a dramatic rise in fluff … which reflects on us, our society, our priorities. The intellectual depth is still there if you know where to look for it. I’m not sure there is anything I can add to that other than thank Mr. Derackshan for his courage and insight. You can follow him on Twitter at @h0d3r.
There is a lot to chew on here. So many ideas and so beautifully stated. What stands out for you?
Many thanks to my friend Roger Knight for sending me this original article.
The photograph above used to illustrate this post originally appeared in the London Guardian.