The lost blogging monarchy, the defeat of links, and the war on social media

war on social media

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.

mark schaefer

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  • @kevinmgreen

    We can’t let marketers off the hook for the war on social. We’re automating everything and links are primarily about sales vs. brand or experience or insight. Some of this is the reliance on visuals and the penchant for infographics. That said, we are overdue for something different. Something that focuses on value vs. just ease. The Content Crisis is a result of enabling scale vs. value exchange. We’re approaching a critical point for the future… Innovate or stagnate.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Mark.
    It definitely is a lot to chew on.
    Unfortunately, there is no turning back to the internet pre 2009.
    Facebook has become the de facto internet for most people.
    And as you have pointed out in a couple posts, the value of our own “real estate” i.e. website, has taken a hit as social platforms work to keep people from leaving their sites.
    Reading this, I had this strange analogy pop up of being geese who ‘chose’ to have content funnelled down our throats via social media streams instead of “free-ranging” for the content we really want.
    The result is that we are never truly satiated and the ultimate benefactor is the “content farmer” who gets to feast on our fattened livers.

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    I started blogging in 2008 as well, and made my way through the keyword stuffing days, diligently creating hundreds of articles to boost my clients’ page rankings. Eventually those same articles worked against them. Now I’m thinking that the apparent power of Facebook and other social media platforms could flip someday, too. What do you think might come next?

  • Sandra Hamilton

    Thank you Mark. These observations are very worthy of more thought and discussion. For sure, my own.

  • Steve Woodruff

    In those early days, there was self-selection happening – forward-thinking, tech-minded, articulate, thinking people were early adopters – and so we had that dynamic environment of robust engagement. There was intellectual and personal discovery going on in an exciting atmosphere of immediacy and disintermediation. But, sadly, the thing many of us were striving for – widespread adoption of social media – led to that fluff explosion you mention toward the end. I don’t want to shake my head and say, “we’re hosed!” but I’m not sure where the path of renewed health lies. It won’t be in the broad ether. The many needles are still there, but the haystacks keep getting higher.

  • I am so with you on this. I really do think 2016 is going to be a year or vast innovation on content platforms. Of course they will soon become corrupted too. Where corruption can occur, corruption will occur. But I do think there is room somewhere for a shining light of content. Wonder what that would look like?

  • Wow that is a cool analogy Ray. If you liked this post, you will love the next episode of The Marketing Companion where Tom and I chew on these issues. Tom remarked that it our all-time best show.

  • Wow that is such a good question! My prediction is that as Facebook’s power grows it will issue strict content rules similar to Google. For example, Facebook will demand that you ONLY publish on Facebook, just like Google dings you for duplicate content. You heard it here first. : )

  • You’re welcome and thank you for reading today!

  • Here’s where the path of renewed health lies — with you. The beauty of the web is that we create our own experience. There is still plenty of quality, inspiring content out there. It’s kind of like TV. Are you going to watch The Kardashians or Cosmos? You are the master of your online content selection. Sure there is a lot of fluff but nobody is making you consume it.

  • So much food for thought here Mark. And on first read left me feeling quite dismal. However I’m going to be optimistic and say that those with something truly useful and relevant to say are going to be just fine regardless of where the social winds take us.

    Take your blog as an example. Despite the many articles of late saying that “blog comments are dead”, here you are with 10+ comments and an active conversation happening within hours of posting. The idea that few – even among those liking and tweeting – are making it to the actual blog/website… again, your blog seems to be proof against that.

    I agree that there has been too big a swing towards popularity over intellect due to the influences of social media. But I have the think (at least hope) that the self-selection Steve mentioned is actually still happening. We just have dig through more fluff to find it.

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  • Amen Jacqui and thanks for the thought-provoking comment. I am also optimistic.

  • This is really insightful Kevin. “The Content Crisis is a result of enabling scale vs. value exchange.”

  • You have some smart readers Mark, so I agree that the intellectual capital hasn’t run out on the web. Just maybe more drowned out. I come to your blog for meaty meals, and you always deliver. It’s my own personal content curation – you are on my short list. Hopefully 2016 platform innovation includes better tools for curation and relevance, and not just who’s spending the most on promotion.

  • Frederic Gonzalo

    I recall reading that article the other day, and it also had me thinking. There has been quite a few posts such as this one recently, that have me thinking, or rethinking, about what’s next for content marketing. It’s a moving target, for sure, and we simply cannot apply tactics today just because they worked yesterday. Things move fast, and we need to adapt, measure, tweat… and repeat.
    2016 will indeed be a transformative year. I actually think this may be the year when Twitter goes officially downhill (if they go ahead with their 10,000 caracters limit for tweets), and where we have to rethink how and where we spend our marketing dollars in the digital landscape: social media, remarketing, mobile…

    I feel sorry for this chap who literally came out of a cave, not seeing the evolution between 2008 and 2015, but like Ray mentioned in his earlier comment, there is no turning back. For better or for worse. Hopefully, for better – call me optimistic 🙂

    Cheers Mark, and all the best for 2016. Keep churning the quality content, it’s always a pleasure to read your stuff (as well as content from your regular contributors).

  • Your comment means a lot Bill. My promise to you is to always be interesting and I work hard to do that. It is very rewarding when an esteemed professional like you notices. Thank you!

  • Many thanks for your kind and thought-provoking comment my friend. All the best to you as well.

  • Mark, this is really a rich post with so many insights and deep thoughts to ponder about. To me, it is also a call for marketer’s responsability: it is up to us to lead our clients through the path of value instead of shabby promotion and void metrics. I want to believe that humanity will always value the freedom of thinking and not get caged in what someone else forces us to know.

  • Well said sir. If I’m not mistaken, this is your first comment on the blog. So welcome. I’m glad you’re here and adding your voice.

  • Looking forward to it. (as always).

  • Crysta

    As a Content Creator, I am saddened by the decline I’ve seen in the blogging world. The creators of quality efforts have been forced to spend more time prostituting their work to social media in order to gain views than actual writing.

    Yet we are smothered across the internet with eyebrow tutorials, shocking titles with no worth and all ads, and celebrity gossip. Writers are forced to forced to either go with the trends or be lost in the dust. Readers won’t read anything without eye catching photos or posts over 2 paragraphs.

    What’s a writer to do?

  • Steve Woodruff

    True. I find that I pay attention now to a relatively small pool of people who have a helpful POV, and mostly tune out everything else.

  • Wow. Miss the old days, do ya? : )

    Basically what happens is that something comes out (like Blogging) and then people figure out the “system” to game it for business gain. This happens in every single channel. And that’s when things begin to decline. The passionate and talented supporters and pioneers fade to the background unless you go corporate to keep up. Sure, I miss the more pure early days but it is what it is. We have no choice but to adapt and adopt I suppose.

    Thanks for the great comment Crysta.

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  • mlvlatina

    I had no idea Google dings you for duplicate content. I guess there are many people cluttering up the internet with mass postings, but that is a personal choice. Not everyone is a member of every social networking site. In order to reach more potential readers, duplicate posts are sometimes necessary. Hmm. Thank you for sharing this interesting piece of information Mark :).

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  • Mark, thanks for the prompt to comment. I don’t disagree with the points made in the article; however, I don’t believe that the situation is as dire as the writer perceives. His POV is altered from his incarceration. Someone who has lived and worked through the past ten years has evolved along with the system. That doesn’t make the FB algorithm any less frustrating. It just makes us aware that to stay relevant and available to our audiences, we must provide quality content that appeals to those who want more than the Kardashian, et al fluff. The burden remains on the writer to be excellent and diverse in her approach.

  • Thanks for sharing your very wise perspective Linda. On the one hand you are certainly correct. On the other hand, if you look at the amount of crap on the Internet today and the implications of change, I can certainly empathize with the author.

    Without going into an epic sort of answer, here is a small example.

    A few years ago, the music bio pic was a healthy movie genre. One of the reasons for that was that film makers could spend more on films because they made money from the soundtracks. Of course the Internet has killed music sales and the music bio pic genre is DEAD. To me this, is exceedingly sad. There are a thousand little cuts like this that, taken one by one seem small, but if you look at the entirety, as this man was forced to do, I can see why it would seem depressing.

  • Hey Mark,

    Wow, I had to read and comment on this as well. I can’t even imagine being away for that length of time and then see how much everything around me has changed.

    I actually agree with Linda, I don’t think it’s yet as dire as Hossein makes it out to be but having lost all that he did I can see why he would think that. I do agree that things will continue to change but we have to change along with them or be left behind.

    I believe that if we continue to provide valuable content and continue building those relationships with others then we’ll keep moving forward. We may have to use different platforms in order to get in front of our audiences but I would much rather do that then to just throw up my hands and let it all go.

    What an interesting piece and thanks so much for sharing it with us. Definitely an eye opener.


  • Thanks Adrienne. Tom Webster actually discussed this on our latest podcast. My take on this is that the Internet is reflection of us, of humanity for better or for worse. Not all of us are academic or deep. Some of us like Duck Dynasty and the Kardashians. I think the writer’s angst really comes from the fact that the Internet doesn’t necessarily reflect his own values any more. In fact, it still does, you just have to find the community.

  • Well I definitely do agree with that Mark, definitely.


  • Hi Mark,

    I can remember the evolution of the web all the way back in 2002. Chatting was a new technology, aol reigned supreme, and in 2008 the web was an entirely different world.

    As the Internet matures, there are very immature things about it. Much like a teenager looks like a young adult, has the capacity of an adult, but still tends towards immaturity.

    I also see patterns where the web is starting to work and reflect business as it has always been offline; networking, connecting and building relationships alongside value. That is a switch from post, link and benefit. It now requires work; unless you want to pay for ads in the newspaper or magazine of Twitter, Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, etc.

    There is an issue I believe is going to radically transform the entire web at a pace few are really talking about; and that’s artificial intelligence.

    I’m not just talk about automated restaurants like the McDonald’s in Phoenix that is completely AI and robotic, but also the reality of AI to understand us in way just un-imaginable a year ago.

    Google is going AI, Facebook AI… These systems have a way of understanding information and people in light speed. There are so many unintended consequences coming that we don’t even realize them or know what they could be. And, these are not the only major players. I have read of some very interesting things happening at MIT.

    All that said, we haven’t even seen change yet. I don’t think it will be long and links will not matter at all, except for a few of our readers. The AI will be able to understand intent, authority and value and determine how to match it with a search query; and it can evolve itself without a human.

    Hold on tight, the journey is just the beginning and the Internet is starting to grow up in ways we couldn’t have thought just a few years ago.

    Happy New Year Mark!

    ~ Don Purdum

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