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The Web We Have to Save, by Iranian writer Hossein Derakhshan on Medium

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Impassioned, melancholy defense of the open web from an Iranian writer who went to jail for 6 years for blogging.

He starts with a very good question.

The rich, diverse, free web that I loved  —  and spent years in an Iranian jail for  —  is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?

Wow this is a very memorable picture he paints.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

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. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted.

Blogs haven't disappeared, but I note that he published this on Medium instead of his blog.

This is my favorite part of his article:

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized 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 — instead of seeing at as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

Twitter bird with megaphone meme imgur

At the same time, these social networks tend to treat native text and pictures — things that are directly posted to them — with a lot more respect than those that reside on outside web pages. One photographer friend explained to me how the images he uploads directly to Facebook receive a large number of likes, which in turn means they appear more on other people’s news feeds. On the other hand, when he posts a link to the same picture somewhere outside Facebook — his now-dusty blog, for instance — the images are much less visible to Facebook itself, and therefore get far fewer likes. The cycle reinforces itself.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by 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. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

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.

More or less, all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: It is more empowering. When a powerful website — say Google or Facebook — gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it — it brings it into existence; gives it life. Metaphorically, without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe. 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.

On the other hand, the most powerful web pages are those that have many eyes upon them. Just like celebrities who draw a kind of power from the millions of human eyes gazing at them any given time, web pages can capture and distribute their power through hyperlinks.

But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.


Popularity is not wrong in and of itself, but it has its own perils. In a free-market economy, low-quality goods with the wrong prices are doomed to failure. Nobody gets upset when a quiet Brooklyn cafe with bad lattes and rude servers goes out of business. But opinions are not the same as material goods or services. They won’t disappear if they are unpopular or even bad. In fact, history has proven that most big ideas (and many bad ones) have been quite unpopular for a long time, and their marginal status has only strengthened them. Minority views are radicalized when they can’t be expressed and recognized.

Today the Stream is digital media’s dominant form of organizing information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the Stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organize their entire content based on the same principles. The prominence of the Stream today 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.


the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

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.

When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.

Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. 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 different opinions, 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.

That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.

He's so right. I want to save that Web, too.

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