Iran’s love affair with social media

Two photographers from The Everyday Projects — Ramin Talaie and Kiana Hayeri — help us understand why Iranians are so active on social media.

At the turn of the century, journalists and photographers enjoyed a productive phase during the reformist reign in Iran. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in 2003, many Iranian dual nationals jumped on covering the region, basing themselves in Tehran. During this time, Iranian Farsi bloggers were exceptionally prosperous, even with slow and limited internet access.

In those years, visitors to Iran would immediately notice the younger generation; more than half of Iran’s 75 million people are under the age of 35. Among the affluent youth, fashion and Western pop culture grew everywhere, even under the gaze of public eyes. In the early days of the internet in Iran, the youth played an active role with blogging despite a stringent 56k-modem speed. In those years the only way to get online was to purchase state-sanctioned internet cards. However, they were readily available at local newsstands and corner shops. Internet cafes popped up everywhere, allowing access to those who didn’t have a computer at home. Now, Iranians enjoy full internet access with DSL speed and even faster lines at home by using proxies to bypass government-blocked sites.

Illegal satellite dishes are seen all over Tehran, Iran. Photo by Ramin Talaie

Iranians have always been savvy with news and politics. The internet provided a multitude of new and Western media sources, making it attractive to everyone. The advent of free blogs such as Blogspot made it easy for everyone to write and have something to say in the blogosphere. Many used the blogs to voice their opposition or push their political opinion. A tech savvy Canadian-Iranian named Hossein Derakhshan, nicknamed Hoder, is credited with starting the blogging revolution by making it simple to blog in Farsi. As a result Farsi was the internet’s third most used language in the late 1990s.

Bloggers in Iran in 2005. Photo by Ramin Talaie

These days Iranians continue to be a force on the internet in other forms. Everyone seems to be on popular apps such as Twitter, Instagram and, of course, Facebook. While these apps were first filtered by the authorities, now almost everyone with a smartphone has a social media presence in Iran.

In 2009, the iPhone was a little over a year old. Instagram wasn’t around yet but would be created a year later. Smartphones were mostly used to make calls and send text messages and e-mails. Apple’s App Store had about 75,000 apps but was growing fast. Aside from games, most of the apps had little practical use in Iran. None of the popular ones such as SnapChat, Viber or WhatsApp were available or created yet. Blogs continued to be the best venue for alternative thoughts, news and analysis.

Middle-class Iranians, like most people in the world, are obsessed with new trends. The utility or quality of goods usually comes second to their trendiness. In the early 2000s, blog writing was considered to be “cool”. Around 2004 Facebook went live, followed by Twitter in 2006 and then TwitPic in 2008. Iranians became infatuated with Twitter while the app was still trying to find a footing in the U.S. In fact, many credit Iran’s post-presidential election demonstrations of 2009 as key in the rise of Twitter’s popularity. In 2009, Iranian protesters and citizen-journalists used the app to effectively communicate amongst themselves and send images and videos to the outside world when foreign media had little or no access to the events on the ground.

An image from Kiana Hayeri’s “Beyond the Veil” series, shot in Tehran, Iran between 2010 and 2013.

Since 2014, the hype has shifted to Instagram. Iranian hackers and engineers have duplicated most popular and functional apps that are used in the West. For example, there is an exact copy of the ride-sharing Uber app, which is called Snapp, but there is still only one Instagram, despite at least one unsuccessful copy.

Cheap smartphones and social media apps have democratized access to the internet in a country with strict media and communications red-lines. While everything was first robustly filtered, now even the Supreme Leader’s office has an Instagram feed.

There are no accurate statistics or data, even from Instagram, on actual number of users in Iran, at least not publicly. According to rough estimates from non-state sources, there are as many as 45 million users, or just under 10% of all Instagram users. Alexa Rating, which provides web traffic data and analytics, rates Instagram as the 9th most visited site in Iran, while Fars News, Iran’s largest and semi-official news agency, is ranked only at 16th.

An image from Kiana Hayeri’s “Beyond the Veil” series, shot in Tehran, Iran between 2010 and 2013.

The dark side of the popularity of these apps in a country with strong religious and cultural heritage is the loss of intellectual power and diversity. In the past, activities on the web were powerful and serious enough to land anyone in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. Common social media words such as ‘like’ or ‘share’ are part of daily conversations. From time to time you hear about a religious sermon where Facebook is blamed for infidelity or the breakdown of family structure.

Similar to when bloggers wanted to voice an opinion and have an uncensored discussion, for now Instagram has provided an outlet for visual artists and photographers to reach out to the rest of the world. Rest assured, whatever the next best app is, there will be a strong Iranian following.

With text from Kiana Hayeri

Ramin Talaie is an Iranian-American photographer, filmmaker and producer based in San Francisco, CA, and Brooklyn, NY. He teaches photojournalism as a part time adjunct at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Kiana Hayeri is photographer and TED fellow loosely based in between Afghanistan and Iran. She grew up in Tehran, Iran, and migrated to Toronto as a teenager.