End of news: Can democracy thrive with post-news journalism?

For some time, I’ve been following the discourse among journalists about the reasons for this rapid decline of news industry. There various explanations such as business models, quality, trust, or social media.

But when I was reading an article from one of my favourite media scholars, James W. Carey, where he points out the historical aspect of news, a new question crossed my mind which inspired my Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s research and the article I wrote for Medium based on it: What if the news has largely lost its relevance and functions for the youth of the middle-class after two centuries around the world (Except in a few countries such as India)? And if that’s true, what can explain it?

Initial drafts included a playful analogy of hats to describe what has come of news. But with Jemima Kiss, my editor, we decided to drop that. Hence the picture.

So please read the full essay and leave your comments or responses.

Rouhani’s Last Blow

The moderate Iranian president asserts himself evermore as the next Supreme Leader. Can he survive the unlikely alliance of Iran and US hardliners?

By Hossein Derakhshan

Recent unrest in Iran can neither be fully explained by discourse of inequality, nor by that of democracy. The underlying theme of everything that is happening these days in Iran is one thing: Who is going to succeed the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei?

President Rouhani, a moderate reformer, has turned out to be a solid contender since his landslide victory last year. Particularly in light of recent reports on the health of Ayatollah Shahroudi, a favourite contender among clerical elite, who is reported to be diagnosed with cancer. Hence the rise of unprecedented challenges by hardliners. As Behzad Nabavi, a senior reformist politician recently said, if former reformist president Khatami “faced one challenge every nine days by average, Rouhani faces one every nine hours.”

Rouhani ran a successful campaign in 2013 against Iran’s hardliners with an ambitious platform of saving the economy (through reaching a deal with the Western power over its nuclear programme) and ending the police state (by keeping social media unblocked) — both caused by Ahmadinejad and his hardline allies.

Despite an aggressive campaign, centred around unemployment and inequality, Raisi lost with a big margin to Rouhani.
Before he began running for a second term, he had already delivered both. Despite very serious challenges by hardliners, with backing from the Supreme Leader, he reached the best possible deal with the six world powers and managed to lift crippling UN and EU sanctions which had started to pose an existential threat to the regime. He also succeeded in keeping hardliners from blocking the emerging social media of the time, i.e. Instagram and Telegram. (He ultimately preferred to give up on Facebook and Twitter both due to severe hardliner’ resistance and also their decline compared to the other two platforms.)

As the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, which is a post constitutionally given to sitting presidents, he created a relatively safe space for reformist politicians, activists, and media to return to the political scene. He ended the squeezing of the civil society by the security apparatus. Moreover, he quietly expanded the reach and the speed of mobile access to the internet which significantly benefited the moderates’ and civil society who had no place in the state-run media. He also appointed a popular female reformist activist as a vice president for women’s affairs.

This time, hardliners were determined to unseat him. Not just because Rouhani was quietly but effectively rolling back the immense wealth and influence they had managed to gain under Ahmadinejad, but also because they knew Ayatollah Khamenei’s health and age would soon mean somebody should be elected to replace him. Hardliners were worried that a second term for Rouhani would shatter all their dreams.

In May 2017, hardliners found their best candidate. Ebrahim Raisi was a handsome (but uncharismatic) younger cleric (and also a prosecutor of a secretive special court for the clergy) who was recently appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to run Imam Reza’s shrine and its associated endowment with an estimated $15b value. They threw everything they had behind Raisi. From their huge influence in clerical establishment, state media, and the Revolutionary Guards’ quasi-private cultural empire they had built under Ahmadinejad’s corrupted rule.

They even forced the former mayor of Tehran, Bagher Ghalibaf, who had already ran and lost twice for president, to run again — and do the dirty works for the neophyte Raisi during the campaign and especially presidential debates.

Despite their brutal and extremely populist campaign, centred around inequality and unemployment, they lost to Rouhani who basically promised to protect and expand his two achievements: Barjaam (Nuclear deal in Persian) and Telegram.

Trump had already shocked everyone around the world, including the Iranian establishment. Hardliners, though, visibly welcomed his victory because they knew how Trump hated the deal and implicitly hoped he would kill it — something they failed to do due to the strong practical (not so much rhetorical) support of the Supreme Leader.

It was not an accident that some US hawks, such as Elliot Abrams, explicitly wished for Rounahi’s rival to win. Their goal of regime-change in Iran could never be achieved while moderates were in power.

American hawks have found a golden opportunity to undermine the nuclear deal and the moderates without much effort, both of which are big hurdles for their ultimate project of regime-change.

After his victory, hardliners quickly began to embarrass Rouhani before a crucial part of his base: women. They lobbied the clerical establishment against appointment of women as cabinet ministers. They forced Rouhani to move his reformist vice-president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, out of that position. They also blocked his plans to allow women in football stadiums, as well as a fresh clamp-down on young women’s dress-code in big cities and stopping female musicians to perform on stage alongside men.

The tacit alliance of US hawks and Iran hardliners reached a climax earlier in October when Trump officially announced his policy of regime-change in Iran.

Soon after the expected patriotic mood settled in Iran, Rouhani presented his budget to the parliament, warning that the economy couldn’t be fixed without a more transparent budget and invited all public organizations, especially those that belonged to the clerical establishment ,to be more accountable. He widely publicized it on social media and asked the public to start discussing it hoping that popular outrage would get the parliament cut public funding for dozens of those institutions which were mostly created or boosted by Ahmadinejad.

Hardliners, mostly direct or indirect students of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the nemesis of the reform in Iran, activated their grand plan: either to force Rouhani to resign now, or disillusion his middle-class base and thus defeat the moderate candidate (who is rumoured to be Ali Larijani) for the next presidential elections in 2021. They sent dozens of their senior members to speak in their strongholds such as Mashad, Isfahan, and Hamedan. They also, rather anonymously, organized anti-government protests to accompany them.

It’s yet to become clear if these hardliners had anticipated violence or not, but they surely had expected that US hawks would eagerly endorse the protests and put Rouhani in a losing game: If he let the protests continue, they would paint it as a grave failure of his economic policy which includes the nuclear deal and ultimately accuse him of severe incompetence. If he curbed them, they would illustrate him as an aloof autocrat who crushed the poor or the unemployed to cover up for his broken policies.

When the protests turned violent and the US hawks jumped on it, hardliners found their dream scenario. They forced Rouhani (who doesn’t have the majority vote in the committee which controls internet filtering and is overseen by the judiciary) to break his promise and block Telegram and Instagram — both blamed by the same hardliners for inciting violence. They also blame him of endangering national security by neglecting the economy and expressed wishes to kill the ’fruitless’ nuclear deal.

On the other side, American hawks have found a golden opportunity to undermine both the nuclear deal and the moderates without much effort — they are both big hurdles for their ultimate project of regime-change.

Rouhani now faces an extremely difficult situation which will determine both the future of his own faction in the next parliament and presidential elections, but the future of Iran (as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader) for the next few decades. Now not only should he keep protecting the nuclear deal, unblock the social media he ​had to the lives to ban temporarily, and go ahead with the economic reforms he had started, but he needs to prove that he can quickly bring back peace and stability ​and businesses ​of the urban middle-class.​ (Rouhani unblocked Telegram messenger last week despite tremendous resistance by hardliners.)

He has previously shown to be a deft politician who delivers. He is a jujitsu player; He anticipates a blow and turn its very force against the attacker. He has displayed that in television debates in 2017, and he might pull off something similar this time.

Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian journalist and media analyst who spent six years in prison in Tehran from 2008. He tweets at @h0d3r

A statement

For nearly fifteen years, I have been subject to a politically-motivated disinformation campaign because of my sharp critique of the hawkish policies that could see Iran follow the same fate Iraq began to suffer in the mid-2000s.

In 2008, after I went back to Iran after a few years of living abroad, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps arrested me and kept me for eight consecutive months in solitary confinement, with no access to books or newspapers or even anyone to talk, so as to force me to confess that I was an agent of Israel, only because I had visited Israel as a freelance journalist and a peace activist to counter the drum of war at the time against Iran.

Almost two years later, in an unfair trial, I was spared a death penalty (precisely over two words which appeared in my blog), but was graced with a grotesque 19.5 year prison sentence, for my writings, reformist activism, and advocacy of free expression online.

It is ironic that my long-offline blog archive, which was once maliciously exploited by the Iranian regime to ruin six years of my life is now, after a decade, used by some opponents of the Iranian regime to vindictively demolish the rest of my life, both personally and professionally —after all the pain and trauma that my family and I experienced and still endure, a time when I’m finally getting back on my feet.

Ever since I was released in 2014, I have restarted thinking and writing about how new media and social platforms are impacting our societies. It was the quality of my output which earned me the chance to continue research on the future of news and algorithms, as well as information disorder (‘fake news’) at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and the MIT Media Lab.

Nearly forty years after the 1979 revolution, most of the critics of the current Iranian system want the same thing: a secular, open, just, peaceful, and prosperous state which protects minorities, allows dissent, and tolerates difference. I, too, share that vision. However like the majority of Iranians, I believe it should come from within, or it would not be sustainable. Alas, this has made all Iranian reformers like me an easy target equally by hardliners in Iran and hawks in the US.

Why Is Social News Bad for Democracy

Consumption of news has become a social performance for the first time in history—and it only helps spread of disinformation

By Hossein Derakhshan and Claire Wardle

The Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2017 is, disappointingly, “fake news”. We say disappointingly, because the ubiquity of that phrase among journalists, academics and policymakers is partly why the debate around this issue is so simplistic. The phrase is grossly inadequate to explain the nature and scale of the problem. (Were those Russian ads displayed at the congressional hearings last week news, for example?) But what’s more troubling, and the reason that we simply cannot use the phrase any more, is that it is being used by politicians around the world as a weapon against the fourth estate and an excuse to censor free speech.

Definitions matter. Take, for example, the question of why this type of content is created in the first place. There are four distinct motivations for why people do this: political, financial, psychological (for personal satisfaction) and social (to reinforce our belonging to communities or “tribes”). If we’re serious about tackling mis- and disinformation, we need to address these motivations separately. And we think it’s time to give much more serious consideration to the social element.

Social media force us to live our lives in public, positioned centre-stage in our very own daily performances. Erving Goffman, the American sociologist, articulated the idea of “life as theatre” in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and while the book was published more than half a century ago, the concept is even more relevant today. It is increasingly difficult to live a private life, in terms not just of keeping our personal data away from governments or corporations, but also of keeping our movements, interests and, most worryingly, information consumption habits from the wider world.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth.
The social networks are engineered so that we are constantly assessing others — and being assessed ourselves. In fact our “selves” are scattered across different platforms, and our decisions, which are public or semi-public performances, are driven by our desire to make a good impression on our audiences, imagined and actual.

We grudgingly accept these public performances when it comes to our travels, shopping, dating, and dining. We know the deal. The online tools that we use are free in return for us giving up our data, and we understand that they need us to publicly share our lifestyle decisions to encourage people in our network to join, connect and purchase.

But, critically, the same forces have impacted the way we consume news and information. Before our media became “social”, only our closest family or friends knew what we read or watched, and if we wanted to keep our guilty pleasures secret, we could. Now, for those of us who consume news via the social networks, what we “like” and what we follow is visible to many — or, in Twitter’s case, to all, unless we are in that small minority of users who protect their tweets. Consumption of the news has become a performance that can’t be solely about seeking information or even entertainment. What we choose to “like” or follow is part of our identity, an indication of our social class and status, and most frequently our political persuasion.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth. The act of sharing is often about signalling to others that we agree with the sentiment of the message, or that even if we don’t agree, we recognise it as important and worth paying attention to. We want to feel connected to others, and these mini-performances allow us to do that.

“News is not information, it is drama…reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass where particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.
Understanding this is easier if we read the work of media scholar James Carey. He argued that the dominant lens through which we understand communication is a “transmission model”, with a focus simply on the mechanics through which a message is transmitted from Sender A to Receiver B. However, he said, we should actually view communication through the lens of ritual if we want to understand why people seek out, consume and make sense of information. From this vantage point, Carey argued: “News is not information, it is drama.” A ritual view of communication views “reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass”, where “a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.

When we consider many of the solutions being proposed to tackle the spread of disinformation, it certainly seems that the focus is on this transmission model. Ideas such as flagging disputed content are founded on the idea that information consumption is rational. If we are serious about slowing down the dissemination of mis- and disinformation, we need to start recognising the emotional and social drivers that shape people’s relationship with information.

There has been much discussion over the past year about the need for us to pop our filter bubbles, to follow a much more diverse set of people and accounts. But how do we do this when those actions are public? Do we need to explain to our network why we are following that hyper-partisan Facebook page that sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from our own views? And how to “heart” a tweet to go back to later for research when that action is public? Seeing Twitter tell you that your most ardent Trump-hating friend just “liked” one of his tweets can be jarring.

While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated.
As a French thinker of the 1960s, Guy Debord, would second, we’ve historically evolved from being informed to having information, and then to appearing informed. While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated. And when the algorithms that power these networks are designed to capitalise on our emotional responses, but proposed solutions require rational responses. Unfortunately, no significant change is likely.

Claire Wardle is a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and leads the non-profit First Draft. Hossein Derakhshan is a writer and researcher. They recently co-authored Information Disorder, a report commissioned by the Council of Europe

Text vs. World Trumps

Decline of text in favour of videos means more Trumps and Berlusconis around the world. How can we save our democracies?

By Hossein Derakhshan

TEHRAN — Demagogues of the world, right or left, have got to love television. The linear, emotion-driven, passive, and image-centred medium has reduced politics to a reality-show. As Neil Postman showed in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” television has vastly downgraded the level of public discourse in most democracies. From US to Iran, from Venezuela to France, from Egypt to Russia, from Italy to Turkey, there is as much competition over viewers’ gaze as it is over their ballots. In many countries, gaze is automatically translated into votes.

Most alarmingly, the internet which was the last word-centred public space after the decline of print journalism, is capitulating to the television format. Social networks’ notion of the Stream, in Facebook, Twitter etc., is killing the web and thereby the word-based journalism. Facebook now is more like the future of television than how the web looked like for over two decades.

A recent research by Oxford University shows that watching online videos is on the rise in US and most parts of the world, except in northern Europe. Perhaps because they have a healthier work and life balance and also because their public education system still promotes reading and critical thinking.

Donald Trump’s mastery of television medium means he can turn every threat into opportunity, every waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant. He seems invincible in the age of television and video-dominated internet.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that soon videos will dominate its news feeds, for it “commands so much information in a much quicker period so actually the trend helps us digest more of the information in a quicker way,’ in the words of Nicola Mendelsohn. a vice president at Facebook.

This confirms my own speculation when I came out in of an Iranian prison in 2014 only to discover a whole different internet, where text is in decline and images, still or moving, on the rise. As a pioneer of blogging in Iran, what I realized after six years of isolation was that blogs, the best example of a decentralized public sphere, were dead. Facebook and Instagram had killed hyperlinks to maximize profits by keeping users inside and exposing them to more and more advertising. Thus they were killing the open web, which was founded on links. The internet had become more of an entertaining tool than an alternative space for public discussion. Worse than that, I noticed a strange unease among the youth to read anything over 140 characters.

Of course text will never die, but the ability to communicate through alphabet is now slowly becoming a privilege dedicated to a small elite in many societies. Quite like middle ages where only politicians and monks enjoyed the ability to communicate through alphabet. The rest are going to be the 21st century illiterates who can mainly communicate through images, videos – and of course, emojis.

The emerging illiterate class, hooked onto their old television sets or to their Facebook-centred mobile personal televisions (i.e. smart phones), is good news for demagogues. Look at how Donald Trump has mastered the formula of television to turn it into his free-of-charge public relations machine. His capture of the spirit of television has helped him transform all threats into opportunities, garbage into gold, and waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant.

Neil Postman perfectly explained why in his 1985 book. To him, the difference between 16th to 19th century public discourse in the US and now is that public opinion in the age of television is more a set of “emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.” He sees the entertaining nature of television as only producing disinformation, which “does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”

The recent EU referendum coverage on UK televisions has been a good example. While sticking to the UK media regulations on impartiality, some still believe that the numerous debates where both sides had equal time to argue for their cases, had not done justice to a complex and sensitive topic such as Brexit. Particularly now that some initial claims by the pro-Leave camp, such as the diversion of a £350m “sent to the EU every week” on the UK’s public health-care system, are denied by the very people who pledged it. There were already much debunking of such distortions and disinformation available on the web and in print. But talking about numbers and maths is always boring and useless on television. (A persian saying goes as “a stupid throws a stone down a well, but a hundred wise people cannot take it out.”)

Justin Webb, a former North America editor at the BBC, went as far to blame the existing impartiality rules. Last week he wrote in Radio Times: “One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counter-claim so that they could work out what was true.” He suggested that “media needs to look again at how it covers politics and the way it holds people to account in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union”, according to The Guardian.

The twilight of word-centred journalism, either in print or on the web, means oversimplified, emotional political discourse, uninformed political participation, and of course, more demagogy around the world.

It’s hard to say whether it was first the public who demanded more videos, or was it the media that, scared by the prospect of ad-blocking technologies, rushed toward videos, which drew more audiences, generated more advertising cash, and proven harder to block. Nonetheless, we face the grave consequences of such shift for the future of our democracies.

It is clear that for a healthy, representative democracy we need more text than videos, at least to resist self-serving demagogues. This is not an American or a British problem, this is a threat to our civilization.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save (Matter)” and the creator of “Link-age”, a collaborative art project to promote hyperlinks and open web.

A Note on Future of Internet

Web was basically an application built on top of the internet. It was free, because it depended on advertising.

Now the rise of ad blocking applications doesn’t only mean a change of revenue model is necessary, but it also hints at the end of the web and web browsers in general.

Paywalls as a solution take news websites a step closer toward mobile apps. And mobile apps are replacing the web.

When the transition is over, internet will mean apps, instead of sites. And many of these apps won’t be free to use, as it is the case now. So revenue models will have to change toward something like cable tv: When you pay for your high-speed internet connection , you will have to pay an extra monthly fee for subscription to a news package, entertainment package, education package, etc.

Soon ISPs (mobile or else) will partner with content-providers who have lost much of their advertising revenue. Some content-providers will become ISPs. Facebook for instance is testing waters already with its internet.org project, to become an ISP. It has already partnered with some big journalism outlets (Instant articles project) to bring in their content into its own system.

Soon we’ll be paying Facebook and other ISPs every month to have access to the internet as well as access to professionally-made content. This will be the main source of revenue for many newspapers and magazines.

Google has long dedicated most of its resources to web. Most of the money it generates come from text ads which is founded on hyperlink. But now that web, hyperlink, and ads are in demise, it will need to readjust to survive.

These were obviously some sketchy ideas. But I would love to further explore them.

Reactions to Matter essay

The response to this rather long essay was quite surprising to me, I have to say. And this shows many people are ready for new ideas and platforms in order to change the status quo.

But personally, I think the central thing here is the hyperlink. If there is going to be any attempt to save the open web, it has to involve the hyperlink.

Here is one idea: The hyperlink should not be seen and dealt with as a thing. Rather it must be treated as a relation, as it was the case pre-Facebook era. I don’t know exactly how to revitalize the hyperlink technically. But in my view, it is the heart of the problem.

Many have pointed out the irony of criticizing the social networks, while publishing on Medium. While I don’t think Medium is as bad as Facebook for the open web (mainly because of its treatment of hyperlinks), I originally pitched it to a few print magazines with an active website. But eventually, it was Matter that stood by the pitch and showed more interest. And I’m very thankful to Boobie Johnson and the rest of Matter team for that.

Some have also asked why I didn’t post it on my own blog: First, I haven’t restarted my English blog yet, and second, I wouldn’t be paid to write in my own blog.

One more thing to add: I had originally written a few paragraphs explaining the theory of hypertext and how this relates to the Web. I had quoted from George Landow’s brilliant book, Hypertext 3.0 (2006), quite a lot and had tried to historicize the concept of hyperlink. But the editor decided it would make the essay too pretentious and I agreed.

Lastly I have to thank all of you who took time to read this essay and share it and comment on it.

The Web We Have to Save

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

By Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r), (Source: Matter)
Illustrations by Tim McDonagh

Seven months ago, I sat down at the small table in the kitchen of my 1960s apartment, nestled on the top floor of a building in a vibrant central neighbourhood of Tehran, and I did something I had done thousands of times previously. I opened my laptop and posted to my new blog. This, though, was the first time in six years. And it nearly broke my heart.

A few weeks earlier, I’d been abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. I had been expecting to spend most of my life in those cells: In November 2008, I’d been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly for things I’d written on my blog.

But the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I smoked a cigarette in the kitchen with one of my fellow inmates, and came back to the room I shared with a dozen other men. We were sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer — another prisoner — filled all the rooms and corridors. In his flat voice, he announced in Persian: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr. Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”

That evening was the first time that I went out of those doors as a free man. Everything felt new: The chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colors of the city I had lived in for most of my life.

Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I’d been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean flat screen TVs. Women in colorful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kinds of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.

Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan — it means book-reader in Persian.

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.

People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

The iPhone was a little over a year old by then, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, no Viber, no WhatsApp.

Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.

It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: This is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I ended up writing on hoder.com, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.

Then, on November 5, 2001, I published a step-to-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: Soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top 5 nations by the number of blogs, and I was proud to have a role in this unprecedented democratization of writing.

Those days, I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-twenties — it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.

Every morning, from my small apartment in downtown Toronto, I opened my computer and took care of the new blogs, helping them gain exposure and audience. It was a diverse crowd — from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans — and I always encouraged even more. I invited more religious, and pro-Islamic Republic men and women, people who lived inside Iran, to join and start writing.

The breadth of what was available those days amazed us all. It was partly why I promoted blogging so seriously. I’d left Iran in late 2000 to experience living in the West, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

There’s a story in the Quran that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep. They wake up under the impression that they’ve taken a nap: In fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food — and I can only imagine how hungry they must’ve been after 300 years — and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realizes how long they have actually been absent.

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 it 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.

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.

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: novelty and popularity, reflected 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 Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But are we missing something here? What are we exchanging for efficiency?

In many apps, the votes we cast — 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.

And not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.

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.

There’s no question to me that the diversity of themes and opinions is less online today than it was in the past. New, different, and challenging ideas get suppressed by today’s social networks because their ranking strategies prioritize the popular and habitual. (No wonder why Apple is hiring human editors for its news app.) But diversity is being reduced in other ways, and for other purposes.

Some of it is visual. Yes, it is true that all my posts on Twitter and Facebook look something similar to a personal blog: They are collected in reverse-chronological order, on a specific webpage, with direct web addresses to each post. But I have very little control over how it looks like; I can’t personalize it much. My page must follow a uniform look which the designers of the social network decide for me.

The centralization of information also worries me because it makes it easier for things to disappear. After my arrest, my hosting service closed my account, because I wasn’t able to pay its monthly fee. But at least I had a backup of all my posts in a database on my own web server. (Most blogging platforms used to enable you to transfer your posts and archives to your own web space, whereas now most platforms don’t let you so.) Even if I didn’t, the Internet archive might keep a copy. But what if my account on Facebook or Twitter is shut down for any reason? Those services themselves may not die any time soon, but it would be not too difficult to imagine a day many American services shut down accounts of anyone who is from Iran, as a result of the current regime of sanctions. If that happened, I might be able to download my posts in some of them, and let’s assume the backup can be easily imported into another platform. But what about the unique web address for my social network profile? Would I be able to claim it back later, after somebody else has possessed it? Domain names switch hands, too, but managing the process is easier and more clear— especially since there is a financial relationship between you and the seller which makes it less prone to sudden and untransparent decisions.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by. The only way to stay outside of this vast apparatus of surveillance might be to go into a cave and sleep, even if you can’t make it 300 years.

Being watched is something we all eventually have to get used to and live with and, sadly, it has nothing to do with the country of our residence. Ironically enough, states 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.

Middle-class Iranians, like most people in the world, are obsessed with new trends. Utility or quality of things usually comes second to their trendiness. In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

Is this trend driven by people’s changing cultural habits, or is it that people are following the new laws of social networking? I don’t know — that’s for researchers to find out — but it feels like it’s reviving old cultural wars. After all, the web started out by imitating books and for many years, it was heavily dominated by text, by hypertext. Search engines put huge value on these things, and entire companies — entire monopolies — were built off the back of them. But as the number of image scanners and digital photos and video cameras grows exponentially, this seems to be changing. Search tools are starting to add advanced image recognition algorithms; advertising money is flowing there.

But 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.