A Revolution of Flesh and Data

Life online changed dramatically in the spring of 2009.
July 28, 2015

What if our only hope—and the only hope for the integrity of life online, of life, period —is our passionate sense of radical kinship and an unwavering commitment to solidarity against oppression?

On the six-year anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent presidential election, I was reminded of who we were to each other when Twitter was fresh and still not quite tainted by the self-promotion and commercialism that defines it today.

It may be hard to recall that sense of euphoria that dominated Iranian national politics during the presidential campaigns in the spring of 2009. In the course of the thirty-year history of the theocratic state, no one could remember another time when Iranian state television had broadcast such lively debates among the presidential candidates. After leaving a rally for the then-sitting president Ahmadinejad, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described a crowd of tens of thousands filtering into downtown. The Ahmadinejad rally was ending just as a rally for his opponent, reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was finishing up. Supporters on both sides flooded the streets and squares in a mood of camaraderie, of playfulness. “It seemed as if someone had opened a magic door,” Klein wrote, “and an entire country had spilled out.”

This wasn’t just a feeling. Things looked lively, too. Color was everywhere. Campaign paraphernalia, campaign headquarters, and campaigners themselves were clearly differentiated: Those supporting the incumbent president waved the Iranian flag, while Mousavi’s followers stood out in vibrant green. It was a nod to the distinctive green shawl— the color assigned to the family of the Prophet—their candidate wore during one of the presidential debates.

But on election day, the mood turned stark. Before the polls were even closed, Ahmadinejad’s victory was announced with 63 percent of the votes cast. Millions believed their votes were never counted. Immediately, Iranians took to the streets. Within minutes, images of masses of people wearing green armbands, finger-bands, and headbands filling the vast boulevards, squares, and bridges of the Iranian cityscape were posted to Twitter and Facebook.

As supporters shared pictures from the protests and put green overlays on their avatar images to express solidarity, Twitter became awash with the color green. The date— June 12, 2009—became the official genesis of Iran’s Green Movement.

That summer, solidarity around the hashtag #iranelection had Twitter subscribers everywhere changing their geolocation to Tehran to protect those who were actually tweeting from the ground in Iran. For eight months, hundreds of thousands of us came together in solidarity around #iranelection, making it the longest trending topic in Twitter’s global history.

That hashtag solidarity was unprecedented. Back then hashtags (as symbols for keywords and search topics) weren’t used except on Twitter, and even those weren’t hyperlinked. Such clickable hashtags came about just as people were using the hashtag #iranelection to express support and share vital information. As bloggers and journalists, like Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, were being arrested for merely reporting on the protest marches, hyperlinked hashtags made it feel as if we were all marching together, linked, as one people, against injustice.

The solidarity was critical. It forced the Iranian authorities to release Bahari (although many journalists and protestors still remain in prison). But critical, too, was the change in our engagement with social media. Flickr, Yfrog, Twitpic, and YouTube became the extension of our acts of witnessing. They became the sites we used to record and circulate the violations of the state against its own people. The ongoing act of solidarity reshaped the whole ecology of online life forever.

The stories of protest spread worldwide in real time, but among them all, one stood out: the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, the twenty-six-year-old woman who was brutally shot and murdered by the state paramilitary (basij) in Tehran a week after the election. She was not the first civilian casualty of the 2009 uprising—in fact, hospital sources confirmed that by June 22, thousands had been injured and forty-seven killed by government forces in Tehran alone. But Neda’s death was captured on a handheld device and immediately uploaded, circulating first on Facebook, then on Twitter. In an instant she went from an innocent bystander who curiously led her music teacher into a crowd of peaceful protestors, to a martyr with historic significance.

Hundreds of thousands of people watched the video online and reposted it. Her name, Neda—“voice” or “calling” in Persian—became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition. On Twitter #Neda was the highest-ranking hashtag on June 20, 2009, indicating tens of thousands of posts on the day of her death. Moved by her gruesome death and the hashtag solidarity that rallied against the injustices she came to stand for, Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize in Neda’s name. She was lauded as one of the top ten heroes of 2009 by Time.

Urgent, unjust, and lengthy, the Iranian postelection crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of life online such that the tropes of #iranelection, its valuation of standing “friend/follower” networks and citizen reporting, its engagement with avatar activism, its relentless circulation of digital images, its immediate retweeting of YouTube videos, its hacks, memes, and viral transmissions, its flash mobs and text-the-regime campaigns, became part of a sensing, breathing, collective body, part flesh, part data, connected across the globe by way of a continual exchange of digital sights and sounds on social media.

Mottahedeh is an associate professor in the literature program. She is the author of Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (Duke University Press, 2008), Representing the Unrepresentable (Syracuse University Press, 2007), and #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life (Stanford University Press, 2015), from which this is adapted.