Going Viral: How the Web is changing Iranian Americans

I’ve been wondering for a while why certain YouTube clips go viral among Iranian Americans while others obviously don’t. Are there videos that go particularly viral among the second generation? An example that comes to mind is the “I love you America” video that I had sent to me by a second generation friend I met in LA.

Anyway, before I knew it, people were posting it all over Facebook and referencing it in conversations, jokes, face-to-face, on the phone, and of course our hero was “Iranian of the day” on Iranian.com. Seeing this, and the 87,000+ views it got on YouTube, I guess we could say it went viral. So, what’s the appeal?

A friend to whom I showed the video said it was all about the genuineness of the singer – the fact that he represents his own, very particular, and very candid way of being both Iranian and American at the same. The more people I talked to the more I heard about the importance of being real and honest online. Why this emphasis when it comes to online communications? Is it because we must always be ware of fakes on the net? Or is it, rather, because the internet is a particularly effective medium for sharing in honest and open ways?

Marshall McLuhan talked about the ways in which changing technologies have always been shaping our social worlds. According to him, they do this by changing the way we communicate with one another and therefore how we think and organize ourselves into societies. His famous phrase “the medium is the message” might provide ways to understand the significance of some of these viral videos. McLuhan used the example of the railway, claiming that “the message of any medium of technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” This, he argued, was the effect of the railway as a medium, completely independent of what it was being used to carry, the content.

So, what about the content of youtube video clips? I thought the content was the most important part! Especially given the emphasis placed by one discerning viewer on the issue of genuineness of this particular guy in this particular context engaged in this particular act. And also because of the fact that this video is very likely circulating among Iranian Americans and not Chinese Swiss for a reason: the content, right?

So why is McLuhan still important? In the BBC documentary, The Virtual Revolution (catchy/cliche/presumptuous title and all), Jonah Peretti, co-founder of Huffington Post and founder of BuzzFeed talks about how we can use McLuhan today (20 years after his death) to explain how inane videos of cats playing the piano are mega youtube-hits. We need only see that it’s not at all about the content, but completely about the fluidity with which the video is shared with others, is adapted through the process, and ultimately ends up engaging people in a “viral culture” in which their interactivity is key. We can see a version of this in the way remixes and impersonations of the “I Love You, Amrika” guy have been added to the youtube library by other Iranians (lousy, as they might be in quality, but hey…).

Apparently, the mere fact that we’re engaging with a new, interactive media is changing us. If this is the case, then while we’re being shaped into so-called members of the “global village” (another of McLuhan’s famous phrases), we’re not just becoming more connected to as many other people as possible for the sake of it, regardless of what kind of content they share or produce (this leaves the question of why some vids go viral and others don’t unanswered). What we do seem to be doing is trying to keep close track of those parts of what the Web offers which are especially close to us, those things with which we can identify, things that make us feel at home, things that touch a deeper “me” or “us” feeling. That’s exactly the feeling I got when a friend from LA recently posted a simple close-up of a car number plate that read “ACHJOON” and tagged a bunch of us hyphenate Iranians in it. I Loved it. The comments that ensued covered the range of meaning that this phrase in Farsi (literally: oh baby/dear) has that can’t fully be translated, and the fact that this object also somehow immediately conveyed a typical LA Iranian-ness was also obvious without explanation.

There’s indeed something movingly sincere about these tiny snippits of web-aided Iranian American-ness that make them work for people, at least from where I’m looking. And together they seem to make up a bigger patchwork of other people’s similar feelings. It’s almost as though it’s in those moments, when you feel this kind of closeness and immediacy when relating to others, that the role of the internet as media is most invisible. But perhaps it is in precisely these moments when its role is most significant – imperceptibly changing the ways we are being and becoming ourselves as Iranians and as people with mediated lives.

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