The Nowruz message, revisited

I wrote last week that YouTube seemed to have produced evidence that President Obama’s direct address to the Iranian people, on the holiday of Nowruz, "broke through," in that YouTube’s map (above) suggested that the video — which had more than 600,000 views over all — was "most popular" in Iran.

A colleague pointed out to me, however, that "most popular" is ambiguous, and a YouTube spokesman later explained to me, however, that the map means that the video was the most popular video in Iran during a time period, not that the bulk of its views were coming from Iran.

The breakdown of clicks by country is available only to the video’s owner — in this case, the White House — which wouldn’t share the data in full. But I’m told that the actual number coming from Iran was about 15,000 — enough to make it among the most popular in the country that day, but not — in a country with a population of 72 million — a huge number.

So did the video break through? The answer still seems to be yes. I asked a number of people who follow online questions in Iran, and they were unanimous on the point that the video was widely seen — though not only on YouTube — and discussed, and also that the YouTube video itself was a powerful tool.

First, "YouTube is a widely accessed resource in Iran," said Bruce Etling, the lead author of a report released last month on the region’s blogophere. An estimated third of the population is online, and, for instance, both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi used the site during the campaign. And the video was a very hot topic in the active Iranian blogosphere.

"Within a week, Obama’s Nowruz message (if you total several different  versions of it–the official White House one was just one, others were posted to YouTube from different sources, with different subtitles,
etc.) was cited (linked to) by more Iranian bloggers than any other video from the entire year prior–which is a remarkably fast rise," said John Kelly, a co-author of the report.

But the YouTube version was just one of many ways the Nowruz message had an impact inside Iran, said Mehdi Semati, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Eastern Illinois University who studies media inside Iran.

"Using YouTube’s metrics by itself is not sufficient to explain the significance of the Nowruz video or any other such communication to Iranians," he said. "The president’s message was picked up by BBC Persian satellite TV and others and viewed widely in Iran."

"In a culture that has not lost its affinity for oral communication, these messages tend to be reinforced in a short time period via word of mouth," he added.

"These statistics are significant," Semati said of the YouTube numbers. "Judging by the actions of the Iranian government in restricting access to these communication technologies, it is fair to say the Iranian government agrees with this assessment."

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