adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

My Failed(?) Social Web Experiment Still Haunts Me

01 December 2012

What will people post if they can't include links and can't use a nickname?

This was the question I was looking to answer back in 2007 I launched It was a very simple web site, consisting mainly of a text field and all the posts which people had entered in the text field. You can see it, unstyled, thanks to the wayback machine.

Initially, the posts were interesting to me, but probably unremarkable to anyone else. Bits of poetry, parts of song, random curses. But then something unexpected happened. More and more of the posts were written in Persian.

Persian!? How did that happen? When I looked at Google Analytics, it showed that the majority of my visits were from Iran, and that most of my visitors were referred from Yahoo Mail. This was not something that I had anticipated. It seemed like the site was going viral in Iran, with people emailing it to each other specifically in Yahoo Mail. Going through the site, I noticed that some of the posts referenced others; each post had a number, and visitors would specify the number of the post they were replying to.

But why? Why all this activity from Iranians? I wanted to know, but sadly had no direct way of finding out. After all, everyone was anonymous. Not knowing what else, to do, I tried using Google Translate to see what people were saying. One post in particular stood out. It's probably irretrievable now, but a young man essentially wrote, "Help, I am a gay man living in Iran. I cannot tell anyone, or I will be killed. Please, someone help me."

To this day, that post haunts me. Who was this young man? Was he able to find help? Where is he today, and is he OK?

I doubt I'll ever know the answer. I eventually shut down the site as traffic slowed to a trickle. But pieces of it remain. It was connected to a twitter account, where you can still read fragments of those posts by anonymous Iranians. And there's the wayback machine, which offers larger slices of conversation. And there's Google Translate, offering me its demented assistance in trying to understand what was happening a world away:

Staring at the horizon, leaving the logo side of life, rectified love sitting in contemplation, madness, stood an innocent face, a tired face , relying on the fact, sad face smiling at what an idea! that madness pounding deep into each side. .