Virtual Cosmopolitans: Digital Dimensions of Urban Life Going On(line) in Tehran

Digital media play an increasingly transformative role in everyday, middle-class life in Tehran. As elsewhere across the globe, digital technologies affect how the city is witnessed, mediated, imagined and understood. Camera phones and their integration into online social networks modify how, where, and with whom we ‘experience’ travelling through places. Contemporary Tehran presents a particularly salient example of digital technology’s capacity to foster mobility and cosmopolitan co-presence, amongst a dynamic middle-class of popular media producers actively desiring their city to be seen in cosmopolitan terms. Moreover, in some cases, digital media also form the only possible vehicles for ‘travel’ to and from the city for some foreign and Iranian visitors. These factors, and a constellation of socio-technological, political and economic developments have led to the increasing presence of what I call ‘virtual cosmopolitans’: individuals from, visiting and assembling in the virtual city of Tehran through its numerous online communities. Social networks and photoblogs are the primary sites of these virtual cosmopolitan encounters, wherein locative media and geotagging yield new opportunities for re/writing urban space (geographical, social and cultural), through embodied mobile cartographies. In the virtual cosmopolitan metropole, new and old relationships with Tehran--its streets and parks, apartments and neighbourhoods--are experienced and re-visited en masse, where they connect with individuals’ actual and/or imagined impressions of the city.

But what can be said of the different phenomenological context in which Tehran is today opened out to broader interpretive communities, online? How does the city’s virtual cosmopolitanism impact upon its offline social dynamics? In what ways do virtual urban experiences compare to other remote forms of knowing the city, similarly rooted in ‘virtual’ realms such as memory, nostalgia and imagination?

In this paper, based on ethnographic research conducted in Tehran and online, I explore these questions, and related social implications, posed by this middle-class cultural shift towards everyday life going online in Tehran, from the early 2000s to the present. I conclude by suggesting that the present ‘digital moment’ of virtual urban cosmopolitan sociability in and in relation to Tehran signifies a historical juncture in the ways in which the city collectively negotiates its already ‘virtual’ identity in popular images and imaginaries. At the same time, I suggest that Tehran’s contemporary virtual cosmopolitanism presents less of a rupture, than continuity with a longer history of (and scholarship on) Iranian, middle-class urban cosmopolitanism, evolving alongside its locus of study.