Iranian Food Critic Beats Internet Censorship to Build Social Following

Mashable

There are more than 17 million Facebook users in Iran, but the site is banned throughout the country. Iran also bans its citizens from accessing Twitter and YouTube.

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Even so, people are finding a way around the censorship with the help of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and online proxies that work around the system.

"People in Iran can use a VPN or proxy to pass the country's filter," an Iranian food critic who goes by the name of Mr. Taster told Mashable. "Iranians can access Facebook this way without a penalty -- if you don't write anything political or against Iran's rules, you will be fine."

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Mr. Taster -- who has a large Facebook following -- discussed how he is excelling at building a personal brand on Facebook, despite the country's restrictions to keep people off social media sites during the 2012 Reykjavik Internet Marketing Conference in Iceland.

"We actually think the proxy is being controlled by the government itself," Mr. Taster said. "The VPN goes dead before an election or important thing, so they can still control the servers."

He is one of the many Iranian citizens accessing Facebook and other banned sites. Despite the limitations, he is embracing social media to reach a target audience and grow his brand like many small businesses are doing worldwide.

The Mr. Taster Facebook page, which is an extension of MrTaster.com, is a destination for Iranians to look at pictures he's taken of food from his world travels, talk about cuisine and share stories of his adventures.

"I try to make the Facebook page fun and interactive," Mr. Taster told attendees. "I post pictures and videos from restaurants I love and make the site a place that people want to keep visiting."

The page has more than 50,000 Likes, and a high-engagement rate with its fans and followers. It also brings about 4,000 to 5,000 page views to MrTaster.com from Facebook every day.

"Engagement is so important," Mr. Taster said. "People love to interact on online, but they get bored fast, too. You have to keep it fun, authentic and real. I'm honest about the food I try and it opens people up to discussion."

Although many other citizens are also building brands on sites banned by the government, Iran continues to enforce content-control via its own filter service. Iran has previously used content-control software called SmartFilter provided by or illegally stolen from San Jose, Calif.-based software firm Secure Computer. (The company denies ever working with Iran to set up the filter).

The software used by Iran blocks a variety of websites beyond just social media, including pornography sites, news media and political pages. Some countries, such as Egypt, have taken drastic measures to turn off the Internet to prohibit its citizens from accessing certain sites. But Iran relies on the Internet to conduct transactions and e-commerce, so shutting down the web would cause a social and economic backlash.

Iranians continue to get around the system by using proxy servers to avoid the ban. The U.S. has been providing a server to allow Iranian citizens access blocked pages since 2003.

Navigating around the ban allows brands such as Mr. Taster to be recognized on a national level and also create fans and buzz in other countries.

"There is still so much more I want to do," Mr. Taster said. "I set goals for my vision -- from getting new Facebook fans to increasing engagement on the page -- and think of creative ways to get there. I've been holding gift giveaways to get fans excited, involved and willing to share with others."

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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