How Unicode Mattered in Iran


As protesters expressed their anger with the Iranian presidential electoral process, the world marvelled at how Twitter, Facebook and other Internet outlets are re being used by Iranians to communicate with each other even as the government was sending out force to suppress the riots. The U.S. State department even requested that Twitter reschedule a fix so as not to interfere with the daylight hours of Iran.

Heady stuff for technologies we normally associate with most insipid of Internet messaging ("OMG - The Orioles lost again?!?"). I'm glad Facebook and Twitter were there, but I suspect that some of the most important messages were in Persian (Farsi) and were made possible by another less glamorous technology - Unicode. Both Facebook and Twitter have had underlying Unicode support in the beginning, so assuming your system had the right fonts, you could communicate in any language from Persian to Igbo and then some.

Although I am normally a symbol geek in my love for Unicode (goes well with my lifelong obsession with fonts, foreign language and exotic characters), at times like these I realize that Unicode is an important tool to the dream of the Internet enabling anyone, anywhere to speak out and be heard. If you are not a symbol geek, but wonder why Unicode is important...I think bloggers and Tweeters in Iran, China and everywhere can show you the answer. Unicode makes it possible for everyone to be heard...even if you haven't had the chance to learn English.

Postscript: English Digital Divide

In some countries there is a real digital divide based on language - that is those who have learned a major language such as English, French or Spanish or Chinese and Arabic are able to use the Internet while others who only know a relatively under supported language do not have little to zero access.

For instance, I asked a scholar at a Sri Lankan university how they computed in the Sinhala script, and his answer was that all computing was assumed to be in English (partly because Sri Lanka used to be the British colony Ceylon). I was a little startled, but it makes sense. Until recently, I suspect that only a few people or institutions in the upper economic tiers could have afforded computers and they were likely already educated in English. Since English support is built in, it might seem a waste to work in support for a "local" script. Still, I think a lot of people and organizations understand the importance of Unicode in increasing access (and preserving local languages) and are working to provide low-cost utilities for these communities.

About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage ( for a profile.


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