It’s easy to overgeneralize East Asian cultures into a single culture. It is furthermore just as easy to overgeneralize East Asian internet cultures into a single web-culture. But when all generalizations on web-culture are dropped, it is easy to realize that the variety of interactions in any web-culture is too great to break into smaller groups. So let’s do what shouldn’t be done, and overgeneralize for a bit – let’s look at East Asian social networking behavior. The most active users of social networking sites (SNS), and SNS provided APIs are internet users in the United States. Second to American internet users are East Asians. Breaking the SNS usage focus these two groups down into individual states, Americans tend to aim to broadcast their own generated content, treating SNS as their own news broadcasts. With a gigantic population, Mainland Chinese SNS users are decently balanced, but lean slightly towards SNS based multiplayer gaming and ‘wall-to-wall’ communication. Japanese SNS users are very different, focusing on high privacy diary-like blogs which are networked with users that closely mimic their physical friend circles. Finally, Korean SNS users are heavily engaged in voiced opinion, spending most of their time on online community forums/chat and connected blogs which barely resemble physical friend circles.
Before we can truly understand these distinctions, however, we need to define social networking. Social networking has now been expanded to encompass many forms of interaction. Sharing mechanisms such as Facebook Connect are pushing the internet towards a renaissance, where user-generated content, not machine-generated rehashes, once again are bulk of internet content, much like the Web 1.0 days. Blogging services such as Tumblr and Twitter feeds are not only taking the place of user-made websites, but are linking together and becoming more socially interactive. People are becoming the websites. Hence, for the purposes of this write-up, and at least for the month of June 2011 (before it changes again), let’s broadly define internet social networking as the navigation through a mass social structure by means of web linkages connecting human-nodes, determined by social inter-dependencies, including, but not limited to, family, community, and society.
South Korean social networks, both on and offline, are tightly knit and full of conversation. A study from Yeungnam University determined that the top three interactions used on SNS by South Korean internet users all involved peer-to-peer communication. Over a single month, 94.4% of polled South Korean SNS users reported having chatted in online clubs or communities and 64.3% reported using chat or instant messenger. The usage of socially linked blogs and virtual environments such as CyWorld minihompy was a high 78.1%. Of their SNS usage, South Korean SNS users spent of over half of the time in online clubs/communities or linked blogs and virtual environments. Finally, when asked about their motivations for using SNS, an overwhelming 93.6% of South Korean SNS users stated that they wanted to socialize better. Personal networking scored a dismal 9.9%. My own numbers from a study conducted while I was doing research at Harvard in 2009 mirrored the Yeungnam University numbers, and also provided the American and Japanese contrast: less than 15% of Japanese SNS users wanted to socialize better, and 37% of Americans used SNS for personal networking.
The intense socialization in South Korean web-culture has even brought forth the now English loadword ‘netizen’ (네티즌), clearly demonstrating the individual and very conversation individualism of the active South Korean SNS user. South Korean netizens participate feverishly in online discussions, which is often harsh, heavily polarized, and dangerously influential. While the decent number of discussions cover casual topics such as South Korean netizens’ favorite pop stars or new gadgets, many forum/community discussions grow extremely heated. In 1997, the Red Devils, an online fan club for the Korean soccer national team exploded onto the scene through BBS. During the World Cup in 2002, the Red Devils managed to arrange 24 million fans into an organized celebration through a democratic process. Less directly, the Korea Times credited netizen’s with the eventual election of South Korean President Roh.
But not all of this rampant discussion is positive. Another term generated, or rather, redefined by South Korean netizenry is ‘anti-fan’ (안티팬), or a netizen who actively aims to tear down a certain celebrity or icon. Anti-fan online clubs actively destroy fan sites, start web-based smear campaigns, send threatening messages, cause disturbances on forums and blog discussions, and also arrange physical protests against both celebrities/icons and their fans, often resulting in physical conflict. Some anti-fan communities have even been known to send syringes and knives to those that they hate, and have even arranged collectively and democratically to murder certain celebrities/icons. Dr. Youngmi Kim, professor of sociology and politics at the University of Edinburgh states: “Internet behavior in South Korea is somewhat of a low culture. I’m often disgusted or even offended by the manners on the net…” The South Korean president Myung-bak Lee also stated that South Korean netizen culture had become “a society rampant with excessive emotional behavior, disorderliness and rudeness” and vowed to create and enforce governmental censures on South Korean webspaces.
South Korea has a brilliantly social social networking culture. It’s not about posting, sharing, or broadcasting, but about the discussion. South Koreans spend their time talking. Feverishly. Their avatars are dynamic digital manifestations of their opinions, feelings, and engagements, not just picket signs or blocked in journals. And while this super-fast paced, team-based discussion can often end up being extremely deleterious, when it does work, its powerful, colorful, and charismatic.