No jokes are innocent.

No jokes are innocent. This has always been my mantra, if I had to pick only one, reflecting my scholarly orientation. Today, following Donald Trump’s “Second Amendment people” comment, I came across a brilliant tweetstorm on the topic of jokes and am saving it here for my future self. The original thread, created by Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals), can be found here

  1. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the social function of humor (in literature & film) and here’s the thing about “just joking.”
  2. You’re never “just joking.” Nobody is ever “just joking.” Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).
  3. To say humor is social act is to say it is always in social context; we don’t joke alone. Humor is a way we relate/interact with others.
  4. Which is to say, humor is a way we construct identity – who we are in relation to others. We use humor to form groups…
  5. …and to find our individual place in or out of those groups. In short, joking/humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate.
  6. IOW, we use humor to bring people into – or keep them out of – our social groups. This is what humor *does.* What it’s for.
  7. Consequently, how we use humor is tied up with ethics – who do we embrace, who do we shun, and how/why?
  8. And the assimilating/alienating function of humor works not only only people but also on *ideas.* This is important.
  9. This is why, e.g., racist “jokes” are bad. Not just because they serve to alienate certain people, but also because…
  10. …they serve to assimilate the idea of racism (the idea of alienating people based on their race). And so we come to Trump.
  11. A racist joke sends a message to the in-group that racism is acceptable. (If you don’t find it acceptable, you’re in the out-group.)
  12. The racist joke teller might say “just joking” – but this is a *defense* to the out-group. He doesn’t have to say this to the in-group.
  13. This is why we’re never “just joking.” To the in-group, no defense of the joke is needed; the idea conveyed is accepted/acceptable.
  14. So, when Trump jokes about assassination or armed revolt, he’s asking the in-group to assimilate/accept that idea. That’s what jokes do.
  15. And when he says “just joking,” that’s a defense offered to the out-group who was never meant to assimilate the idea in the first place.
  16. Indeed, circling back to the start, the joke *itself* is a way to define in-group and out-group, through assimilation & alienation.
  17. If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as defense, you’re willing to enter in-group where idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.
  18. IOW, if “just joking” excuses racist jokes, then in-group has accepted idea of racism as part of being in-group.
  19. Same goes for “jokes” about armed revolt or assassinating Hillary Clinton. They cannot be accepted as “just joking.”
  20. Now, a big caveat: humor (like all language) is complicated and always a matter of interpretation. For example, we might have…
  21. …racist humor that is, in fact, designed to alienate (rather than assimilate) the idea of racism. (Think satire or parody.)
  22. But I think it’s pretty clear Trump was not engaging in some complex satirical form of humor. He was “just joking.” In the worst sense.
  23. Bottom line: don’t accept “just joking” as excuse for what Trump said today. The in-group for that joke should be tiny. Like his hands.

Let me repeat. No jokes are innocent.

A double standard? I raise you a quadruple.

In Korea, we have a saying “Paddle while the tide is high”. Yes, it is an equivalent to the English proverb “Strike while the iron is hot”. And that’s what I am going to do in this post – resurfacing one of my earlier studies to show how insightful it was.

So, this happened about two weeks ago.

South Korea is contending with a ‘Gamergate’ of its own – over a t-shirt (Mark H. Kim, NPR, 29 July 2016)

I also made a quick post at that time, but to reiterate, a voice actress in South Korea, Kim Jayeon, was fired for wearing a t-shirt with a feminist slogan. A ‘radical‘ one at that: “Girls do not need a prince.” Later she issued a statement that it was a mutually reached decision between her and the company that she left.

Then people seem to have moved on to a next target swiftly. Yesterday, an actress named Ha Yeon-soo issued a hand-written public apology for her ‘inappropriate attitude’ towards comments left on her Facebook and Instagram. What did she do? On at least two occasions, when she was answering questions about items in her photos (i.e. a harp in one and a painting in the other), she practically added “You could have Googled”.

She had been known for her formal tone of writing, but this time, her self-claimed fans said enough was enough. They said she was “condescending”, “full of herself”, and needed to be reminded of “her place”. After all, she is a celebrity and “lives on fans’ love and support“. I even saw forum threads discussing how she should have responded instead: e.g. throwing in a few emoticons to soften the tone.

In fact, many more public apologies were issued between Kim’s and Ha’s. According to the NPR article linked above, there have been some 80. I lost track of them myself, so I am just as surprised as the next person. What I can tell you, however, is that most of them were from young women in publicly visible professions.

This is where my earlier findings come in. After having analysed the individual tweets picked up as ‘news’ and reported across 1,777 Korean articles in 2012, I found that

  1. A tweet was likely to attract media attention in the Korean context if it was perceived to create ‘disharmony’;
  2. There was no either/or consensus on whether Twitter is a public space, but in the process of news-making, a dual standard was in operation: if the user had a ‘public presence’ (however loosely defined), their tweets were, regardless of the content or intended recipients, viewed to be fair game for public scrutiny;
  3. Almost all who were reported to have failed at such scrutiny were women, and that was attributable to a stricter application of moral protocols.

With regard to the third finding, those female users included a novelist, a girl band, and a teenage singer, and they were criticised for impulsivity, passive aggression, and “two-facedness” detected(!) in their tweets.

As someone who has been researching Korean society for some time, I think one of my biggest frustrations is the response I get, from Korean and non-Korean audiences alike, when I point to this subtle type of social gagging. “But you are better than other Asian countries.” Or in other words, the democracy and human rights we have are *good enough* for an Asian country.

Kids these days?

The real story behind a viral Rembrandt ‘kids on phones’ photo (Mark Molloy, The Telegraph, 16 January 2016)

Oh, this reminds me of what I saw in Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul in 2014. Schoolkids were running around in groups to learn about the history of the place while completing tasks on their iPads. Tasks such as taking selfies in front of certain features according to the teachers’ instructions (which they had to collectively decode first).

It could have been those kids. Perhaps the world is not as ready for blended learning as it claims.

If feels like you’re mine but not.

From a couple of years ago, a slang ‘some‘ is very much part of the Korean lexicon. Used as in ‘being in a some with so-and-so’, it refers to ‘friendship-relationship limbo’ between two people. I believe the complex nature of romance is a topic of universal interest. Not only did Facebook developers feel the need to include “It’s complicated” as one of the relationship status options in its own right, but at the time of writing this, a simple Google search in English has yielded me tens of thousands of results on the topic including editorials and even scholarly papers. Nevertheless, the slang caught on like wildfire because it gave people one single word to acknowledge and encapsulate something that had been extremely difficult to put the finger on.

Swiftly following the popularity of the word, a K-pop song, Some, was released in 2014, of which the hook goes like this:

It feels like you’re mine, it seems like you’re mine, but not

It feels like I’m yours, it seems like I’m yours, but not

Where am I going with this? It struck me this morning that this could have been an apt summary of our relationship with the data we are generating everyday these days. A bit of a stretch? Here’s how I arrived at that thought. A colleague of mine, who graduated together with me, shared an old memory on his Facebook timeline a couple of days ago.


Such a lovely photo, isn’t it? It made me smile and fondly remember the day. I immediately felt like sharing it with my friends too, but I realised access was restricted to the original poster’s friends only. So I asked him if it would be okay for me to take it away to my circle. “Of course”, he said, but looking at the photo got me thinking again about the entanglement of memories, material traces, and varying perceptions of ownerships, protocols, and etiquette around them. Is it my memory? Is it my photo? Is it within my right to publish it?

As a blogger and a user of social media, I tend to assume the most conservative scenarios. As a researcher, I have found Bruce Schneier’s taxonomy of social networking data helpful for a nuanced theorisation. The recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee and the new ethical guidelines for social media research published by #NSMNSS last week are good reference points too.


Perspectives on big data, ethics, and society (White paper by the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society, US, 2016)

Internet research ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016)


스트리트 사진의 윤리와 한국의 법 (Michael Hurt, 8 September 2016; see also ‘Photographic flaneurie in Seoul, or lamentations over the stillborn tradition of street photography in Korea‘ by the same author, 4 April 2016)

10 percent is all you need.

Fascinated at the first encounter of PC-mediated communication in the early 1990s, I have been, in my small way, studying the internet since. One thing of which I am unreservedly convinced after all these years is that the eventual ‘winners’ of any battle on the internet are those who have the time and energy to write/rewrite/overwrite content. The numbers of contributors do not seem to matter that much; nor do their motivations.

On Tuesday, a voice actress named Kim Jayeon was sacked from Nexon, one of the largest game companies in Korea, for wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Girls Do Not Need a Prince“. Apparently the t-shirt upset male users as it was from a “feminazi fundraiser”. You hear so much about sexism in the gaming industry, exemplified by #gamergate and all, but it was depressing on a new level to observe how this case was unfolding.

I will probably end up writing a longer piece, so this post is in the interim to capture something about the case that has attracted my particular attention. On Twitter, on web portals, and in the comment sections of Anglophone magazines, those who argue that Nexon did the right thing are found to cite Namuwiki articles commonly and repeatedly. Namuwiki is one of the most actively used wikis in Korea. Whatever you search in the Korean language in Google, you will see Namuwiki entries among the first few if not the very first. For non-Korean readers, the closest I can compare the site to is Uncyclopedia.

Having originated from a subculture, Namuwiki is full of in-jokes, many of which are unfortunately at the expense of women. And now, in turn, its misogynistic content is treated as a legit introduction to feminism. Some Korean men are actually likening recent feminist campaigns in the country to ISIS activities (!) and presenting Namuwiki’s criticism of Korean feminism as a source of evidence. And we are starting to see journalists are doing the same (see Kukmin Ilbo and Hankook Ilbo).

Not only has the whole fiasco confirmed my long-held suspicions, it is simply amazing to realise how we will see more and more of this pattern in this so-called “post-truth era”. As Viner (2016) puts it:

Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago).

Then, what would it take for a minority opinion to become the majority belief? According to a 2011 study by scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, US: 

Once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed.

Typing away [2]

I have bought a bluetooth keyboard for my mini tablet. I was very reluctant to do so because I felt that would just turn the device into another laptop, slightly smaller and lighter. What would be the point of having a tablet then? I kept saying.

Having said that, I am sure this will date me, but I am definitely more a keyboard person than a touchscreen person. Were you here in 2007? Do you remember the fuss that I made about searching for a right keyboard for my PDA(!) back then? Also, as I boasted before, I type effortlessly. So, why shouldn’t I make it suit me better? My resistance didn’t make much sense, come to think of it.

Whenever I see people (including myself) try to improve a piece of technology by fashioning it with accessories and software, I end up remembering this line and chuckle.

The typewriter through the eyes of an 8yr old: “A computer that prints while you type and you don’t have to plug in.” (cited in Martin Bryant, The Next Web, 13 October 2011)

Who knows – typewriters could strike back big time. I, for one, never imagined I would see Pokémon being relevant again (see also Peterson, 2003: 11-16).

Witnessing the rawness of a tragedy [2]

Philando Castile’s girlfriend says she filmed his shooting ‘so that the people could see’ (Rafi Schwartz, Fusion, 7 July 2016, via @Fusion)

Two years ago, I wrote on this very blog:

Now every time I encounter any such cases, my heart literally aches because I came to realise that they are putting the rawness of their tragedies out there to the rest of the world as they have no other choices for survival.

Nothing has changed since. Worse yet, what we are witnessing is not only raw but also repeats itself incessantly. This must be the definition of hell.