Why we do what we do online

Certain themes have started to emerge from random, commuting reads. I have never done one, but I am sure this is how Magic Eye puzzles feel.

1. Our urge to express 

Why do we all feel compelled to tweet after a tragedy? (Jamie Bartlett, The Telegraph, 14 January 2015).

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (Joseph M. Reagle, Jr., 2015).

Why do we expose ourselves? (Astra Taylor, The Intercept, 23 January 2016).

One of the book’s more important chapters takes on the seemingly self-evident nature of the term “surveillance state,” which Harcourt argues is misleading. What we have, instead, is an “amalgam of the intelligence community, retailers, Silicon Valley, military interests, social media, the Inner Beltway, multinational corporations, midtown Manhattan, and Wall Street” that “forms an oligarchic concentration that defies any such reductionism.”

Why We Post: Social Media Through the Eyes of the World (UCL).

2. Our urge to distract ourselves 

Pay attention, please (Christine Rosen, The Wall Street Journal, 7 January 2011).

Why are we so distracted all the time? (Oliver Burkeman, 99U, n.d.).

Desperate times call for desperate measures (Y for Yenndetta, 15 January 2015).

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Tim Wu, 2016).

Digital addiction (The World Weekly, 31 August 2017)

Today’s public anxiety over extreme technology use might therefore be more grounded in social issues rather than any genuine scientific consensus. “It is important to remember that every new media from writing and reading onwards has been associated with addiction,” says Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. “Reading addiction in the 18th century was a veritable moral panic. Today, concern with people spending too much time on the net is also medicalised,” he says. “That individuals may have problems with digital technology is not in doubt – but the diagnosis of ‘digital addiction’ is a simplistic formula for condemning behaviours that we don’t like.”

Modern media is a DoS attack on your free will (Brian Gallagher, Nautilus, 21 September 2017)

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (Paul Lewis, The Guardian, 6 October 2017)

3. Our urge to click

Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching (Adam Alter, 2017).

4. Our urge to share 

Internet-Facilitated Political Mobilisation: A Case Study of Nosamo, the Supporters Network of the 16th President of South Korea (Y. Lee, PhD thesis, 2009).

In Korean cyberspace, however, the culturally encouraged collective sharing of digital content facilitates a cascade of messages that goes beyond the initial group of sources. Moreover, the act of participation itself in the process of distribution of (political) messages is valued on a par with the efforts of the initiators of the messages. In this sense, Hwang (2004: 129) even describes [content relay] as a 21st century version of smoke signal communication.

Why you just shared that baby video (Jonah Lehrer, The Wall Street Journal, 23 July 2011).

An anatomy of a YouTube meme (Limor Shifman, New Media & Society 14(2): 187-203)

Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks (a.k.a. that Facebook study, Kramer et al., 2014, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(24): 8788-8790)

5. Our ways of consuming information 

Infographic: The optimal length for every social media update and more (Kevan Lee, Buffer, 21 October 2014).

The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short, your brain is not a computer (Robert Epstein, Aeon, 18 May 2016).

What the story of the niqab-wearing Welsh speaker tells us about what we want to hear (Sarah Ditum, The New Statesman, 21 June 2016).

10 percent is all you need (Y for Yenndetta, 21 July 2016).

Why facts don’t change our minds (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 27 February 2017).

How people approach facts and information (Pew Research Center, 11 September 2017)


A hashtag worth a thousand words

Giglietto, F. & Lee, Y. (2017). A hashtag worth a thousand words: Discursive strategies around #JeNeSuisPasCharlie after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting. Social Media + Society 3(1): 1-15.

The above paper will be out any day now. It is another example of a blog post having evolved into a journal article. Two articles, actually. And it has been a demanding yet intellectually stimulating journey. Demanding because despite a finite set of data and time frame it felt “a lot like getting a grip on Jell-O”. I have borrowed these words from Steve Jones (1999: 12), who himself was paraphrasing his colleague Jim Costigan in order to describe the challenges of “doing Internet research”. I was writing my MA dissertation when I first read this book by Jones, in the summer of 2000, and thought it was the most apt way of putting it. Now internet studies have been much more structured and institutionalised than the book envisioned (p.12), but I think the challenges it identified are still valid.

My challenge this time was that the study had the potential to branch out into many new and substantial studies in their own right – especially with the world unfolding the way it did since. So, in a sense, this post is an epilogue to the paper. A few ‘avenues for future research’ are suggested below if anyone is interested in picking up the ball.

  • A comparative exploration between the Danish newspaper cartoon controversy in 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo case in 2015
  • How #JeSuisCharlie (and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie) users responded to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon of Alan Kurdi
  • How #JeSuisCharlie (and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie) users responded to Charlie Hebdo’s “mask-droppingeditorial on Muslims
  • “A recently growing trend … [of choosing] a pithy phrase that serves as a ‘mini statement’ in its own right”: e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, #illridewithyou, #IStandWithAhmed, #portesouvertes, #ThisIsACoup, #PrayforSyria, #RestInPride, #내가메갈이다
  • Various functions of hashtags beyond folksonomy, including mention (as opposed to use), ironic and sarcastic use, and prompts for storytelling: e.g. #StopIslam, #myNYPD, #마음당_ series

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.

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)

Ethics guidelines and collated resources for digital research (British Sociological Association, 2017)


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)


Protecting journalism sources in the digital age (UNESCO, 2017)

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.

Anthropology in the digital worlds

A few months ago, BBC did a news series on AI and robotics. Part of the series was a list of jobs ranked according to their ‘automation risks’, on the basis of a paper by two Oxford researchers titled The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to automation. Social and humanities scientists (ranked 279th of 366) and higher education teaching professionals (327th of 366), the jobs to which I related most closely among others on the list, were both in the ‘quite unlikely’ category with a very small risk of being replaced by robots (10% and 3% respectively). Er … a sigh of relief?

In this context, I would imagine that anthropology would be one of the last disciplines to be affected by technology. I believe I am not the only one with such a perception, and I suspect the perception has something to do with the lay distinction that “sociology typically studies first-world societies, whereas anthropology has a rep for studying so-called ‘primitive’ cultures” (Aaron Swartz, 2006).

I have never been formally trained in anthropology, but as I have openly stated before, I have always had a thing for ethnographic fieldwork – something most often associated with anthropologists. Those who have done long-term fieldwork in a remote and harsh environment might dismiss my interest as naivety and say the notion in my head is more romanticised than what it actually entails. That might also be true to an extent, but what can I say? I do find the growing field of “understanding social phenomena as they unfold” both fascinating and important, but in the end I just like my research slowly brewed and rich in nuances.

So, it was an interesting realisation that in my social media feeds I am seeing more and more articles on anthropology/ethnography in the digital age. That’s how another new collection was born, and as in many cases previously, this blog will once again serve as a placeholder.

There are always two schools.

Yesterday I was invited to a seminar titled The litterati and the illiterate literate: the problem of medieval literacies. A little out of my usual field, but it was super interesting. There were a lot of parallels I could see, both diachronically (e.g. British art of paperwork going all the way back to the Middle Ages) and synchronically (e.g.Chinese letters in medieval Korea served, just like Latin script in medieval England, as a class distinguisher). While listening to the presentation, I also fondly remembered a group project I did with two classmates in Grenoble about why French politicians are unusually keen to write books.

What I want to make a note in this post is something else. By the end of the session, the discussion converged towards the special place that seals held in England after the Conquest. The presenter, Brian Creese, brought to our attention the extent of literacy practice at that time, and mentioned as an anecdote that the resultantly burgeoning bureaucracy led to a tenfold increase in sealing wax consumption at one point!

A while ago, I read a very convincing theory about why the Korean practice of online identity authentication has evolved so far away from the rest of the world. Well, at the end of the day, the country is even described as “the Galapagos islands of the Internet“. Kim Nakho, or more popularly known in the Korean media sphere as @capcold, states that the Korean system places the responsibility on users to verify their own identities and, to that end, requires to get a unique digital certificate issued by the national certificate authority. Kim’s theory is that this is deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of using a seal. And in this context, guarding your seal/certificate secure is your job, which he argues explains why you are mandated to install so many designated security applications before doing online banking or any online transaction (e.g. the whole ActiveX saga; see also around 6:16 into the Galapagos video above).

On the contrary, in the West, ink signatures have been the prevailing method. With signatures, what matters more is your act of signing a document and the act being witnessed, not you producing the exact same signature every time (although the latter is also important, especially when there is a suspicion of counterfeit, but comparatively speaking). According to Kim, in this ritualised context, the balance of responsibility tips towards those who mediate the signing act, namely your bank, Amazon, and eBay.

Funny if we think about it. It’s like at a forked road between the seal or signature metaphor, some countries went one way and others the other, and that choice has shaped up so much of their respective policies for digital life.

The oldest story in the book

As a big fan of Vladimir Propp‘s work, I am sure narratology as a theme will keep popping back on this blog. In fact, I am surprised that it hasn’t. My particular interest with Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1968) lies in the fact that gamification is such a hot buzzword right now but providing a sense of a quest, obstacles, tools, and rewards is actually another reapplication of the oldest story in the book.


(A snippet from my UE13 class note in 2004. 🙂 )

So you see I am generally underwhelmed by most gamification attempts. That said, here’s one that I appreciate and want to promote as much as my uninfluential self can.

The Korean journal SisaIN has just launched an online game to accompany its special issue on the national minimum wage – to help the readers understand what it is really like to live on a minimum wage (at an hourly rate of KRW 5,580 [approx. £3] in 2015 and KRW 5,210 in 2014) and that it would demand constant compromise of the quality of life.

The game is built based on two journalists’ actually living off minimum-wage jobs for one month. To start, you pick a character to play as. Once you do that, the first question you will asked is whether you are a type of person who needs to have a personal toilet.


I am that type of person and my housing choice immediately put a big hole in my budget to fill in throughout the game.

The second point that really hit me hard was when I (i.e. my character) was invited to a friend’s baby shower. A decision that I immediately had to make was whether I go empty-handed or with a present.


To put you out of suspense, my month ended in a deficit – despite having opted out of any recreational activity in response to every pop-up question.

There is a heated debate at the moment in Korea over how unrealistic the current rate is and why it needs to be upped to at least KRW 10,000. Against that backdrop, this game can be an exceptionally powerful tool to get the message across.

Licence to bend the grammar rules

Choosing the Singular They (Explorations of Style, 27 May 2015)

The above post just got me to wonder why I have such a qualm against the singular they. Since I was first introduced to it (in the summer of 1999 in Leicester – yes, it was so outrageous that I still remember!), I have been trying to get used to it to no avail. Why can’t I stomach this one? After all, I did use the feminine singular nous in my DEA dissertation. And I am okay with the royal we, too.

My working hypothesis (as in analytic induction) is that the reluctance has something to do with what I call ‘native lingual licence‘, or the absence of it in my case. What I mean by the term I’ve invented is that, similar to the notion of artistic licence, there is room allowed for native speakers of a language to be creative about its use. Non-native speakers on the other hand adhere to the grammatical norms a little more strictly because they don’t want to be understood as making errors when they are in fact consciously bending the norms. Or to invoke Derrida again, native speakers are the dominant pole in the binary opposition and non-native speakers are those expected to justify and defend their choices. In such a context, it would be natural for the latter to shy away from controversial practices.

But then it might be just me.

+ (a year later) Now, this has eased my mind. ❤️

RT @kcsaff Next time someone complains about singular “they” I’ll point them to this [18th] century rant against singular “you” (19 June 2016)


(Source according to the contributor: “The history of the life of Thomas Ellwood, apparently published posthumously in 1714”)