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”)


RT @davemakes Ursula K. Le Guin‘s take on the singular ‘they’ is my absolute favorite (23 January 2018)

(From: Steering the Craft, 1998)

On the day of hearing the heartbreaking news of the author passing away. RIP.

My MOOD-Y presentation

I can’t believe I am back in York, one of my favourite cities, after so many years. I came here once, exactly 15 years ago, with my second sister, who came to see how I was doing in my very early days in the UK. We visited York without really knowing what to expect. We just picked it because we wanted a destination within a day-trip radius and the name on the map vaguely rang a bell. Then I fell in love with the place as soon as we arrived. I don’t know what about it was so enchanting. Maybe the weather, maybe the company, maybe my mood (pun intended), or maybe an optimal combination of all of those and more. Since then, I have never had a chance, until today, to come back, but I have always had a very positive, if not romanticised, recollection of the place. Now, so far since I got off the train this evening, all I have done is head straight to the hotel, check in, change into my usual pyjama and turn on the laptop. I have a nagging feeling that I might not get to walk around the Walls again before I head back home this time. Oh well, I will be back.

What I am presenting tomorrow is titled: ‘Bamboo Groves’ on Twitter: A contextualised analysis of the South Korean phenomenon of Twitter accounts shared with strangers to ‘let off steam’. I will be the very last presenter just before the group dinner, so time management will be extra crucial! The symposium is called MOOD-Y, which stands for ‘Micro-analysis of online data in York’. (No, you don’t question an abbreviation.) Pat Thomson said in one of her blog posts that there are four types of work in her writing pipeline at any given point: things that she has to write; things that she gets asked to write; things that are tied with her students; and things that she writes because she wants to. I nodded a lot while reading that post. By that typology, this ‘Bamboo Groves’ paper falls neatly into the fourth category for me.

Filling a pot, lighting a fire, and delivering a pizza

*** This has been sitting in the draft box for some time, and what better motivation to write it up than coming back from #coursera14? ***

I didn’t mean to turn this space into a MOOC diary, but as the course development happens to be taking up the biggest chunk of my time lately, I can’t help it…

I felt secure with my identity as a researcher from very early days. As a teacher, however, not as much. Not so bad as to experience the so-called imposter syndrome, but enough to nod along when someone is talking about ‘teacher anxiety‘. So, when a panelist at the Coursera Partners Conference likened his experience of running a MOOC to ‘walking naked in the market’, he wasn’t helping. (In all seriousness though, his talk was my favourite at the conference.)

The anxiety shared by many teachers is not really surprising, is it, as teaching is an interactional process and hence one has only so much control over outcomes. However, how I feel about teaching personally has a lot to do with my culturally-grounded perception of teaching as a one-way, even top-down, transfer of knowledge and provision of answers. As Wu (2010) distinguishes through amusing yet powerful use of metaphors, in the part of the world I am from, teaching is like ‘filling a pot’, as opposed to the Western notion whereby teaching is considered more like ‘lighting a fire’.

With this in mind, the more I think about teaching, the more convinced I become that it all boils down to expectation management. And if my theory has some truth in it, I see two more challenges ahead of our MOOC.

First, I have noticed that there are certain expectations of how a MOOC should look and operate, and those expectations are formulated and expressed in quantitative terms. This is partly because of the conventions that MOOC platforms and course providers have so far set, but more importantly because of the scalability issue that everyone in this business has been dealing with.

Walking and learning (Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs, 5 March 2014)

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. […]

What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state. That’s why MOOCs are disrupting precisely nothing about universities, nothing at all.  It’s why the rhetoric about MOOCs introducing unparalleled learning opportunities to out of the way places is such rubbish: learning isn’t something you deliver like a pizza.

Funnily enough, the point made against MOOCs above precisely illustrates what my ‘co-conspirator’ and I are hoping to facilitate through a MOOC. Given our subject matter as well as pedagogical stance, we are intending to do things a little differently, consciously distancing us from the usual ‘video lectures, quizzes and homework’ model, and working towards a more ‘organic’ one. (By the way, in the School, this adjective is often interchanged with ‘SOASy’ as an in-joke. 😉 )

At this week’s conference or otherwise, I have met a good number of colleagues who support our idea, but when it comes to the operationalisation of the idea, many seem to picture it still in terms of video lectures, quizzes, and homework, which will then together lead to a numerically expressable grading system. So, the question for us to ponder is how to reconcile the conflict between the quantitatively oriented settings where our MOOC will sit and the qualitative nature of the experience that we aim to create through that MOOC – or to put it another way, how to facilitate rhizomatic learning but at unprecedented scale.

The other challenge I see is tied in with the point I made earlier about cultural variations in what students expect from a course. Our MOOC is structured around ‘e-tivities’ as Salmon (2002) terms. The ORM project provides a good explanation of what an e-tivity is:

[…] E-tivities generally involve the tutor providing a small piece of information, stimulus or challenge, which Salmon refers to as the ‘spark’. Learners then take part in an online discussion or activity which requires them to respond in some way to the ‘spark’.

That’s right, the spark, as in ‘lighting a fire’. Now, referring back to the aforementioned metaphors of differing conceptions of pedagogy (Wu, 2002), will the Socratic nature of e-tivities be compatible with the ever-so-global composition of our students? Will students from cultural backgrounds where teaching is all about ‘filling a pot’ experience frustration, as Wu described, with the lack of us telling them how to, for example, design a questionnaire or to conduct a discourse analysis?

Of course, I don’t know the answers yet. What a foggy world I am entering. The researcher in me can’t wait to get on with it and find out more about all this from empirical data, à la Robert E. Park, while the teacher in me is losing sleep anticipating various scenarios and possible complications.

Blended shopping

With the widening use of wireless Internet and smartphones, I would go as far as to say that there is no point distinguishing between being online and offline any longer. An illustrative example would be people watching something on the telly and tweeting at the same time about what they are watching – the so-called two-screen viewing. Another example would be a ‘hybrid classroom‘ where learning takes place through an integration of both offline and online activities.

The thing is that I am very familiar with these phenomena as a researcher interested in digital culture; as an individual user of wireless Internet and a smart phone, I don’t do them as much though.

But then yesterday, it struck me that there is something I definitely do: blended shopping! We were in the middle of Covent Garden looking for a parka, and shop after shop, I carried my phone around in my hand because I wanted to check if there were better deals elsewhere and to locate alternative options, as well as to find customer reviews. Yet, I don’t see myself shopping exclusively online anytime soon either because my own sensory assessment of a given product is such an irreducible element of my purchase decision. Quite simply, we were there in the first place – braving the weather! – because we wanted to try them on.

Yup, there is a paper in this. 🙂

Don’t mention it!

RT @zeynep Turkish Twitterverse is a sea of “subtweets” – folks from diff “sides” are talking “at” each other in lengthy conversations, but no mentions! (17 Dec 2013)

When I saw the above tweet, I said out loud in spite of myself: “Oh my god, this is really interesting!” I don’t know much about current affairs in Turkey, but something about this phenomenon tickled my interest so much that I found myself keep thinking about it since. ‘Hm, how does it work? Like teen-girl cliques in Hollywood movies?’

I have also realised this Turkish practice is even more interesting, at least to me, if considered in conjunction with what’s going on in the Korean part of the Twitterverse. Here, the issue is the other way around. I have regularly seen tweets urging other users to use @replies and @mentions only when appropriate, because users otherwise hit the reply button as if they are leaving comments at the bottom of a news article. How does the difference matter? Unlike the so-called below-the-line exchanges, which the original contributor might or might not see, the reply tweets are delivered straight to the original contributor and the rest of the world might or might not follow. So, as the tweets like this and this suggest, the etiquette is either @mention and use a courteous language like you would when you speak to a stranger or not @mention at all if you are simply expressing your opinions on what’s been said.

Is it just me or the contrast is really interesting? Culture is a funny thing.