We ship you and we ship you hard.

More often than not, people ask me whether in Korea or here I feel more at home. This is a question that I don’t think I will ever have a definite answer for. In fact, throughout my life, both personally and professionally, I always find myself somewhere between two worlds. On good days, I feel lucky that I am getting the best of both. On not-so-good days, I am reminded that I belong to neither.

I am also convinced that ‘bridging’ two worlds is what I do best. I am not sure which came first though. Do I get drawn to such in-between positions because that’s where I shine, or have I become better at it out of necessity? Dunno, so I have jokingly concluded that that must be because I was born on a cusp.

In-betweenness, of course, doesn’t mean an exact half point. More of sliding back and forth, I maintain. That said, it has recently struck me that my behaviour is that of a complete outsider when it comes to consuming Hallyu products. I have discovered that it is *addictive* fun to hang out among international fans of K-dramas. And the present post is to jot down a few notes from this accidental ethnography.

# The content is available outside Korea almost in real time – on video streaming sites such as Viki, but Korean TV stations upload soundbites one by one on their respective YouTube channels as the latest episodes are being aired within the country. No considerable time lag.

# Other important places include various social media platforms, particularly Instagram (where not only hashtags but also dedicated accounts newly emerge), and K-entertainment news sites such as Soompi (where relevant news articles are translated into English and reposted – again in real time). I see this as a typical example of how an ethnographic place is now “dispersed across web platforms, is constantly in progress and changing, and implicates physical as well as digital localities” (Postill and Pink, 2012: 125).

# Most fans who frequent those places do not understand Korean, and many cry for subtitles in the comment box under official YouTube clips, but in the end, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. There will always be some form of crowd-subbing. More importantly, seasoned ones are already proficient in the grammar of the genre.

# Related to the previous point, multiple interactions take place under each YouTube clip, and there is no one lingua franca. Sure, English does serve for that purpose to an extent, but only to an extent.

# So, we – and I say ‘we’ here consciously – don’t necessarily understand one another, but the bond is stronger than you’d imagine. Squealing and swooning together virtually while the main couple develop their romance is the core activity. Personally speaking, I find it even more fun than the drama itself! Reminds me of the participatory viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

# On whichever social media platform, several stock phrases recur across comment sections, such as “I can’t even”, “My heart can’t take it”, “I died today”, “This couple is the end of me”, “So sweet that I will get diabetes just by watching them”, “Relationship goals”, “Where can I find a man who looks at me like he looks at her?”, “How can I move on from these two?”, “What am I going to do with my life until next week?”

# If the story unfolds as they have hoped, they thank the writer-nim and the PD-nim for listening to them. The ways in which K-dramas are produced and communicated through YouTube seem to create this impression that their wishful feedback has actually been accommodated.

# Shipping a couple is not specific to K-dramas, but what seems to be unique is that viewers are clearly conscious that it is a make-believe world. Instead, what’s important to them is ‘off-screen chemistry‘. They like seeing the couple getting along well and enjoying themselves while filming romantic scenes. When they like what they see, they demand the behind-the-scene footage of it, a.k.a. BTS. It is a common practice that the production team doles it out, alongside the actual episode. To put it another way, the front and back of the house are no longer distinguishable. It is like taking the experience to a ‘meta’ level, with a curious twist of reality TV. This was the most fascinating discovery.

# Overall, I find non-Korean fans to be more expressive and more accepting. I hypothesise that they can afford to ‘bracket off’ the ugly social context surrounding those dramas. The industry’s cruel working conditions, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few.

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Navigating life through screens

Little Sister One came to see me last month, and as she instructed, we did some serious touristy stuff.

Seeing the change of the Royal Guards at the Buckingham Palace turned out to be a particular challenge for us as we were not tall enough to stay afloat in the crowd. A group of middle-aged French women were also struggling like us, but then one shouted with joy to the others (if I may roughly translate): “Oh, I can – I can see them through the screen of that young man!”

I found that moment amusing and also encapsulating. That is, it aptly encapsulated how everyday life is now experienced through multiple screens, regardless of whether one’s own or someone else’s, or whether switching between or using many simultaneously.

Speaking of screens, next month I will participate in the event Research Methods for Digital Work: Innovative Methods for Studying Distributed and Multimodal Working Practices at the University of Surrey. The work I will be presenting is titled The penumbra of academic work: A case study of #AcWriMo and scholarly writing as a second-screen experience. This is what I actually meant to share today, but I somehow side-tracked myself (again).

A provisional programme is telling me that I will be in great company. If anyone is interested, the registration page is here.

Greater than the sum of one’s many selves

Being an Asian woman living far away from her native land, I might have gained some experiential awareness of the ‘intersectionality‘ of identities, but to be frank it is only recently that I have started studying and reflecting seriously on the concept.

Once something registers in your mind, you realise you are in fact surrounded by it. There have been a few particularly memorable moments, personally.

# When the South Korean presidential candidate with the highest rating Moon (fashionably) declared himself a feminist but refused to support an LGBT-related bill, an activist in the audience cried out: “I’m a woman and I’m homosexual. […] Can you split my human rights into halves?

# danah boyd’s latest article ‘Failing to See, Fueling Hatred‘, which contains the line: “I grew up with identity politics, striving to make sense of intersectional politics and confused about what it meant to face oppression as a woman and privilege as a white person.

# Stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo‘s joke: “As a woman I wanted to break that glass ceiling, you know. But as a Mexican I want to clean that shit too.

# And then the very today. Conversations on Twitter around a sweet viral video took a surreal turn as the Asian woman in the clip was automatically assumed to be a “nanny“, “oppressed”, or “emotionally abused”. Blimey.

Rising above reality

Jeff Kaplan’s keynote at the D.I.C.E. Summit yesterday has caused a bit of buzz in my Twitter bubble, so I thought I’d check the full speech out myself. He comes up on the podium around 7:20 and stayed until 40:00.

Listening to him, I felt overwhelmingly envious of being able to build a whole new universe. The same envy I have for sci-fi and comic book writers.

Anyway, the buzz was to do with his shout-out to the National Foundation for D.Va (전디협) in Korea. 36:40 in, he says:

At the end of January, we saw something very special happen. There was an international march for women’s rights that took place all over the world, and the thing that really caught our eye was that in Seoul, Korea, during the march, somebody was flying this flag that had the symbol for D.Va, who is our character from Korea, who in some ways challenges stereotypes and in other ways embraces them.

We saw this flag flying for D.Va and we looked into it more and there was this national foundation for D.Va, which was a feminist foundation for women’s rights. What really started to fascinate me when I looked more into this, as I read their charter, was this last sentence: ‘We decided to act for feminism under her emblem, so that in 2060, someone like D.Va could actually exist‘.

Which I thought was just amazing, and this came back to that original point I was trying to make: ‘Never accept the world as it appears to be, but dare to see it for what it could be’. And that was exactly what was happening in Korea.

In no way do we aspire to be a political game. We have no political motivation whatsoever, but it’s fascinating to see that the values of the Overwatch team are now being embraced and owned by the community in their own positive way.

Computer says so.

In Mr Monk Goes to the Ballgame, the murderer lures his target to a deserted industrial park by manipulating the GPS in their car the previous night – because he knew they would be unsuspecting of the instructions from that little machine.

I have just had one such moment myself. My Calendar indicated I had a Committee meeting this afternoon, so I planned my day around it accordingly. When I arrived at the venue, there were already people in the room, but they were not the usual faces. I asked them why they were there. Oh so authoritatively. It took me longer than it should to realise it was I who barged into their meeting. I just never doubted the Calendar.

After thinking about the Monk episode, I also remembered a casual list that I was compiling for students on a related topic. Related in my mind, at least.

“Suis-je bovvered?” [2]

❤ ❤ ❤

I don’t have much conviction about anything, but this—I believe this. On the internet those who bother are the last ones standing.

In any case, I am becoming more and more convinced that in the digital era, in which information is a product of collective definition, interpretation and construction, what matters most is activeness. In other words, the real digital divide will not lie along with age, gender or socioeconomic status, but will emerge between those who actually bother taking time out of their busy day to write/rewrite/overwrite on the Net and those who lurk.

Says who? Yours truly, 10 years ago. And it goes both ways.

Marching on

An exhaustive list of the allegations women have made against Donald Trump (The Cut, 27 October 2016)

Didn’t watch the inauguration. Made actual efforts to stay away from all media outlets. I simply couldn’t stomach it.

I was comparatively okay on the day following the election. Perhaps because I had always felt quite distant—if not indifferent—from American affairs. Perhaps Brexit had prepared me for it. Throughout that week I was in the basement of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, cut off from the news and attending some intensive course, so that helped too.

Some people point out that he was legitimately elected (aside the vote-rigging scandal, that is). Others maintain that he does have a number of fierce supporters and that is telling us something bigger. The more cynical say all politicians are the same anyway and he is no worse than the rest. I have heard all and this post is not to dispute any.

As far as I am concerned, I just can’t get off my mind those women who came forward. I can’t pretend to understand what courage it must have taken and how they must be feeling now. To me it felt as if the world didn’t even bat an eyelash. At this rate Bill Cosby may walk scot-free too.

The only thing keeping me from total despair is reading about Women’s March (in Washington as well as here and around the world) and the ACLU’s plans.

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

Sliding on the participant-observer continuum

Denmark awaits Seoul’s extradition request for Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (The Guardian, 2 January 2017)

So the presidential scandal in Korea is far from dying down. On the contrary, it’s like peeling an onion; there is always more and it stinks.

Yesterday Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of the woman at the centre of the scandal, was arrested in Denmark. It has been alleged that Chung herself has also been heavily involved in the wrongdoing. What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that this arrest was made possible by a Korea journalist tipping Danish police off Chung’s whereabouts. The journalist belongs to a cable station called JTBC. The station has been playing a crucial role so far, including this latest exclusive. JTBC’s news reporting division, led by the iconic journalist Sohn Suk-hee, has therefore been lauded by many as doing what politicians and law enforcers should have been doing but failed to.

Then an op-ed came out today. Written by a director in a media consulting firm, the piece has triggered a heated debate about whether it is appropriate for journalists to intervene. The author categorically argues the JTBC journalist shouldn’t have, citing Rachel Smolkin’s 2006 article on the topic. It’s like the criticism levelled at Kevin Carter and his famous photograph of a vulture and a child, but only inversely.

‘When to step in (if at all)’ is an age-old dilemma and not limited to journalism. I too discuss it extensively with our doctoral researchers, so I am adding this case to my metaphorical scrapbook. One I turn to most frequently in class is the following passage from Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomami (1991: 102-103):

I stood there, my heart pounding. I had no doubt I could scare these kids away. They were half-afraid of me anyway, and if I picked up a stick and gave a good loud, threatening yell, they’d scatter like the wind. On the other hand, I was an anthropologist, not a policeman. I wasn’t supposed to take sides and make value judgements and direct their behaviour. This kind of thing went on. If a woman left her village and showed up somewhere else unattached, chances were she’d be raped. She knew it, they knew it. It was expected behaviour. What was I supposed to do, I thought, try to inject my own standards of morality? I hadn’t come down here to change these people or because I thought I’d love everything they did; I’d come to study them.

The author of the op-ed is of course entitled to his concern for the integrity of the field he cares about. I think, however, he has missed the point that ‘observer’ and ‘participant’ are not two dichotomous states. To draw on Junker (1960), it is a continuum along which we all slide back and forth, guided by our professional moral compass.