“When I was a sophomore, one of my friends found out that I was doing Il-Co, due to my Deok Nae. She kept asking, so I had no choice but to come clean and admit that I was a member of an online community. Yet, she soon revealed to me that she was also a member of that same community. Since then, we have become best friends, sharing hilarious Jjahls,” a college student Jeong recalls when asked about an interesting personal experience with online communities. The alien terms, Il-Co, Deok Nae, and Jjael are jargon commonly used in online community sites. Il-Co is an abbreviation of the Korean words, Ilbanin-Costume play, which refers to online community users who pretend not to be one of the members. Deok Nae refers to the “scent” of a geek who uses online communities and has a geeky aura. Jjahl refers to photos, image captures or illustrations spread through online communities, commonly amusing.
In Korea, online communities are intermixed with daily life, from socializing like in Jeong’s case to political participation. More and more people have become immersed in online communities, making such communities influential not only in the online world, but also offline in real life. However, online communities have become a double-edged sword and whether their influence on society is desirable or not is being hotly debated..
Online Community Trends
Online communities are social groups where online users interact with each other through specific online media. Therefore, online communities have indeed, been created and have flourished with the development of the Internet. Owing to the progress of the web, Internet portal sites and even the invention of smartifacts, the two-way and multiple simultaneous communications of the Internet allows for high accessibility, has led to lots of usage of online communities.
Yet, this cannot fully explain the recent maniacal boom of online communities. They are no longer what they used to be. In the early days, they simply performed the role of sharing information. However, nowadays people mostly use online communities to share jokes and opinions, and some of them are highly politicized.
For example, Dcinside, one of the most popular online community sites, is chiefly being put to use to share stimulating comments and jokes. At first, Dcinside began as an online club shared information about digital cameras. Min Kyoung-jun, a Sophomore in the Department of Policy at Hanyang University(HYU), learned about the origin of Dcinside during this interview and expressed his surprise. He said, “I visit Dcinside almost every day and check Moohandojeon, a Korean comedy program, Gallery (a bulletin board for some particular topic in Dcinside) for fun. Although I am quite an active user, I did not have a clue about the origin of Dcinside. It is completely new to me that the Galleries in Dcinside were real galleries at one time.” Since it is difficult to track down the origins of online communities, it is safe to say that those communities have gone through huge changes in many ways.
Kim Sun-ok, a Professor of the Major in Journalism and Mass Communication at HYU, has interpreted the changes in online communities as correlating with Korean history. He explained, “The suspicion of mass media distorting the truth has been passed down from military dictatorships to later generations. The public knows this fact so well that they do not have trust in the established media anymore. On the other hand, an online community is a totally different kind of media, which is self-generated and open. Because of that, online communities can offer a medium of communication that people have desperately been wanting,” He added.
Moreover, the change in the meaning of online communities can be explained in terms of Korean psychology. “Korean people in modern society are highly tense due to neo-liberalistic capitalism and endless competition centered on success. People need a way to express their frustrations and relieve their anxieties. These psychological states of mind are most likely contributing to the wide-reaching popularity of online communities. Moreover, such psychological states of modern people are moving them toward strong political affiliations because they tend to automatically want to resist against the institutions of society,” commented Ryoo Woong-jae, a Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at HYU.
Positive Edge of Online Communities
According to the survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal(The HJ) on the purpose of using online communities, it turns out that respondents say they mostly access online communities to make online acquaintances and just for fun. Having fun is one of the most important functions that online communities offer and has led to the creation of a new type of culture in the offline world, as well as online.
In particular, it is remarkable how influential a word of witty satire can be. While Doenjang is a Korean traditional fermented food paste which if personified can be described as austere and rustic, Doenjangnyeo refers to a luxurious and extravagantly living woman. The use of the word Doenjangnyeo online is a good example of the type of sensational and stimulating witty satire created in an online community. This has become an established term and a part of culture. Professor Kim commented on such trend saying, “Online communities have the occasional tendency to offer an escape from the ordinary, allowing users to pursue various interests. Furthermore, online communities can sometimes grow beyond being just an initial simple phenomenon into a kind of culture in and of itself reflecting public interests.”
Even though some online communities have changed into fun-loving spaces, the fundamental function still remains: serving as a medium for sharing information. Min Da-eun, a Freshman in the Department of Education at HYU, commented about the good use of online community sites with regard to exchanging useful information based on her experiences. “I usually get information on the bulletin board of Yeoseongsidae[meaning the generation of women] called Fatal Allurement of Estrogen and I sometimes even leave reviews about cosmetics and fashion trends on it. The bulletin board, Fatal Allurement of Estrogen allows me to learn which product is right for me by checking customer reviews on various products. Also, I am able to give other users some tips that I know of,” She said.
In addition to the participatory and open features like Min’s case, online communities enable users to share a sense of belonging, which can have enormous impacts, and lead to group activities. Lee Sang-shin, a Professor in the Department of Policy at HYU, discussed this potential of belonging. “A sense of belonging in one community means that the members feel they are a part of it. It makes participating individuals feel firm bonds and even serves to form within members a strong sense of group identity. This is a powerful driving force that can result in collective behaviors,” He said.
Through this sense of belonging in online communities, group actions particularly in regard to social and political issues can become prominent. Actions can go well beyond online activities and extend to offline movements in various forms such as campaigns and flash mobs. One of the largest-scale group activities that come to mind is the candlelight vigil held against the importing U.S. beef in 2008. The vigil was initially and mainly conducted by Ssanghwacha-Kokoa(SSang-Ko), an online community website where information about plastic surgery is shared among users, and Soul Dresser(So-Deu), another forum where users commonly talk about the latest fashion styles.
One online member of SSang-Ko, who requested anonymity, praised her community’s social and political activities. She said, “I am very proud of the social efforts that SSang-Ko members engaged in. I think it is incredible that people spontaneously gathered for specific social or political purposes and put forth their opinions to society by taking collective action. This makes me feel more proud as a member.”
Members being involved in offline activities can attract apolitical users. Professor Lee explained this phenomenon from the perspective of political efficacy. He said, “Efficacy is a psychological term referring to an individual’s belief or anticipation that he or she can solve problems prevalent in society on his or her own. Online communities can have a strong political and social character which users internalize as a group identity.” As a result, through online community users’ sociopolitical efficacy, online communities can continue to attract users by sharing sociopolitical interests, which in turn can lead to related offline activities.
Another Extreme Edge of the Online Community
Despite the sociopolitical potential of online communities, there are some sites that are going to sociopolitical extremes to make their political agendas heard. Professor Ryoo tries to alert people about the reality of online communities. He commented, “More participation does not guarantee social consensus or higher levels of discussion. For now, some online communities are so polarized and aggressive that they cannot possibly yield any fruitful discussions or positive effects for society. In spite of such dangerous aspects, people tend to idealize certain sociopolitical online communities. I doubt there have been any practical results from participation in such online communities.”
The huge discrepancies in views between the far right and far left, particularly online, is serving to deepen the conflicts over the specific issues between the groups. This in turn is not helpful to the third party. “It makes me really irritated when some online community site users intensely support or oppose a particular political party or politicians without any sensible grounds. Moreover, some online community users cross the line by launching DDOS attacks on other portal sites. They have no right to damage portal sites which are like public areas that reflect diverse and general arguments,” commented Lee Ki-yeon, a Sophomore in the Department of Policy at HYU.
Furthermore, a number of online community users have been over-expressive and indiscreet in utilizing the function of some forums. Swearing and cursing against former presidents and their administrations for example, serves no purpose other than to mock and ridicule. Democratization, for example, has been labeled “not recommended” in IlGan-Best, an online community site well known for assuming an extremely liberal position. Their group ideology is that democratization is bad because it was the radicals who fought to attain it.
What makes matters worse is that there are on occasion just a handful of extreme users who intentionally seek to harm ordinary people both psychologically and physically, just for fun. These users usually express their anger and dissatisfaction outrageously especially toward women. One online community website where men outnumber women posted hateful comments toward females, demeaning them with sexually suggestive and threatening content, such as posting plans to rape women or uploading pornographic photos and other such vulgarities.
Moreover, supposedly in the name of public welfare and justice, some users expose criminals’ personal information online. They have been known to even post ordinary individuals’ personal information on the web for trivial misconduct. Kim Myung-hwan, a Junior in the Department of English Language and Literature at HYU, criticized such behavior and expressed his fear towards it saying, “However good these intentions may be, sharing other people’s identities publicly online as revenge is too harsh. It can leave indelible scars and bring dishonor to the person involved. Honestly, I am really scared of being a target, which anyone can be.” There is much concern being voiced about the violent and sexually suggestive content of some online communities, which has led to, a signature-seeking campaign to designate some online communities as harmful to juveniles.
The Answer Lies Within the Users
Times have changed and so have online communities, some of which mentioned earlier, started out as just get-together online clubs but have developed double–edged swords. Professor Lee pointed to the extreme side of online communities saying, “Antisocial and socially pathological behaviors cannot be totally attributed to online communities. There are always extreme members who tend to reject other groups’ opinions and even attack them. Like nationalism and racism, such behaviors are maintained by members for the sake of continuing their group’s identity.”
However, ubiquity does not mean that their existence is desirable. The problem is that the attitudes of some users in online communities are becoming increasingly more extreme. Some say that such sensational online scandals are rooted in real life, especially in the world of politics. “The reason why arguments in online communities cannot develop into fruitful and productive discussions is due to the current political system in which politicians criticize each other with illogical and unsubstantiated accusations. This is reflected in online communities where reckless swearing and slandering are rampant,” Professor Lee pointed out.
Fortunately, most online community users already know that extreme behaviors in some online communities are truly negative. According to the survey conducted by The HJ, almost 70 percent of the respondents said they believe that online communities can or do have a lot of negative side effects. “Though I am an online community site use, I realize that some users are going too far. They are too inappropriate and offensive. Therefore, when I use online communities, I just try to ignore them and not become one of them,” said Lee Chan-yeon, a Sophomore in the Department of Policy at HYU. Fortunately like Lee, there are many users who try to participate in online communities with decency, ignoring extremists.
Professor Lee pointed out the hidden truth of online communities saying, “During the National Election, some political online communities grew powerful in influence, but these communities do not represent online communities as a whole. The reason why the voices of extremists seem powerful is just because they are often exposed to the public by news reporters with provocative articles.” Ultimately, we need to remember that extremists who post offensive remarks on the web are just a very small portion of the total of online community users.
While it is true that some parts of online communities are extremely aggressive and violent, there are other parts of online communities that have positive points. An online community is a public space where people can discuss their opinions freely, from trivial daily routines to political views. They are more open and shared places than any type of offline media. In the end, the double-edged sword of online communities depends on the users: while using the online communities provide an appreciated public sphere, abusing such communities will in the end not serve any useful purpose for the abusers. The quality of online communities is as good as the characters of their users.