Monday, May 18, 2009

Minerva: The Clash Between Korea's Online and Offline Cultures

Choe, Sang Hun had a very thoughtful column the other day in the New York Times.  It dealt with the case of Minerva, the online alias used by Park Dae-sung who attracted a cult-like following over a period of several months last year with his postings about the economy on one of Korea's popular web portals.  Minerva quickly became famous based on predictions like the fall of Lehman Brothers and the collapse of the Korean won.  When Mr. Park was arrested last January, it turned out that he was 31 and jobless, had attended a two-year college and had never even invested in the stock market.  One of his crimes, according to prosecutors, was to state that the Korean government had barred banks and major companies from buying American dollars in a desperate attempt to check the fall of the won.
As Choe, Sang Hun correctly notes, the case of Minerva highlights the contrast between Korea's offline Confucian culture in which seniority and heirarchy rule, and the anonymity of cyberspace which allows people to flout decorum.  Indeed, some officials see the internet as a hotbed of anti-government activity and slander.  Many who participated in the anti-beef import protests in the summer of 2008 which paralyzed the Lee Myung Bak government, were responding to online rumors rather than real events.
On April 20 Park was acquitted by the courts, but the manner in which he has been vilified helps to show the depth of the gulf between South Korea's offline and online cultures.  According to the column, In some of his 280 postings, Mr. Park lied about his age and background (once indicating he had worked on Wall Street), helping to create the myth about him. He apologized for using obscenities against President Lee, but he argued that the liberties he took in constructing his online identity were “part of the emerging Internet culture and should not be judged by offline norms.”"
The case of Minerva helps to illuminate the political and cultural stresses and strains that accompany rapid changes in a nation's media environment and its transition to an information society.  This column is one starting point for understanding some of these changes.

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