And so the final days in Seoul went by in a blur: astonishing digital art and exciting galleries; interviews with an art critic, a digital artist, a musician and a food writer; dinner with the mayor and a meeting with our genuinely nice people in our embassy; the helpful and friendly company of good natured interpreters and hosts; more talk about designers and architects turning Seoul into the hub of Asia, walks through historic areas and hip streets, terrific food, buying CDs and DVDs . . .
And most interesting of all to Public Address readers perhaps, I went to OhMyNews., the online newspaper and spoke with senior editor Todd Thacker and communications director Jean K. Min.
Founded eight years ago, OhMyNews has citizen journalism at its core, now works out of an 18th floor office in the Nurikum Business Tower, one of the most dramatic buildings in the city (actually it is in Mapo-gu about 40 minutes by taxi from central Seoul), and has a code of ethics which all citizen journalists must agree to and sign.
OMN employs about 90 people in its office (stories are subbed and fact-checked which is more than you can say for some mainstream print media these days), and it has its own television studio.
OMN also opened its own journalism school in November ‘07 in Incheon where aspiring online journalists of all ages/persuasions and backgrounds can go for intensive classes in ethics, writing, media literacy, digital technology and so on.
In many ways, although it is cutting-edge in terms of its online focus, there is much which is traditional and familiar about the way OMN operates. But of course it is very different too: copy is created fast and published with an immediacy, it is liberal and opinionated, relies on citizens in the frontline rather than media outlets far away, and has a compelling personality to it.
It is one way into the future of new media convergence -- and has been there for eight years.
This isn’t blogging made big, rather old media reconfigured to take advantage of the new and divergent media possibilities.
Coincidentally across town -- and literally in every part of town -- on the day that I was talking to Min, bloggers were at work on the issue of beef from the US and whether it was infected by “mad cow disease”.
In the absence of supporting science, bloggers started posting dire warnings, horror pictures of crazed cows and people possibly infected, and nightmare scenarios of mass poisoning. In blog-connected Korea where many tens of thousands of citizens have their own websites and people blog like you and I buy coffee, the fear took flight.
Last Friday night more than 10,000 people gathered to protest in the centre of the city -- and OMN was there with portable digital cameras doing interviews.
The beef issue became a lightning rod for all kinds of disapproval about President Lee Myung-bak: over 1.2 million people signed an on-line petition to impeach him and his approval rating was the lowest of any president -- down to Bush-like levels. Opposition parties circled, national pride was at stake, teachers and students weighed in and joined the protest, and prosecutors said they were investigating whether legal action could be taken against those who spread false rumours and fears online.
But rumours spread even more widely -- and some started suggesting Lee had given the disputed Dokdo Islands in the East Sea to Japan. Within days 20,000 people had signed an online petition about that.
As with the mad cow caper, there was very little evidence (none in the latter case actually) to suggest this was the case -- but the blogosphere went ballistic. It was like the “Paul is Dead” rumour for those old enough to remember that one: people were scouring for clues and -- sure enough -- finding them.
Especially when you consider that in the mainstream media a more interesting and potential much more dangerous story was being broken: that Seoul’s first case of bird flu had been identified in two dead pheasants in an aviary near the country’s largest open market in Seongnam outside Seoul.
Infected ducks had infected the pheasants, officials had hastily closed the poultry section.
(A longtime expat resident said, “what with the beef and the birds, dog is starting look like the best option”.)
You can make what you will out of this about blogging's power to perhaps mislead or create mischief as much as broker important issues.
A psychology professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University told the JoongAng Daily, the reasons for the online panic which translated into major protest action was partly cultural in this highly wired and interconnected country: “Koreans have a tendency to put more importance on what others think and say than developing their own thoughts and voice. It is because the authority infrastructure has collapsed and lost credibility among the general public.”
Well, that’s a long discussion about cultural and social mores, how Korea developed as a country over centuries and what happened to it in the last half of the 20th century, and why Koreans are so enthusiastic about the online world.
A professor in politics told the same paper, “the younger generation tends to think of the Internet as a playground that is distant from reality.”
The thing about OhMyNews is that it sees these areas as acutely interconnected, which is why it has an inbuilt series of checks and balances (just like some old-time media) and its voice on bird flu was more measured (although still allowing that there was more to this than bland assurances coming from various officials).
It was an interesting time to be in Seoul -- but then again that is always true. It is a wonderful city and is going to be a great one. If the economic bubble doesn’t burst.
It is a city in a country full of ambition and a work ethic. It also has vibrant arts, hot music of all kinds (some of which I bought to post at Elsewhere), friendly people, an abrasive edge, arcane politics and history, strong liquor . . .
I travelled with assistance from the Seoul Metropolitan Government through the Seoul Selection programme, and they have another opportunity for journalists and/or writers to go from June 30 to July 5. I recommend you have a go (you need to be able to say what outlets you will have stories published in) and here is the link. E-mail me through Elsewhere if you want to ask me some questions about it.
When I get a chance I’m going to take this series of blogs and polish them up before I place them on Elsewhere (they were mostly banged out fast on a keyboard that would revert to Korean if I pushed the wrong key). I will expand them and add more links and relevant photos I took also.
And of course I will be writing more about the individual aspects of my journey (arts, design, music etc) in various outlets -- and an expanded piece will appear at Elsewhere very soon about OhMyNews which will include material from my interview with Min. I’ll let you know when that happens.
Meantime I think this is funny. Today I went into my Westpac on Queen St to try and change a hundred thousand or so Korean won into Kiwi money -- and they said they couldn’t do it. I went to the National Bank down the road and they could, but it would cost me $5. Fair enough.
Then the young woman came back and said actually it would cost $12 because the won was an “exotic currency” and not one they usually dealt with. I joked that Korea was our seventh largest trading partner (our PM is there this week) and noted to myself they had six exchange rates posted, including Canada.
While she went off for 10 minutes to do the paperwork (I got $112 back) I looked at the signage.
Upstairs in this place where my left-over won was considered an “exotic currency” they had a Korean Banking Division.
Finally: Congratulations to Russell and the publicaddress writers for the win at the NetGuide Awards, and to all my former Herald colleagues (of whom there were pleasingly very many) who won Qantas awards or appeared as finalists. I'm flattered to be (or to have been) among your number and am only sorry I wasn't around to congratulate you all sooner -- but as you can tell, I was kinda busy.