▲ Real-time media, such as Twitter, have added to Koreans’ preference for a Web of immediacy. Image courtesy Twitter
Story 1 It was probably the most-watched wedding in Korea since Princess Diana’s televised ceremony in 1981.
A young couple announced their spontaneous wedding ceremony to other passengers on a subway train bound for Gimpo Airport. Raised as orphans, they could not afford an expensive wedding, they explained to the puzzled passengers-turned-well-wishers.
Since they first met on the subway, they decided to get married in the very place they fell in love. Fellow passengers applauded them and wished them the best of luck. Some were so moved by the couple’s heart-wrenching story, they cried.
A blogger filmed the episode and posted it on his blog the same day. It spread and, by the morning of Valentine’s Day, had built up a buzz loud enough to incite the interest of a major news agency.
As it turned out, the subway wedding that touched millions of hearts on the Net was a rehearsal by student members of an acting club at a local university. By the time they confessed the truth to a national television crew, their stunt had been reported by scores of news media as one of the most extraordinary events to shake Korean cyberspace in 2006. It was the kind of “feel good” news that readers anticipated on Valentine’s Day, and editors of the online newsroom found no reason not to bite.
Story 2 The crime was gruesome enough. A 9-year-old girl was brutally raped and abandoned in a church toilet on the morning of Dec. 11, 2008.
Almost 80 percent of her genital organs were irreparably destroyed despite the best efforts by the local medical staff. Her colon and rectum had to be surgically removed.
The predator was Cho Du Sun, a 54 year-old man who was apprehended shortly after near the crime scene. To the dismay of horrified parents in the country, however, Cho was sentenced to a mere 12-year imprisonment, as the court ruled that he was under the influence of alcohol when he committed the crime. Cho would have faced a much harsher punishment, people fumed, if the crime was committed elsewhere.
Korean online space went berserk, with tens of thousands of angry netizens petitioning for the maximum penalty for Cho and demanding new legislation to punish child molesters with life imprisonment or worse.
A purported picture of Cho surfaced on the Web a few days later and circulated immediately in blogs, discussion groups and on Twitter. Alas! It was the wrong person, making an innocent man the victim of a furious online witch hunt. He filed a suit against the netizen that first uploaded his picture, along with hundreds of other online vigilantes that copied and pasted his picture on the Web.
Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired magazine, recently shared his excitement about how the real-time Web is leaving Google behind. But I’d say that Koreans have already been there, done that and do not have good results to share with others.
From its early days in the 1990s, the Korean Web has been one of immediacy, an ideal space for restless young Koreans searching for instant gratification with the help of their online peers. Naver, Daum and other key news portals in Korea fostered such trends by combining news and search boxes in their main page. Lastly, they topped them off with a display of the real-time beat of hot search keywords, maintaining those as a prominent feature for years.
Naver has even released an iPhone app of its hot keyword service.
Many news media, hyper-sensitive about incoming search traffic from portals, have dutifully followed the hot search keywords, generating articles that include those keywords, and thus attracting bulk search traffic. Even some news sites that pursue quality journalism jumped on the bandwagon of keyword hunting.
Lee Han Ki, senior editor of OhmyNews who published the story about the “wedding,” defended his decision, saying “the fact that it was already generating a huge buzz among Netizens alone justifies publication of the story.” He had alerted readers, Lee added, that it was not confirmed whether the wedding or the purported orphan couple was real or not.
“Netizens’ fuss about online weirdoes is one thing,” retorted Lee In Bae, a citizen reporter in an opinion piece published on OhmyNews, “and journalistic rigors required to verify the veracity of such claims is another.” In the Valentine’s Day fiasco of Korean journalism, almost every news site decided to publish the news anyway, despite early suggestions by many that the event smacked of being staged.
The pace of news consumption on the Korean Web sphere is now measured by hours, minutes and even seconds, in the case of breaking news. Mindful that competing news sites are already drawing millions of readers with striking _ albeit unconfirmed _ stories, news editors feel huge pressure and it is hard for them not to jump at the bait.
It is a vicious cycle in the Web of immediacy, as portal’s news content galvanizes users to conduct spontaneous online searches around the day’s hot keywords. That in turn triggers news media to generate more articles about the issues, resulting in the growing dominance of the real-time Web among Koreans.
This is in stark contrast to Google’s approach to searches. Google combines two key factors in determining the most relevant link: the number of cross-references pointing to a site and whether the specific site grew slowly and organically, which tends to be a “marker of quality” as Thompson wrote in his Wired column.
In short, Google indexes the Web of the past whereas Koreans request answers on today’s hot topics. No wonder that Google’s total share in the search queries of Korea has remained at just over a few percentage points for years. Another name of the real-time Web is the emotional Web. In the real-time Web that is Korea, people were sucking in news every hour, minute and second. News media answered with up-to-the-minute flash news items. Naturally, verification of the facts increasingly took a backseat to speed.
The journalism of immediacy that thrives on the emotional Web is diametrically opposed to the journalism of accountability and credibility. The gaffes made by the online vigilantes as well as online news editors were bound to happen.
What Koreans need now is not so much a Web of immediacy, optimized for instant gratification, as a Web of accountability and credibility, verified over months and years _ just as Google has proven successfully with their search algorithm so far.
But who knows? Perhaps the real purpose of communication is communication itself. If that is the case, the Internet just arrived at the right time.
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