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'Candle Girls' and the Networked Brain
[Analysis] The Lee administration is wary of online voices which come together to protest offline
Jean K. Min (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2009-04-22 11:54 (KST)   
Mass protestors on a candlelight vigil last spring in Seoul
©2009 Nam S.Y.
May 2 marks the one-year anniversary of the massive candlelight vigils that swept through the streets of Seoul last spring.

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The political ramifications of the popular protest across online and offline space are still felt acutely up until today in the arrest and acquittal of Park Dae-sung, a.k.a. "Minerva," his web handle. Park earned his quick reputation after predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers last year and has since enjoyed a phenomenal influence on the Net as a prophet of doom.

Alarmed at the unprecedented scale and speed of online buzz quickly developing into mass street protests, the Lee administration oscillated wildly in its reaction throughout the first year in its incumbency, condemning sometimes the candlelight vigils as symptoms of an "infodemic" or promising a more conciliatory approach to online voices.

It was basically an angry protest against the hasty decision made by the conservative government to import American beef to Korea, potentially infected with mad cow disease, without a proper consultation with the public, that drove the mass protest, though it still remains a mystery among local analysts how it actually came about. Political pundits agree, however, that the candlelight vigil was first triggered by teenage girls, and by lots of them.

Some noted that those teenage girls -- and boys -- are the kids of "386 generation." Largely liberal in their political leaning, they are the Korea's baby boomers and warriors of the democracy that led the nation out of the iron grip of military dictators back in 1980s. It is probable that their political DNA has been inherited to their children.

"Candle girls" on vigils last spring in Seoul
©2009 Kwon W.S
"Candle girls" themselves, however, said time and again that they took to the street out of an urgent fear that they would become the first consumers of the imported American beef. Obviously, the meet importers would supply the cheap American beef to the school cafeterias first, which are unable to afford more expensive homegrown beef due to their limited budget.

Plausible scenarios indeed, but they still do not give us a sufficient account about how teenage girls were actually able to communicate with each other and organize themselves for a mass protest with such an ease and speed.

Being an analyst keenly interested in the evolution of technology as a social medium, I cannot help but focus on their use of mobile phones, the most preferred communication device of teenage girls and boys.

They mostly rely on mobile phones for the daily exchanges with their friends during school hours, though they also use computers and the Internet heavily. It would be critical for this reason to understand how deeply they are interconnected with each other via mobile phones.

It is a well-established fact now that the net age teens mostly suffer from a short-term memory disorder, to a degree. It is happening due in large part to their almost permanent connection to the Internet, which teens use as their collective brain de rigueur. When the world of information is within just a few key strokes away, readily available from your friends, you would find no compelling reason to spend your time on rote learning and memory build-up.

Another prominent trait of the net age teens discovered from surveys conducted in both sides of the Pacific is that they are more empathetic and well connected to their peers as compared to other older age groups.

Well before the mass candlelight vigils last year, Korean teens have been connected with each other via mobile phones during school days and via the Internet on nights, hence forming an interdependent and symbiotic relationship for their daily information queries. To quote the remarks of Richard Dawkins, it was an intelligent variant of "extended phenotypic effect," realized in the form of a mobile networked brain of boys and girls.

When a couple of scary stories about mad cow disease slipped into this viral network, they quickly permeated into every juvenile brain at the speed of key strokes. Naturally, the rapid dissemination of some unnerving news boosted by the trust and confidence of your peers is unparalleled in its viral infectious power and the governmental counter media campaign has only exacerbated their skepticism.

This is the brief account of how "candle girls" rose as a symbol of mass protest last spring in Seoul.

*For more musing on Korean tech issues and memosphere please visit my blog; Planet Size Brain (link: http://planetsizebrain.tistory.com)
©2009 OhmyNews

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