In the world’s most wired country, two out every five people run a personal blog. When a company wants to launch a new product, or the government wants to make an important announcement, these bloggers are wined and dined lest their disapproval sink the venture. Internet addiction is a huge problem, and recently a couple was charged with letting their baby starve to death as they spent their time living in a virtual world. People are driven to suicide by internet rumours and message boards, blogs and chatrooms are awash with the vilest abuse. Korea is a country where people live online.
When I first moved to South Korea I stopped writing. I found the country absolutely uninspiring. My hopes of moving to an exotic paradise and penning the great novel of that location seemed to die when I arrived and found myself amidst an ugly, unfriendly nation.
After about six months I forced myself to write. The only problem was that what I produced wasn’t the sort of writing I’d expected. They were perceptions of the world around me; details of an unpleasant life in a dark corner of the universe. I didn’t dare post any of these pieces to a blog, or send them to a magazine or newspaper. I was ashamed of having not found something bright and cheerful to report. I had failed.
Then, a few months later, I started Korean Rum Diary (so-called because the lives of alcohol-soaked, sweaty expats reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel). At first I forced myself to be delicate – calling it an exercise in tactful writing. Even though I said nothing overly critical or unfair, I seemed to draw a lot of attention simply by being honest. Sometimes I wrote about bad English, sometimes I commented on a popular news story, sometimes I posted photos of the country, sometimes about the joy or heartache of teaching, and sometimes about walking down the street and being spit on. The critics swooped in and offered their vicious criticisms. I was called an idiot by the vast majority of my readers. They said Korea was a heaven on earth and that only a racist pig would say otherwise.
These readers, of course, were mostly Korean, and used that most cowardly of screen names, “Anonymous.” They offered critiques like, “Many foreigner is come to Corea (sic) is looser (sic) and is fucking complain. Go home America.”
I kept writing and within a few months I’d moved from two or three readers a day to around two hundred. KRD became a freakshow. It was linked on many of the English language blogs in Korea, and routinely referred to as “the angriest blog” around. People seemed to enjoy coming by just to mock me, or to argue on my comment boards.
It wasn’t long before the death threats came in – vague, violent messages in broken English from disturbed Korean males in their mid-twenties. I ignored them mostly, but I must confess that sometimes I posted them as part of the freakshow – to draw more readers. People came to my door from time to time, banging on it and stealing my mail. I simply got a second apartment and watched my back on the way home from work.
I had plenty of regular readers, and not all of them came for the freakshow element. Every day I would get messages from people who identified with my problems as a foreigner in an unfriendly country. Whenever the insults and death threats became too much, it was these other lost souls for whom I’d continue to write.
After a year I was getting a thousand views per day, and although I was tired of writing about Korea and struggling for material, I kept on simply because there were readers. I had become an attention whore. I would write short, pointless posts and just let my readers insult each other on the comment boards. Everyone knew KRD because it was controversial. It was a place to go and start a fight over the latest piece of news. I started hearing my name being used in the foreigner bars, and referenced on other blogs and websites about Korea as the very definition of an “angry” Korean blog.
Perhaps one of my most widely read posts concerned my first employer: Andover Language School. I wrote an honest account of my time there and warned others against taking a job in for a crooked business that would ruin their lives. The owner of Andover, however, threatened to sue me. I sought legal advice and realised that in Korea “there is no defense against libel.”
I wasn’t the only bad boy in town, though. Although I wasn’t the first blogger to criticize Korea, during KRD’s tenure there were dozens of angry blogs appearing, with varying levels of merit. Most famously, “Mr. Wonderful” came along with his blog, An Idiot’s Tale. He became notorious as an anti-Korean blogger, yet he loved Korea. He simply wrote about family life, and transcribed his Korean wife’s speech: “You da vely stoopid man!” People called him racist, and he ignored them. His blog grew more popular than mine. It is still somewhat of a phenomenon in Korea, drawing irate readers and inspiring the most vicious criticisms.
Amidst a sudden surge in angry blogs, another popular one appeared. It was called Lousy Korea. When it emerged that the blog’s author was female, it became the greatest target of hate in the K-blogosphere. Lousy was subject to the most vile abuse, and rather than being left on her comment boards, a lot of it was directed at her e-mail account. It soon became clear she wasn’t safe in her own home.
I received a message from Lousy earlier this year. She told me that she was receiving death threats aimed at me; that people thought we were the same blogger. Apparently Korea’s netizens couldn’t imagine a female blogger with as much venom as Lousy. They included my real name (which I had thus far kept hidden) and my address, along with a several page essay on how I would be tortured and killed.
Then the e-mails became worse, and soon Lousy was forced to leave Korea. The breaking point was when people began threatening to kidnap and murder the children of foreigners across South Korea. She said that freedom of speech wasn’t worth that price, and I honestly struggled to justify my own writing. I gave up blogging for a while, asking myself whether it was worth writing if people could actually get hurt.
When Lousy left the talk of killing children stopped, and a brief wave of tolerance washed across the K-blogosphere. The Korea Times ran an article asking whether Korea should perhaps be a little more open to criticism, and condemning death threats as an inappropriate way of dealing with unpopular opinion.
When things calmed a little I decided to shut down KRD. It wasn’t a popular decision, but it was the right thing to do. My own life had become so messy that I didn’t need the hassle of cyberspace to distract me. KRD had run its course. I began writing a blog because I had gotten out of the habit of writing, but after a year and a half of blogging I had no time for anything else.