- Igniting the Internet: Youth and Activism in Postauthoritarian South Korea by Jiyeon Kang
Jiyeon Kang's Igniting the Internet: Youth and Activism in Postauthoritarian South Korea can be read in many ways: as a history of social movements in the early twenty-first century; as an account of the Internet's growing entanglement with everyday life; as a reflection of the transition from an authoritarian to a neoliberal state; as an exploration of a cultural history of South Korea; as a theory of internetworked politics; and as a meditation on whether the kids are, indeed, alright. It is also about bodies and streets, fire and screens, and militarism and cows. Igniting the Internet investigates the advent of "candlelight protests" in South Korea, documenting how public discourse mediated through the Internet politicized and organized young South Koreans over the course of almost a decade. Kang's analysis begins with the 2002 vigils held for Sin Hyo-sun and Sim Mi-sŏn, two thirteen-year-old girls killed by a U.S. army vehicle, and it extends through the 2008 protests against the resumption of U.S. beef imports (which had been suspended five years earlier over concerns about "mad cow" disease). Drawing on extensive interviews with participants in these candlelight protests, Kang shows how the circulation of rhetoric across discussion boards, blogs, and social networking sites captivated the attention of young people in such a way as to stimulate the growth of democratic sensibility. Igniting the Internet is an exemplary book that intervenes in ongoing conversations about the role of the Internet in civic activism, demonstrates the power of blending sociocultural analysis with criticism of digital discourse and deployment of rhetorical field methods, and underlines the value and necessity of transnationalizing rhetorical studies. The book will be of interest to scholars of social movements and protest; digital culture; Korean, Asian, and global studies; and democratic theory. [End Page 172]
Kang's sensitive treatment of the role of the Internet in the genesis of the candlelight protests is captured in two of the book's keywords: ignition and captivation. For Kang, social change occurs through a "cultural ignition process, a larger cultural process that takes place through captivation"; such an orientation "shifts focus from the power of technology to the alliance formed through it, from individual actions to collective experiences, and from existing political fault lines to vernacular political judgments" (4–5). Captivation, then, refers to how digital messages, images, and sounds arrest the attention of Internet users, which consequently "reveals nascent and vernacular social knowledge that is shared within a collective but not readily legible to the larger public" (10). In the introduction and first chapter, Kang develops this thesis about how new media technologies afforded novel opportunities for vernacular publics in South Korea to surface new agendas, organize into collectives, and alter "the dynamics of public communication" (5). The Internet did not so much cause the candlelight protests as it did catalyze—or ignite—them. Based on Kang's historical and cultural analysis, the conditions for such protest were, to use another metaphor for timely change, ripening. A vibrant culture of pro-democracy protests had been prevalent in South Korea throughout the authoritarian era. As the country democratized in the 1980s, young people, who had been invested in the authoritarian era as modern subjects capable of restoring national glory, became more susceptible to a series of neoliberal pressures as a result of the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (24–35). To prepare for intense global competitiveness, South Korean educational institutions embraced a critical thinking pedagogy. This new pedagogy coincided with the diffusion of Internet access (South Korea has always been a global leader in Internet access, especially broadband). Web portal Daum and social networking site Cyworld, founded in 1997 and 2002, respectively, stimulated the growth of alternative media, parody sites, and discussion forums (one of which was aptly called Agora).
Kang notes that these early sites often blurred politics and play. As the analysis unfolds in chapters 2...