01/21/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

South Korea's New Hybrid Media: Wall Posters Gone Viral

Seung-yoon Lee was the first East Asian President of the Oxford Union. He is a final year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Hertford College, Oxford.

Daniel Tudor is a British writer who has served as Korea correspondent for The Economist. His most recent book is 'Korea: The Impossible Country'. He is also a founding partner of The Booth, one of a handful of craft beer companies in Korea.

SEOUL -- For around a decade, South Korea has been a byword for advanced internet connectivity. With the world's earliest mass adoption of broadband - and at the fastest speeds - this nation of 50 million is regularly cited as the "world's most wired". The introduction last year of LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) mobile communications means that Koreans now enjoy the world's fastest wireless network as well.

And despite South Korea's image as a follower (albeit a fast one), this country has been ahead of the pack on a surprising number of internet innovations. A firm named Saerom developed Dialpad, a VoIP service, three years before Skype came along. And when Facebook and even Myspace were mere minnows, millions of Koreans were already using a social network named Cyworld. Lee Jun-seok, a South Korean entrepreneur and political activist, fondly remembers e-mailing his Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg, "We already have Cyworld, a far better and more sophisticated website. Your start-up will fail soon."

Famous last words, of course. But the most profound effects of Korea's internet mania have been felt in the realm of politics, rather than business. In 2002, liberal candidate Roh Moo-hyun had been all but written off for that December's presidential election race, but narrowly won following a last-minute surge led by online fan-club Nosamo ('people who love Roh Moo-hyun) and the efforts of a then-fledgling 'citizen journalism' site named Ohmynews.

Roh repaid Ohmynews by giving them his first post-victory interview - perhaps unsurprising given that the mainstream press strongly backed his rival Lee Hoi-chang. According to tech journalist Cyrus Farivar, this was "likely the first (and probably only) time that a major national leader gave his or her initial interview to an online-only publication."

Debate has moved online as well. Twitter is over-run with political bickering in Korea. But as far back as the 1990s, pioneering portal Daum was running a bulletin board service for online debate named Agora, as well as daily opinion polls. Today, Koreans can join huge forum communities that suit their own ideological preference. The largest is probably Ilbe, a rather rabid right-wing forum that boasts around a million members. Ilbe has no overlap with Nosamo: its members are more likely to consider the now-late Roh Moo-hyun a dangerous communist.

Pen and Paper

The very latest tool of political expression though is decidedly old-school. On December 10th last year, a university student named Joo Hyun-woo picked up a pen and paper, and began writing a poster about the issues on his mind: the mass sacking of striking rail workers, and the erection of electric pylons despite public opposition (and one suicide) in the town of Miryang. He gave the message a simple title: 'How are you all doing?'

Mr. Joo's implication was that he was not doing fine, living in 'such a strange society' that, as he sees it, puts people second. He stuck up his poster on a notice board by the political science wing of his college, Korea University. Within a week, dozens of similar posters went up next to it. It quickly became a viral nationwide phenomenon spreading across all generations, regions, and classes. Office workers, housewives, and even high school students up and down the land joined Mr. Joo with their own posters. Some said 'no, we're not doing well'; some raised further complaints; and others even responded that they were in fact quite happy with the pylons in Miryang. It seemed the whole country were asking and trying to answer the question, 'how are you all doing?'

Less Anonymity, More Authenticity

The movement recalls the 1970s and '80s, a time when student protestors put up daejabo (posters) criticising the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. The spirit of those times has been somewhat romanticised by participants who are now middle-aged. But why are today's young Koreans - who have Twitter, and online forums at their disposal - so taken with such a seemingly atavistic form of written protest?

"How are you all doing" wall poster on Facebook

Proponents call it a more authentic form of communication as it lacks the anonymity and ease of participation the internet offers. Of course, one must erect one's poster in a public place, rather than from a computer at home. It is also customary to sign one's poster with one's real name, rather than a username. This necessarily involves a greater level of commitment and bravery - something lacking among typical armchair cyber-warriors.

Real names are also a natural safeguard against manipulation: 'astroturfing' and political interference in social media -- as occurred when members of Korea's National Intelligence Service fabricated millions of anti-opposition Tweets in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election -- are turning some Koreans off pure online debate.

Furthermore, the language of the daejabo is very different to that of the forum post. Internet anonymity has had predictable results in a society where hierarchy is strong and public criticism considered rude. So where online discussion tends to be full of exaggeration and swearing, posters are both more reasonable and more heartfelt. Writers of opposing daejabo treat one another with respect.

Not Doing Well -- But Doing Better

South Korea was an utterly group-oriented, agrarian society a mere fifty years ago, and today, it is a hotbed of urban alienation and rising individualism. The popularity of online communication both exacerbates and feeds off that change. Korea may even have been the birthplace of the social-media driven 'me generation': 'selfie' became a household word in 2013, but its Korean equivalent 'selka' (an acronym for self-camera) was around during the Cyworld era of the early 2000s. The question 'how are you all doing?' though suggests there are utterly contrasting values of 'old Korea' that people miss: mainly community, and concern for others.

Perhaps it is ironic that the 'most wired' society is picking up pen and paper once again. That change doesn't mean an abandonment of online expressions of dissent, however: the 'how are you all doing?' movement is being driven along by daejabo photos, spread via Facebook and Twitter. One Facebook daejabo page has 260,000 'likes'. The outcome of all this may be a new hybrid form of expressing dissent, one which contains the warmth and authenticity of direct communication, but with the added benefit of rapid online transmission.

Though Korea never got the credit it deserved for its innovations in communication - step forward, Dialpad and Cyworld -- this is still a country to look toward for evidence of the next big thing. So, these authors wonder, will the daejabo phenomenon soon be coming to a wall (and a Facebook wall) near you?