Korea Fighting!

PapertainerSometimes, explaining Korea, where I was made and born, is hard.

I was born in Seoul. We moved when I was one to Guam (that’s another story, for another time). We settled in L.A. when I was nine, and I’ve lived in the Bay Area since I came up here for college.

Explaining Korea is hard here in the US because it doesn’t have the broadly spread pop-cultural or economic reference points of Japan or China.

Korea as a meme is getting more play, certainly here in Silicon Valley — cf., Cyworld, Samsung, fiber to the door, pro Starcraft leagues — but in the West, Korea is to Asia as The Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings: vaguely familiar, and known best only to those with an itch to dig into the culture.

Enough setup.

Over the weekend, Nicholas Reville invited me to a get together for Miro, where I met two folks who dropped new science on me about Korea and the Internet that’s worth sharing.

Jake Shapiro runs the Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace for the distribution of public radio programming. Jake also plays guitar in a band called Two Ton Shoe. Two Ton Shoe formed in 2000, gigged on the East Coast, but didn’t break through in the US. In 2005, after the band had gone on hiatus, Jake was pinged by the owner of a Korean record label.

The record label owner wanted to release a CD of Two Ton Shoe’s greatest hits in Korea.

In the years since the band had gone on hiatus, they’d become, thanks to filesharing over the Internet, “a talisman for teenagers bearing black wool caps and guitar bags, tired of what they hear on the radio.” They planned a tour, and started negotiating a new album deal in Korea.

I’ve summarized most of the above bit from a wonderful Economist journal entitled “Flash memory and fetishism“, about a trip the author took to Seoul with Jake.

Among other vivid snapshots of Korea, circa 2007, is this excerpt, which manages to combine a language lesson, a shout out to Metallica, and a brief reference to growing up across cultures:

The guitar player, James, rips into something very like “Happy Birthday”. James, son of a Korean diplomat, grew up in a suburb of DC and had to learn his native language as a teenager when his family returned to South Korea. Among other jobs, James translates during the Seoul visits of Metallica, a heavy-metal band. When he is finished I can only repeat the phrase I’ve learned: “Chu gun da” – “That kills”.

I’ve written before about yearning for bridges between the online experience and meatspace. Jake’s story is about as happy an example as I could imagine about this happening.

I also learned from Rebecca Masisak, the co-CEO of CompuMentor, about The Beautiful Foundation, based in Seoul. They’ve created something called “The Happy Bean.” It’s a web app running now on Naver, Korea’s top search engine, that lets non-governmental organizations (NGOs) set up blogs about their work and lets individuals in turn donate to NGOs they learn about through Happy Bean. I don’t have a ton more info than this, but Rebecca told me that a couple of the projects at this year’s Netsquared conference were building services similar to The Happy Bean.

Aside: The Happy Bean. I just love that name. It’s got to be good.

I haven’t blogged much about Korea before. Lots more to share before and during my trip back to the motherland in September.

If you only have three minutes to spare, and want to get a quick dose of Korea FightingTM, check these out:


locked in, in korea

Mozilla’s Gen Kanai has posted an eye-opening account of the situation for Internet users in Korea. Basically, the switching costs to move to Firefox from Internet Explorer are acceptable … that is, if you don’t conduct any secure transactions online.

Unintended consequences and de-facto monopolies create costs too high to calculate and must be borne without question.