Statistics indicate that Koreans spend the most amount of time on their mobile phones, as compared to the people in other countries, which includes double the time of users in Germany. What are the factors behind this zealous passion for mobile phones in Korea, where the ubiquity of wireless communication contributes to a unique dynamism of Korean society?
Kim Chanho Professor, Sungkonghoe University
Kim Yong-chul Photographer
With the growing popularity of smartphones, people can utilize a variety of innovative applications to make life more convenient. The ease of access to an abundance of information about traffic, restaurants, cinemas, and various events has significantly enhanced the quality of life for residents of the Seoul metropolitan area and Gyeonggi-do Province, which is home to a dense concentration of some 20 million residents.
US News & World Report published a feature article, entitled “How They Do It Better” (March 18, 2007), which described how the United States, despite its having the world’s largest GDP and producing the most Nobel Prize winners, still has a lot to learn from other countries. For example, Bhutan has the world’s lowest smoking rate, Germany and the Netherlands have streets that are safe for bicycle riders, and the Afghan people are known to treat guests with the utmost hospitality. It also mentioned that Korea along with Japan, is first in the world in terms of mobile phone usage, and Korea’s mobile phone network is faster than the broadband communications network of the United States.
The number of mobile phones in Korea, which surpassed the 40-million mark in November 2006, amounted to some 47.7 million, as of October 2009 (including owners of multiple phones). When the CDMA technology was introduced to the market in 1996, mobile phone users amounted to a mere 3 million, which means that there has been a 13-fold increase over a 10-year period. We now live in a society in which virtually all Koreans can contact one another, at anytime and anyplace. This connectivity has brought about far-reaching changes to people’s lifestyle and social relations, as it has long been assumed that everyone owns a mobile phone.
If anyone should leave for work and somehow forget their mobile phone at home, they might not be able to do their regular work, along with having a sense of unease, without their access to the world. Indeed, for everyday life in Korea, the mobile phone is essential, as reflected in an advertisement that refers to the mobile device as “the center of our lives.” For many people, they would not even think about going somewhere without their phone, making it an inseparable appendage of their body. When people leave a concert venue or movie theater, they immediately turn on their mobile device, so as to not miss any calls. The uniqueness of Korea’s mobile phone culture is readily evident from the observations of foreigners who live here. On the KBS TV program, “The Beauties’ Chatterbox,” a German participant, Maria, remarked: “At a restaurant or bar, the first thing everyone does is to take out their mobile and place it on the table! Everyone does it! And it is so surprising to see students answering their mobile during class, but professors will answer their phone during class, too. When eating with a friend, they will send out a text message once every five minutes. That gets really distracting and annoying.”
Compared with users in other countries, Koreans use their mobile phone far more for the sending of text messages. In the Philippines, there is also a high level of text messaging, but this is due to the expensive rates for voice calls there. In Korea, other factors are behind the popularity of text messages. Above all, the Hangeul writing system is extremely digital-friendly. At a glance, you can notice that the keypad of a Korean mobile phone includes only ten or so Korean characters. The Hangeul alphabet consists of 24 vowels and consonants that are used to create syllabic blocks. But the vowels are made by combining a few basic letters, while the primary consonants can also be easily converted into more complex forms. Because of this structure, you can type much faster in Hangeul than in other languages, such as English. In fact, in speed text-message contests, Koreans regularly place first, mainly due to the inherent advantage of their writing system, rather than their nimble fingers.
In addition, the Korean lifestyle is ideally suited for the sending of text messages. Students spend the better part of their waking hours at school and off-campus institutes. And even when they return home, more study awaits. With so little free time to spend with friends, the mobile phone provides a much-needed relief. In spite of physical constraints, today’s
students can still maintain close contact with their cohorts. They can send text messages on the sly during class, and even when they are sitting at home in their rooms in “complete silence,” they can talk as much as they want with their friends. This is not limited to young people. In the off-line world when people are physically in the company of people with whom they do not want to communicate, they send text messages to those with whom they do want to communicate, and they welcome text messages sent to them.
Overall, mobile phones are used more for voice calls than for text messages. Statistics indicate that Koreans spend the most amount of time on their mobile phones, as compared to the people in other countries, which includes double the time of users in Germany. What are the factors behind this zealous passion for mobile phones in Korea, where the ubiquity of wireless communication contributes to a unique dynamism of Korean society? In his book, The Network Revolution, Its Opening and Closing, Professor Hong Sung Wook of Seoul National University’s School of Biological Sciences noted: “The especially rapid spread of pagers and cell phones in Korea, as compared to other countries, is due in part to a cultural longing of people to be connected with others through technological means of communication, after they had experienced the rapid collapse of the traditional community since the early 1990s, and also in part by a relaxed attitude toward privacy, as seen in the fact that a cell phone number is willingly shared with others rather than being kept private.”
Koreans maintain a strong inclination toward collectivism, under which “we” takes precedent over “I.” As such, to the Korean way of thinking, a sense of contentment is possible only when you can get along with others. With the boundaries of privacy being rather vague, people will freely give out their mobile phone number. If you look over the participant lists of various seminars or professional events, mobile phone numbers are often included alongside the names. Much like a rural community, Korea’s information society maintains a less defined sense of individuality. In the course of its rapid industrialization and urbanization, Korea experienced massive displacement of populations, from the rural areas to urban cities, and within the cities as well. Moreover, there is also high employee turnover, with about one-third of new hires finding alternative work within one year. In this way, the mobility of today’s society does not allow people to take root in a particular community, while a majority of personal relationships end up as fleeting experiences. Even family members can become so immersed in their individual spheres that interaction with each other is little more than perfunctory conversation.
In today’s highly mobile society in which it can be a challenge to communicate on a deep level with the people around us, whether at home, in the neighborhood, at work, or at school, mobile media serve as a vast network of circuits that enable us to transcend spatial limitations and keep in touch with each other. The more distant that we might feel from those nearest to us, the closer we feel toward those apart from us. In Korea, where managing a network of personal relationships, based on a variety of connections, is critical for social acceptance, the mobile phone functions as the link to reinforce these ties. The list of speed-dial numbers that is stored on a phone defines the owner’s personal life and social standing.
Even as the mobile phone has become an essential aspect of everyday life and a vital channel for social contact, it can also lead to a lack of consideration for other people. In particular, foreigners in Korea are invariably taken aback by the extent to which Koreans will talk on their mobile phones in public, including on the streets or on a subway. With little regard for their own privacy or for the people around them, they carry on phone conversations, talking and laughing aloud as if in their own home. Interestingly, the extraordinary market penetration of mobile phones among Korean consumers has benefited much from this cultural anomaly. As a result of people’s nonchalance in using their mobile phone in public places, including a crowded subway, the mobile phone’s intrinsic value is greatly enhanced.
On the other hand, this sense of openness can be advantageous as well. A prime example of this is the success of a volunteer organization that provides interpretation services for foreigners in Korea, over the phone. This group, known as the Before Babel Brigade (BBB), is named after the Tower of Babel, when people had difficulty communicating with each other due to language differences. Launched on the occasion of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea, the BBB now includes some 3,700 volunteer members who offer interpretation for 17 languages. To use the service, all you need to do is dial 1588-5644, select your language, and describe your situation. As for the BBB members, they simply answer any calls directed to them during their on-duty hours.
Worthy of note is the considerable success of the BBB group in Korea, while this kind of initiative has failed to gain traction in other countries. The key factors behind the BBB’s effectiveness are related to the pervasiveness of Korea’s mobile phone culture and the willingness of volunteer members to answer calls from complete strangers, in need of interpretation assistance. Indeed, a vast majority of people would prefer not to take on this inconvenience; but, for volunteer-minded Koreans with sufficient language ability, this is a means of contributing to society. As such, the mobile phone is regarded as a private device for personal communication with family and friends as well as a public resource for the provision of
In this way, mobile phone use in Korea crosses between the public and private domains, which serves to further deepen the roots of this culture. In fact, an information society that facilitates spontaneous connections is well aligned with the Korean penchant for expediency. The mobile phone, along with the Internet, are thus ideally suited to the Korean preference for spontaneity over deliberation and careful planning, as well as the ability to think on your feet and come up with a creative solution.
However, the mobile phone can also be a source of aggravation in people’s everyday routines. Meeting times and places are frequently changed, while the people who call to cancel an appointment at the last minute has become an all too common occurrence. Sometimes a group of people will agree to have dinner together, but instead of deciding on a restaurant beforehand, they will discuss possible alternatives while on the move, thereby creating an unnecessary complication. Due to the mobile phone’s convenience, people become excessively dependent on it, which can increase their stress level. People are reluctant to turn off their phone lest they miss a call. Moreover, if someone repeatedly fails to answer your call, you might think they are using caller ID to deliberately avoid you. Indeed, people expect you to answer all calls and to promptly respond to a text message, while such a “breach of etiquette” can easily result in a misunderstanding or dispute. In particular, couples who are dating are notorious for squabbling over mobile phone incidents.
While the mobile phone’s ubiquity might complicate your everyday life at times, it is also unrivaled in its capability to influence the masses. Since 2002, the mass candlelight protest has become one of the most powerful means for expressing public opinion on controversial issues, but this would not have come about without the mobile phone. The mobile phone is indispensable for the efforts to rapidly mobilize a large group of people because it can simultaneously send out a message to multiple parties. In his book, The Culture-Deficient Society: From Hippies to Burnouts, cultural critic Lee Dong-yeun, remarked about the guerilla nature of today’s information media: “Mobile text messaging has a far greater impact on mobility than Internet mail services in that it allows people to distribute information among the masses, anonymously and in real time. For this reason, the mobile text message functions as a new medium to publicize group activities and events.”
The political impact of the mobile phone is even greater when combined with Twitter. The surprising outcome of the local elections, in June 2010, was in part attributed to the use of social media such as Twitter. The participation of younger generation voters was a decisive factor in disproving the expectations of a low voter turnout, which reached 54 percent, the highest level in 15 years. Young voters who supported the opposition party were encouraged by the closeness of exit poll results, so they quickly sent out messages to encourage their friends to get out and vote. In particular, it was found that Twitter users with smartphones played a key role in tipping the election results. A similar development contributed to the election of President Obama in the United States. This trend has led to the emergence of “mobile parties” in the political world, along with predictions of updated election strategies and campaign methods.
Today’s mobile phones are no longer just phones. It is a personal media device, but also a channel for far-ranging social communication. The ability to instantly send out a message to a large number of users greatly amplifies the mobile phone’s
utility. Furthermore, the mobile phone can now accommodate Internet services and mass media functions. It is becoming much more common to see people staring at their mobile phones on the subway, but they are not checking their text messages. More and more people are watching video through DMB (digital media broadcast) or connecting to the Internet to search for information. With the spread of smartphones, people are enjoying using a variety of applications that make life more convenient. With the growing popularity of smartphones, people can utilize a variety of innovative applications to make life more convenient. The ease of access to an abundance of information about traffic, restaurants, cinemas, and various events has significantly enhanced the quality of life for residents of the Seoul metropolitan area and Gyeonggi-do Province, which is home to a dense concentration of some 20 million residents.
Mobile phones are captivating more and more people. Everything has gotten faster. This has both enhanced efficiency and at the same time increased tension. Korea’s frighteningly rapid growth has made it hard enough to take the time to stop and look around, but with the expansion of mobile communications, life now flies by at light speed. When that rhythm seems too fast, we want to introduce a pause somewhere in that tight time and space. The mobile phone handily meets our needs here as well. Now that they have the ability to connect to whomever they want at any time, anywhere, people are busy tuning into each other’s frequencies. Those faint waves could be the magnetic field of an excited sympathy, or it could just be the noise of imperfection. Mobile phones are a media that rearranges the order of our life and change our interpersonal relationships. They are a circuit that traces the fingerprints of our heart.