The real killer app is people

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent article in Wired magazine (Wired 10.08: The Bandwidth Capital of the World) about Korea. It brings to light some really important stuff about the Internet that we, in the anal, individualistic, capitalized West tend to ignore. Perhaps to our detriment.

Here’s a salient quotation pulled from the article.

The value isn’t bound up in the content. It’s bound up in the interactions %uFFD1 in the group experience. South Korea’s broadband commons challenges North American assumptions about what bandwidth is for and why it’s relevant. In the US, cable, telephone, and media companies spin visions of set-top boxes and online jukeboxes, trying to "leverage content" and turn old archives into new media streams. There is a profound fear of empowering consumers to share media in a self-organizing way on a mass scale. Yet this is precisely what makes South Korea the broadband capital of the world. It’s not a futuristic fantasy that caters to alienated couch potatoes; it’s a present-day reality that meets the needs of a culture of joiners — a place where physical and virtual are not mutually exclusive categories.

Now, it would be easy to say that “those wacky Koreans, and Asians in general, are all hive-mind lemmings.” But that would be both ridiculous and racist. There is no such thing as a culture that is entirely different from another: there are just different points of emphasis.

My point here is that what is happening is Korea is just as relevant in the US, except that it may take us longer to get there because our socioeconomic and cultural tendencies are somewhat different. This is somewhat like wireless technologies have been in Europe and Japan compared to the US: cultural context created the right conditions for wireless to explode in those places earlier than in the US because US consumers are getting their needs met in other ways (land-line telecom is cheaper and more prevalent) but that doesn’t mean wireless isn’t going to end up the dominant paradigm for US consumers. The same goes for more group-oriented uses of the Internet.

Many people in the US are using the Internet very much in the way that it’s being used in Korea. These people play against each other in team situations, with group strategy. They organize events. They meet in person occasionally for “LAN parties.” The big difference is that in the US it’s not yet a part of mainstream culture. These are generally people who have learned not to talk about this stuff very much around their work and family associates, because to get that involved in an online society is considered abnormal. It’s as if you’ve become some kind of cult member or drug addict.

In our country, the Internet is thought of primarily as an information source (the information super-highway) much the same way as television was first thought of as a tool for educating the masses. We’re very puritanical in that way. Why would you be hanging out online when you should be in a New England town hall with your fellow citizens? Why wouldn’t you be out plowing your wheat field? This kind of thinking is deep in our cultural DNA.

Underneath the facade of what we tell ourselves the Internet is “for” is the reality: millions of people in the US getting online to chat with friends, relatives, and whole communities of people they would never have met otherwise. I personally know about a dozen people who are in long-term relationships with people whom they met online, and most of them are very very happy. Most of these people never admitted the hours they spend chatting and conversing and communicating on the ‘net, that is not until they actually “came out” about it once they really met someone. Rather than lie (oh…um…we met at a perfectly wholesome American barn dance!), they say “well, believe it or not, we met in a chat room!”

American business doesn’t seem to understand this phenomenon, however. It hasn’t surfaced to mainstream, obvious proportions yet, so we shrug it off. The danger? It’s like a burgeoning undertow: those who don’t know it’s there will eventually be overtaken by it.

I’m going to keep following this idea…I want to keep posting stuff about it when I find it. If anybody else finds anything, though, give a hollah.

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  • Bryan

    Interesting juxtaposition of these neighboring blog entries, this and the one on the Real Internet. One cultural issue, or DNA as you referred to it, that influences this equation is nationalism. It is easier for a community or nation to evolve *together* (be it technology, or culture) if there is a sense of commonality, that its ok for everyone to do the same thing. We in America are so damn individualistic and capitalistic that it inhibits our ability to agree and move everyone in the same direction. My personal sense is that Koreans, and many other countries, have a greater sense of nationalism, or unity, than we do, despite our name (USA). Sorry for the ramble, hope I made some sort of point.

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