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The Sock Puppet Story

It’s a sign that I’m on the right track, how far behind I am on the Kushibora scandal. Now, you know you’ve got a community of sorts when there’s an actual “scandal” because someone’s been (supposedly) misrepresenting himself.

Now, many of the people who read me these days aren’t connected to the Korean blogosphere, so I’ll give you the background you need in case you’re like me and prefer to get the beans from the first site instead of linking like mad:

There is a vibrant commenting culture on the set of websites included in the “K-blogosphere”, meaning blogs that focus or deal with Korean issues or life in Korea. You see a lot of strong opinions, a lot of nationalism among some Korean commenters and a lot of Korea-bashing among mostly non-Korean commenters. You get bogs popping up where nationalists vent about the K-bashers. You get sites devoted completely to K-bashing. You get all kinds of other positions and thought, too, though it gets sidelined sometimes.

Well, among all of that, there are a few “famous” commenters, people who take on a palpable presence in the online community. Now, you think you know someone. And then a case is built, as on the post linked above, that one of these people is misrepresenting himself. Kushibo has been logging in as Nora Sumi Park, some say. (Edit: Blogging as well, yes. I know.) Same attitudes despite ostensible differences; same reported experiences; same emails; an eerie tendency to support one anothers’ arguments in public fora; and even a shared email, and a pretty clear goof-up where a comment from one character is posted under the other’s name.

Identity, identity.

There are things to be said for use of characters forms of anonymity. For one thing, the debates in the K-blogosphere, and in Korea in general, often involve a rebuttal based on race and culture. “You’re not Korean, you can’t understand,” that’s the big one. But there are others. One cannot speak out against Japan without being accused of being a Korea-lover. Male Koreans and female Koreans are perceived differently (and very few female Korean-educated nationals actively participate in the the discussions, interestingly). If you’re Korean America, you’re not really Korean, or else you’re too Korean to really be American.

What you have is a situation where a lot of people are checking credentials first. This is what race/gender/culture-politics gets us. A person can’t, by stern dedication, acquire credentials in an area: one is the right color/gender/background, or isn’t. I don’t perceive it as a solely Korean problem, either — you hear this sort of crap in North America too — but I do think it’s one of those pernicious ways in which constructive criticism becomes impossible in Korea, a society where criticism of all kinds seems to me to be all too easily shut down before it’s even begun.

So I think, to some degree, this sock-puppetry, if it’s true, is a response to the environment in which Kushibo/Nora has been trying to discuss things. Personal feelings aside — I often disagree with Kushibo, often find myself infuriated by his method of discussion, which is all too often about the easy quick gut reaction and all too often ill-considered, and sometimes downright rude, even when I’m tacitly agreeing with him on some point — I can see why the temptation would exist to put on such roles, if only to facilitate a kind of freedom to approach different topics without being shut down from the get-go. In other words, we should all recognize that there is a sense in which this is a grab for the kind of legitimacy that is unfairly demanded of anyone who dares enter this discussion. It’s demanded of us we enter it as white Canadian males, as Korean-Australian women, as Korean-Korean men… whatever labels we get stuck with do in some sense delimit what we can say in these discussions. This is sad because sure, your position will depend on where you’re coming from, but where you’re coming from is rarely as simple or straightforward as a set of labels suggests.

So yeah, I think, on some level this sock-puppetry is a kind of symptom of some deep and serious problems in the kind of method of discussion we use in K-blogs, and in politics in general.

And to that point, I have no issue with it. If people are willing to listen to what they think is a Republican Lesbian Korean-American woman, but not to a male straight Korean-American, it’s ridiculous, and using a sock puppet to serve one’s dish from a platter that won’t be throw out the window untasted, that seems sensible to me.

Unfortunately, it seems that’s not the end of it. See, Kushibo and Nora turned up in comment threads, backing one another up, and if they’re one and the same person, then that constitutes nothing more than the devious conjuration of the illusion of consensus. It’s one thing to adopt a persona to talk about issues because others will only listen to your ideas from someone with that persona: that’s a response to audience sickness, not a sickness in itself.

But it’s quite another thing to use multiple personae to make it look at if two or three or more people are disagreeing with whoever you disagree with, when in fact it’s only one person. That is a kind of sickness, when it’s presented as reality. Now, I do it all the time, in the form of fictional characters’ voices, but that’s different. That’s included in the contract: “I’m going to put on the voices of imaginary people and talk through them; I’ll try make it believable and respectful of the cultures I claim them to be part of, but you know this is coming from me, Gord.” In fiction, it’s acceptable. The problem is, in online discussions, people see it as a kind of deceit. The most we seem to tolerate now is a consistent use of a handle or nickname in the pursuit of anonymity.

Consistent being the important word there, because it humanizes the persona. If you consistently use the same nick, people will see you at your less-than-best. People will see you snap at people, argue things you later rethink and find silly, and so on. You build up an aura of believability, and you accept accountability. And that, that’s the core of what’s offensive about Kushibo’s “roleplaying”, if indeed the allgations are true.

I have to admit, I think Kushibo’s silence is telling. Nora’s silence too. Then again, if Kushibo stands up and says, “What? Are you kidding?”, I’m not sure I could revise my feelings about this, because, well, it’s easy to deny what’s true if youre someone messed-up enough to be playing sock-puppets online to begin with.

But you know, there are much more interesting things to consider.

Now I’m thinking about how this will impact digital communications and relationships in the future. See, I think some of this hatred of the persona is really a throwback to older values, values that will go out the window sometime in the future. Still, we’re going to need a way of maintaining accountability. We will speak in different voices, but how will those voices be kept honest? Will we develop software to track detectable persona overlap? Will we develop software that will help us to prevent inadvertent persona overlap? Will Internet infrastructure become more anonymity-hostile, or more anonymity-friendly?

Oops, I think I have a short story idea now.

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