[FOUNTAIN]No name is safe in the InternetWe have all seen, or written, the type of “K loves A” graffiti on restroom walls at school. In the medieval period, initials were used as an abbreviated signature, or a symbol of a family or ownership. But in the 20th century, initials are more often used to conceal identities. In the age of mass communication, initials are a compromise of two opposing values, the right to know and the right to privacy.
However, using initials can backfire. A former pop star and a divorcee of a business giant, Bae In-sun recently published a memoir named after her hit number, “A Cup of Coffee.” The book’s release shows how the Internet can be used to quickly solve a mystery. In her book, Ms. Bae refers to her former husband as C and the actresses and singers who had affairs with her husband as L, K, E and J. The book was released the morning of Nov. 16, a Sunday. The following are snippets from an Internet portal site:
1 p.m., Sunday: “C” must be Mr. Choi, to whom Ms. Bae was married.
5 p.m., Sunday: Who are L, K, E, and J?
9 p.m., Sunday: We have figured out one of them.
1 a.m., Monday: The rest have been confirmed.
9 a.m., Monday: Mission accomplished. All characters identified.
As soon as “A Cup of Coffee” reached the bookstores, the Internet exploded with users seeking the identities of the characters. Hundreds of people gathered in chat rooms, discussing, debating and sharing information on the history of who-dated-whom. The brainstorming has produced an unauthorized version with full names. Had Ms. Bae chosen to write with real names, the hype would have been much smaller. It might have taken a month to identify the names in the school bathroom in the old days, but the convenience of the Internet has revealed the true identities of the characters in less than a day.
There is no “gatekeeper” guarding the Internet. The technology can indiscriminately spread information that might hurt people. The first public victim was an actress whose home video of a private act was released online in 1999. The court has increasingly imposed harsh penalties for cyber defamation since the first offender received a prison sentence in 2000, but that hasn’t stopped the rumor-mongering. Maybe one day we’ll see a special law banning defamation by initials.
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is a deputy social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.