What are we searching for?“Seek” appears throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Koran and the Sutra, the teachings of the Buddha. But today this divine command transcends the metaphorical in a way that is neither mysterious nor spiritual, although anyone who has ever Googled might beg to differ.
What are we looking for anyway? Where do our searches take us? As in many cases, technology can help provide some answers. For example, one can take a glimpse at what Koreans are looking for at query.naver.com, “a search center” run by Naver, one of Korea’s largest Internet search engines.
Naver, which is a Korean-language site, tracks and updates a list of keywords that Internet surfers most frequently use each week. The company has ranked the top 30 keywords, capturing the news, personalities and social trends of the moment, a reflection of the common interests of Koreans. An inspection of this list reveals the power of the media over the collective thoughts and actions of Koreans.
So what were Koreans searching for in 2003?
Money, for one thing.
The word “lotto” ranked high on the list of popular searches this year. Lotto, Kookmin Bank’s lottery that offers Korea’s biggest-ever jackpots, became a sensation soon after its January launch. The first lottery winners each took home an average 50 billion won ($41 million). Some number crunchers figured out that the possibility of scoring a winning number is in the neighborhood of about 1 in 1 billion. The odds are more favorable for robbing a bank and not getting caught.
Statistics aside, Lotto was on everyone’s lips in 2003. The Naver engineers also noticed that the number of Internet hits for “lotto” grew when the unemployment rate inched up.
Young celebrities were high on the keyword list for personalities. Lee Hyo-ri, a former member of Finkl, who released a solo album in August with the title track “Ten Minutes,” got the most hits. Leslie Cheung, a Hong Kong actor who committed suicide in April by jumping from the 24th floor of a hotel, was third, followed by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Also on the top 10 list was Sung Hyun-a, who launched a comeback by posting nude photos of herself on the Web. Her career last year suffered after reports of her use of the banned drug, ecstasy.
Of course, current events fueled plenty of interest in 2003, with several major incidents spurring heated debate on online bulletin boards. Terrorist attacks and warnings, and epidemics and war were a continuous source of anxiety. In March, the war in Iraq spurred a wave of anti-Americanism on local Internet news sites. Fears of SARS also spread like a firestorm, fueling a spike in searches for flights abroad in April and May as many flights were cancelled or delayed.
Searches related to the fire that hit the Daegu subway in February, which led to more than 180 deaths, soared after the accident but fizzled only a few weeks later.
Searches related to news stories were a keyword mirror on Korea. “Suicide” searches jumped from January in tandem with a deteriorating employment situation. Such searches peaked in August after a number of suicides involving several members of the same family and the suicide of Chung Mong-hun, chairman of Hyundai Asan Corp.
Back to money, the number of real estate searches rose as housing prices rocketed. The number of searches began to drop in October, after the government promised measures to dampen increases in housing costs.
Many of the searches painted a picture of a society grappling with economic uncertainty. At Dreamwiz, a local Web site, the top 100 searches included such words as “free,” “used cars,” “jobs,” and “unemployment.” One top word, “relief,” probably was used for people loaded down with credit card debt, looking for a way out.
Turning to the Web to get a take on 2003 shows just how vital the online world has become to the off-line world, often spawning phenomena that would have been impossible without the Internet. Digital cameras joined with the Internet has led to eeoljjang, literally “the best looking faces,” a group of individuals who rose to stardom after their photographs were posted on online community sites. Some eeoljjang are so popular, they have been grabbed by producers to appear in television soap operas and commercials. The eeoljjang movement has now degenerated to grading momjjang, or ordinary people, for the best-looking bodies.
Random video clips taken in public spaces have been posted on sites like DC Inside, a Web site gallery for digital photography, attracting thousands of young Koreans. Some commentators have raised privacy issues and the growing obsession with voyeurism.
In the summer of 2002, the Internet was awash with observations on the World Cup soccer games. To maintain that spontaneity, which brought thousands of people onto the streets with each victory for the national team, Koreans are now forming flash mobs. These sudden gatherings of people who perform skits and then disperse as quickly as they met are inspired by the Internet.
Online games and American-style pro-wrestling were the biggest Web surfer magnets.
Crazy Arcade, Starcraft, Maple Story and Lineage continued to draw the most hits on major Korean-language search engines. Lineage and its sequel were second and third, in that order, on Naver. Searches for board games and inline skates made the 2003 top-10 list at Empass.
In the end, of course, what would the Internet be without sex. X-rated search requests outdid them all.
Sordid rumors, anecdotes on celebrity sex scandals and footage of raw flesh from anonymous sex videotapes floated around cyberspace all year. Ham So-won, an actor who was reputed to be the star in the mysterious “Ms. H” videotape, finally cleared her name by holding a press conference, where she professed her “innocence.”
Posing nude was definitely in this year. Celebrities, from a veteran female singer to a young male handball player, posted nude photos on the Web.
“Swapping” was also a commonly searched word. In the fourth week of October it topped all others at Empass. A search for the address of a local sex portal site, whose name Dreamwiz refuses to disclose, landed sixth on their search list.
But despite the money, sex and scandal, search data show that the major reason Koreans surf the Net is to take care of life’s mundane needs, like getting directions to a restaurant, buying movie tickets, hunting for a job and checking the daily horoscopes.
“Job,” “weather” and “map” were the top three search categories on Daum.com, a popular Web portal, followed by “horoscope,” “screen saver,” “movie theater,” “real estate,” “chatting” and “music download.” Some of the new top keywords this year are “virus,” “English dictionary” and “mobile phone service.” The poll points to a development that might indicate where online communications are headed. According to the survey, Koreans are losing interest in “chatting”; the second most popular search term in 2002, fell 11 slots to 13.
“Cyber trends in the past were mainly built around off-line social debate,” says Kim Yang-eun, director of the Cyber Culture Institute. “It was a way of public mobilization for people to build a sense of community awareness. But it’s interesting to note that our interests are increasingly centered on keywords rather than news. There are specific keywords that are now used extensively in off-line debates. That is a sign that online communities are producing an autonomous culture with the potential to penetrate mainstream culture.”
by Park Soo-mee