In cyberspace, anyone can become a starThe Dongsungno sisters got their start about a year ago, when three high school buddies ― Park Su-ran, Lee Hee-jung and Jang Hyun-jin ― checked into a trendy karaoke bar that videotapes their customers and saves their performance on a CD-ROM. They were named after the main boulevard in downtown Daegu, where young Koreans cruise around in glitzy outfits, hunting for cool dates.
The trio, clad in high school uniforms, held a wacky talent night of their own in their small room. It was purely for fun, the group says, “to do something special” to celebrate their high school graduation. A few days later, Ms. Park uploaded a file of the group’s performance at Pinky Star (www.pinkystar.com), a file-sharing community Web site where visitors post their videos and get feedback.
The response was phenomenal, and it illustrated a recent phenomenon among Korea’s Internet-savvy youth called jjang, a word that means “the best.” Within a few weeks, the name of the trio was on everyone’s lips. Despite the poor quality of the video and the group’s lack of polish ― the video is filled with giggling, parody lowbrow gags and silly poses and gestures ― it has received more than 190,000 hits on the Internet, the most for a single personal video since the launch of the Pinky Star site. People fell in love with the girls’ obvious imperfections and the guilty pleasure of watching them imitate top celebrities.
Within a few months, the Dongsungno sisters were offered spots on TV commercials and invited to several local variety shows. Last November, after their first appearance in a television talk show, a fan site was set up by Pinky Star, which has turned into the group’s de facto entertainment management company. More than 20,000 fans have signed in to their fan site at Daum, an Internet portal. At Empass, a local search engine, the trio’s names are linked with the words “TV celebrities.”
Choi Hee-sun, spokeswoman for the three women, now freshmen studying traditional Korean dance in Kaemyung University in Daegu, says some of the group members are considering entering the entertainment industry.
“The timing of their debut was just right,” she says. “It’s become a cultural trend for young Koreans to communicate through moving images on Internet.”
The trio’s fast rise to fame was driven by youths’ current obsession with jjang. The word has been used by teenage Koreans for a while, but Internet users quickly adopted it to describe to judge people who stand out from others.
First it began with eeoljjang, which was used to describe the most attractive people. A group of young Koreans became instant stars after their photographs were posted on random community sites. Some became so popular that TV producers asked them to appear on drama series and variety shows.
Then the phenomenon quickly spread to momjjang, which describes ordinary people with the best figures or physiques. Now with Internet users eager to rank the videos of the best performers on random karaoke machines, noraebangjjang is sweeping across the nation. Unlike in the past, when many fans went online to download screensavers of their favorite TV celebrities, the Internet has turned into a giant stage where prospective talent can audition.
Dongsungno sisters’ stardom is just part of the noraebangjjang craze. “They are just very funny,” says Kim Min-seong, a 19-year-old college student in Seoul, who joined the group’s fan site after seeing them perform on TV. “I don’t think the women are pretty. But they surprise me because their performance is just so outstandingly eccentric and out there. They stand out. That’s what people look for in stars.”
The Internet generation’s preoccupation with fame and jjang draws criticism from some cultural experts who say the Internet is increasingly turning Korea into a nation of voyeurs, where privacy is of little concern, demonstrating a huge shift in public sentiment. In the past, many civic groups expressed concerns about the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public spaces that were used to take pictures, which were later posted on the Internet. However, people now voluntarily load photos of themselves in cyberspace, unconcerned about the possible dangers of revealing private information.
The Internet was once considered a utopia for some social activists, the only space for human interaction where everyone would be treated equally without social disparities shaped by race, gender or class. Now, many describe the Internet as a social portrait of Koreans’ aimless desire for fame based mostly on looks.
Byun Jeong-su, a media critic who recently published a book titled “Unanimity is abatable,” says the jjang syndrome in Korea is a reflection of the nation’s cultural fascination with the idea of the extraordinary.
“It’s an extreme example of our increasing intolerance to anything that’s normal and ordinary in our society,” says Mr. Byun. “I don’t think everyone who loads their VOD (video on demand) on the Internet is thinking that a music company is going to offer them a record deal. For them, this is more of a psychological relief, that ‘we can be like the stars too,’ because standing out in public has become part of our desires.
“This is a typical phenomenon within a culture that grew out of television and entertainment industries. We are living in a period where people think that anything, even talent or beauty, can be achieved.”
But other experts hold a more positive view, saying the concept of a karaoke culture is shifting away from its seedy roots to an open form of public entertainment.
Choi Eun-su, a representative of Pinky Star, predicts that in the future more young Koreans will go into the entertainment industry through community Web sites. The company now has plans to discover more stars who debut through their sites.
“The demands are just overwhelming for the youths who want to enter the entertainment industry through these sites,” says Mr. Choi. “People have realized that there are just too many risks by going through major talent agencies. They know the system is closed and often corrupt. Community sites like ours are built around public consensus. Aspiring stars need to get approval from the public first in order to get ahead. There is a voluntary contribution between the producer and the fans.”
Kim Yang-eun, a director of Cyber Culture Institute, shares a similar sentiment.
“Young Netizens nowadays don’t want TV dramas that are limited to screens only,” says Ms. Kim. “They want to get involved in discovering new stars themselves, someone they like and who matches their criteria. This is also shows that they don’t want a world defined by others.”
by Park Soo-mee
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