Who’s who in the Korean blogosphere

by Philip Gowman on 2 May, 2008 updated 14 September, 2008

in Bloggers and newspeople

LKL is now providing articles for The East, the monthly English-language East Asian business & culture newspaper published in London. LKL’s remit for The East is, for the moment, pretty much undefined, which means I can write whatever I like. And Editor Lee can reject it if he doesn’t like it. It’s an interesting discipline to write for a completely different audience, and in a different medium. For a start, I’m finding that sentences have to get shorter. This is an edited version of the first article. I’m expecting lots of corrections from all you experts out there. HT to the Daily Kimchi for the Blog Juice idea.

If you want to know what’s going on in Korea, where should you turn?

Of the British newspapers only the Financial Times has a permanent bureau in Seoul, but Korean news has to take its chances with all the other areas of the world looking for column space.

Obviously there are the Korean newspaper websites, who provide comprehensive coverage in English. There’s a list of them in my sidebar. Many of those sites, though, have irritating pop-up windows and flashing adverts designed for the blistering internet speeds available in Korea. As a result, you have time to make a cup of tea in between every page load if you’re viewing from the UK. And, according to some, the Korean newspapers give a conservative, establishment view of events.

Step forward the bloggers.

Blog Juice ThumbWikipedia defines a blog as “a website, usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video”. For our purposes, the good thing about a blog is that you can find many written in English, it’s written by a person who does it for love rather than money, and the content is therefore not filtered by a corporate editorial line. But maybe not all of them have interesting things to say. And with over 100 million blogs in existence, finding the right ones could be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Fortunately, there’s a pretty definitive list of Korea-related blogs at korea.banoffeepie.com, which cross-references around 400 blogs in English. Reflecting the globalised nature of the Korean blogosphere, the Korea blog list is maintained by Alan Scully, a Scot living in Japan. The sites are categorised into whether it’s a Korean who wrote them, and whether that person is based in Korea or not. According to Scully, the list has unexpectedly turned into a means for foreigners living in Korea to bond and form a virtual community.

The most-read general-purpose blogs are written by foreigners living in Korea. And the two biggest category of foreigners in Korea are English Language teachers and the US military. But teachers stay on and get other jobs. Businessmen and professionals working in Seoul also turn their hand to blogging. And still that doesn’t cover the full extent of bloggers out there, because there are the historians, cooks, DPRK-watchers and fans of the Korean Wave, all of whom use blogs to present their enthusiasms to the public.

Celebrity pulling power

There are so many blogs out there that it’s impossible to read them all. So which are the most popular?

The listing of some of the key blogs1 ranked by their “blog juice”, a score which combines data related to readership and number of sites linking to them, has PopSeoul at the top.

Popseoul masthead

PopSeoul is the leading celebrity blog, with lots of pictures and stories about Korean pop stars and actors. It’s only been going for about 18 months, but from the start distinguished itself from the competition by its original content – too many other celebrity blogs at the time were simply lifting their stories verbatim from the culture pages of the Chosun Ilbo website. The blogs got their desired google hits, but readers didn’t stick around for long.

PopSeoul was created by two graduate students who really love Korean pop culture and felt that they needed to do something to represent Korea. One graduated and moved to America, while the other stayed in Korea to get her degree.

They have a strong eye on fashion, and one of their specialities is spotting celebrities wearing the same clothes. One of the best photos from last year compared the dress sense of Park Jin-young – a pop star in his own right, and the Simon Fuller of Korea, having created stars such as Rain and the Wonder Girls – with that of Posh Spice.

JYP and Posh

Since PopSeoul arrived on the scene, other blogs have upped their game or fallen by the wayside. PopSeoul now has healthy competition from Shenyuepop and zr5.net, both of which have strong original content.

The Marmot Rules

Undoubtedly the original and best general-purpose blog about Korea is the Marmot’s Hole. It started five years ago, and at the time was described by its founder as “Robert Koehler’s completely non-sensical and probably unread blog concerning ex-pat life in Korea”.

Marmot’s masthead

It’s now the most-visited general-purpose Korea blog, with coverage from tabloid to politics via history and travel. With continued modesty, Koehler describes the blog now as “a rather poor attempt to mix hard news and intellectually enriching discussion of serious topics such as Korean history, Korean politics, North Korea, the U.S. troop presence in Korea and regional geopolitics with less-serious fare”

Koehler came to Korea as an English language teacher ten years ago, and now has entered the establishment as editor of the monthly Seoul Magazine, copies of which you can find at the Korean Cultural Centre in Northumberland Avenue.

You’d have thought that now he’s virtually on the payroll of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Koehler might have toned down some of the blog’s livelier content, but to his credit the Marmot still delivers to his readers some of the best tabloid stories from the Korean press as well as providing a forum for some of the most heated flame wars in the Korean blogosphere.

The Marmot’s comment threads bring contributions from all parts of the political and ethnic spectrum. In fact so lively is the dialogue that every now and then Koehler simply publishes an article with nothing in it, inviting readers to start their own discussion underneath. It’s the equivalent of lighting the proverbial blue touch-paper of a firework, and then running away.

The Marmot was one of the first Korean blogs to invite contributions from different authors. Giving other writers power to publish things on your site is dangerous, but in the Marmot’s case seems to have worked.

ROKDrop mastheadMaybe conscious of his boss looking over his shoulder, Koehler has the following caveat in his colophon: “This blog is NOT representative of Korea.” But, maybe, it’s the most representative forum for expats in Korea, and for westerners who have an interest in this fascinating country.

Military fire power

A similar caveat is included in the “About” page of the leading military blog – ROKDrop – which has graced the blogosphere for the past four years.

Jon, the blog’s founder, gives himself the screen name GI Korea. But his coverage is not just military. In a weekly photograph entitled “Korea Finder” he challenges his readers to identify a geographic landmark or notable person. Here’s his most recent poser:

ROK Drop Korea Finder April

As well as showing a broad knowledge of Korea, GI Korea provides probably the most useful list of other Korea blogs that I’ve come across.

Taking out the legwork

I’ve run out of column inches, and still haven’t had a chance to talk about some of the other well-written, informative and stimulating blogs in the Blog Juice table. And there are loads of good ones outside of that list which I visit regularly as well.

There are so many blogs out there that it’s almost a full-time job to keep up with them. And no matter how good the blog, you’re not going to be interested in every article.

The wonders of web technology mean that it’s possible to pull together headlines from many different blogs onto one page, enabling a reader to home in on the article which interests her most.

LKL has a few pages which it calls “Blogwatch”, where you can skim the headlines from different blogs without having to hunt through cyberspace. Clicking on the headline then takes you to the article in the relevant blog. It’s one way to keep your finger on the pulse of the fast-moving Korean blogosphere.

And the answer to ROKDrop’s photo quiz? A controversial one. It’s the disputed island of Dokdo / Takeshima.

Keywords:

  1. Note that the list is selective, and only has some of the blogs that I visit on a regular basis. The Blog Juice calculator takes forever. The Daily Kimchi has a more comprehensive list than is displayed here []
James Turnbull May 2, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Hmm…last time I checked, my blog juice was a whopping 1.8, but otherwise thanks for mentioning me!

Also, the Big Hominid is unfortunately no longer blogging.

GI Korea May 2, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for the mention. I have never even checked out Blog Juice before so it was interesting to see what the most read blogs were according to it.

Philip Gowman May 2, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Hi James
I’ll re-run the calculation when I get back home from my current trip. I found that the calculator, apart from taking ages, sometimes omitted data from one of the four sources, which resulted in a lower than expected score.
Amazing how a now-defunct blog can still get a high score!
Sorry I didn’t get time to talk about yours and other blogs. 1,000 words soon get used up…
Philip

James Turnbull May 3, 2008 at 2:53 am

Sigh…the miscommunication of the internet…now I’m paranoid that maybe you thought that I was being sarcastic! Just in case, no you DID mention me, in the blue box, and a genuine thanks for doing so! 🙂

James Turnbull May 3, 2008 at 2:04 pm

I’d definitely agree with most of what King Baeksu wrote [comment now deleted – Ed] about the Marmot’s Hole, although I think its negatives are more the result of neglect than anything else. For someone with such a reputation in the Korean blogosphere, it’s amazing how little input Robert Koehler seems to have in his own site these days, and while when he writes long posts they are usually good, his approach these days seems to be little more than providing links and then letting trolls fight amongst themselves in the comments sections; they’re definitely not the exception like you imply. People may think I’m exaggerating when I say he neglects his blog, but fledgling (and jealous) bloggers like me soon notice evidence like up to a quarter of his “Korea Blogs” links being either not actually about Korea, completely dead, or updated once a month or less. And while I’m probably burning my bridges with him and his fans here, more and more of his news posts can be several days behind the rest of the blogosphere, which definitely wasn’t the case 2 years ago.

Hell, let’s burn more bridges. I think you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid with Zr5.net and especially PopSeoul too. Rather than having “strong orginal content”, the former mostly just puts up three-line posts with links and pictures and then asks questions to readers along the lines of “What do readers think?” (which is why I stopped writing for it!), and while the owners of the latter are indeed good at spotting celebrities wearing the same clothes, and are very good at providing up-to-date celebrity news, all I can see myself are very short summaries of news articles and then hundreds of comments sounding like they were written by 14 year-olds.

Yes, of course I’m jealous of the popularity of all the blogs I’m criticising. And we’re all entitled to our own opinions, and undoubtedly many people would dislike my own blog. It’s just very frustrating for new bloggers when the same old blogs are invariably presented in lists of “Popular Korea blogs”, even though a great deal aren’t even about Korea, including the Daily Kimchi which you got the orginal idea from!

But this means I have a great deal of respect for people like Expat Jane, who always mentions that her blog is mostly not about Korea even though she’s always high in the list. And I strongly encourage readers to check out blogs in Alan Scully’s list, because there’s a lot of new blogs there exclusively devoted to Korea and with some insightful, orginal, and interesting stuff, but which never get mentioned anywhere.

Philip Gowman May 4, 2008 at 12:56 am

Hi James
I didn’t realise that you’d stopped writing for zr5.net, as it was on the basis of your contributions that I mentioned it as having original content.
Re Popseoul, I don’t mind the articles being short – after all, what is there that can be said about the latest celeb appearance? I visit Popseoul to find out what a particular celeb has been in the news for recently (or if I need some pics), and then if I want to read something more in-depth there’s your own blog, Popular Gusts and others.
I wish I had the time to explore some of the 400 or so on Alan’s list!
Philip

Brian May 4, 2008 at 2:00 am

I think the Marmot’s Hole has improved a little from what it was a few months ago. I recall the infrequent updates and the absolutely horrid guest bloggers that made me stop visiting altogether. James is right, though, that it usually is behind the curve with news nowadays and usually just picks up leftovers . . . something inexcusable if you’ve got, like, five guest bloggers, which he does. The problem is there is little overlap, or there was until Sonagi started posting, meaning if he wasn’t there, the news wasn’t there, and instead we’d get links to completely irrelevant shit. It still gets me worked up when I recall that the Marmot’s Hole (and all the other big blogs) completely ignored the Bill Kapoun story for three days . . . the Marmot was out of town, IIRC, but none of his guest writers wrote anything about it, all while his page filled up with fluff and garbage stories, and while his lawyer friend let his little fued spill out onto three different blogs. Really put all the “foreign community” talk into perspective when everyone was too busy fighting among themselves to spread the word about one of their own. Well, his family eventually received enough money through donations to cover expenses, so I guess that’s . . . as fortunate as can be in that situation, but that blog had 30 times my readership at the time, and a lot more good could have been done, yet in spite of my email and my mentions on the open theads, nobody over there picked up the story. Really reinforced, too, that lowly English teachers, who nobody gives a damn about anyway, are unfortunately put on the frontlines of battles here because bigger names—with requisitve influence and Korean-language skill—don’t do any heavy lifting. But, hey, who gets tired of reading about banking discrimination? Makes good copy, right?

Something I’ve been pleased to see over the past few months, though, is the increased visibility of newer, very entertaining and informative Korea-related blogs. They still don’t have the readership, though, of the big ones but that could change. Still kills me, though, that the “big boys” are considered Big Homonid, (probably the most annoying and annoyingly-designed blog out there), The Party Pooper (who does one half-assed update a month), Orancky (who hasn’t updated in two years), Ruminations in Korea (doesn’t update), Iceberg (rarely updates), Budaechigae, and Cathartidae (who doesn’t even have a blog anymore). Roboseyo, Amanda Takes Off, A Year in Mokpo, and The Joshing Gnome (among others) are some examples of newer, quality blogs that few people ever hear about.

Something also pleasing is the trend away from just combing the newspapers. I think the Marmot, Korea Beat, and Mongdori do good work in putting Korean-language stuff into English. But what is also important is pulling issues together, something Gust of Popular Feeling, The Grand Narrative, and Gord Sellar (among others) do quite well.

Robert Koehler May 4, 2008 at 4:41 am

[Initial part of comment deleted as it related to another comment which I have deleted – Ed]

James Turnbull: I appreciate what you have to say. In my defense, however, I will say a couple of things. A) When you’ve been blogging as long and as prolifically as I have, you’ve already said a good deal of what you’ve got to say. B) Over time, you may begin to take certain issues much less seriously (in my case, North Korea and South Korean politics in general). C) If there’s one thing I’ve learned through blogging, it’s that I’ve realized I don’t know nearly as much about Korea as I thought I did when I started blogging. D) Large comment sections are both a blessing and a curse.

Don’t get me wrong — I think you have a really good blog going. But I’d be keen to see if you’re still going at the same clip after five years. I blog mostly as a hobby — it’s fun, I enjoy stupid and off-color news, I like posting photos of old buildings, and I occasionally have something substantiative to say. I also enjoy providing a venue for commenters — flame wars and all. If you can find something enriching within all the crap, so much the better.

PS: Don’t worry about “burning your bridges” with me. You’re criticizing my blog, not sleeping with my wife. Oh, and I update my blog list maybe twice a year, mostly on account that it’s a time-consuming pain in the ass (and I’d rather be playing with my template), and I really don’t use it that much since I installed my Korea Blog Aggregator page.

roboseyo May 5, 2008 at 1:41 am

1. Thanks Brian for the bump.

2. Re: the Marmot’s hole, I suppose it is what it is, and I usually head onto the comment boards there now with my annoyance filters set on “high” — I axe more comments than I publish to avoid the snark, but on the other hand, sometimes good stuff turns up, and some of the commenters offer some real food for thought, if you can have the self-restraint to stop reading after the first twenty or so (once the loudmouths start to circle). That said, I do kind of miss Baeksu. As another person who posts with a link where you can find out who I am, I understand what he means about wanting to defend himself from anonymous mosquito-troll-jerks.

3. I agree that phil should have mentioned the Metropolitician’s blog in his article for the sake of its unique viewpoint/angle/content, despite the surliness of his comment here.

but

4. I stand with Brian: it seems to me also that the blog juice rating at zenkimchi is a bit outdated: my favorite k-blogs are also branching more in the direction of the ones Brian mentioned than the ones on the list (but at least they didn’t still have the yangpa on there). Personal faves are Joshing Gnome, Brian himself, Gord Sellar and the old heavyweight Gusts of popular opinion, which certainly deserved kudos here, too.

ZenKimchi May 5, 2008 at 2:18 am

Thanks Roboseyo. I thought Blog Juice automatically updated. Just noticed that it’s a static JPG image. It’s updated now–with a higher rating (I need to check these things more often).

Philip Gowman May 6, 2008 at 6:59 am

For the record, I’ve deleted one comment and a response to it. The comment expressed support for the Marmot, but then got a little too heated in its attack on the Marmot’s critics. I also declined to approve a comment which was a blatant plug for a pop music site, and to my mind rather off-topic.

Thanks to many commenters for recommendations as to further blogs to visit. Maybe a subject for a future article – but maybe that will be just for the newspaper, bearing in mind the heat generated by what I thought was a fairly non-controversial introductory article.

I remember now why I didn’t include Popular Gusts in the list. It’s because PG doesn’t have a blog juice commensurate with its worth – thus highlighting what a stupid concept blog juice is.

Philip Gowman May 7, 2008 at 2:16 am

OK, I’m closing this post to any further comments, and I’ve deleted the comments which made up the flame war. There was some interesting stuff in there, but it was all getting rather personal, and there were rather too many unsavoury loonies posing as genuine bloggers (including one moron who was cheeky enough to pose as the Marmot himself), all of which rather confirmed the thesis of King Baeksu that in the Marmot’s comment threads “liberals … are regularly heckled into silence via personal and relentless attacks that are often defamatory”. Others will say, probably rightly, that the heckling and defamatory comments can include targets of whatever political persuasion.

None of which changes my view that the Marmot is required reading. But also check out Dave’s ESL Cafe.

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