Editors’ Note: This article is part of the series Digital Anthropologies in East Asia.
It was around the late 2000s and early 2010s that young people of South Korea started to talk about the quasi-mythical story of online Yingyeo (superfluity) humans. It is said like, “In the online world, many Yingyeo humans can be found.” Yingyeo humans live there, because they are useless and undervalued in the offline world. Thus, they migrate to the online world, where they spend a lot of time trying to get attain recognition by undertaking all sorts of useless acts (i.e. spending time to online games, online community activities, fandom activities, social networks services, or web surfing for no particular purposes).
The culture and concept of online Yingyeo spread quickly through broad-based online communities like DC Inside (dcincide.com) or social media platforms like Twitter (twitter.com). The definition of Yingyeo humans, who almost reside exclusively in the virtual world, seem to bring about synchronized sympathy and situational awareness among many of today’s youth in South Korea. Online Yingyeo became a symbolic term for youths of the post-crisis unemployment generation in South Korea, who are isolated from the offline world and spend time alone together in the online space.
For an ethnography of online Yingyeo, I place an importance on examining both the online and offline contexts that contributed to the emergence and expansion of Yingyeo culture. I couldn’t regard this digital phenomenon as something that is separated from the offline world, solely respecting internal dynamics of the online world. As seen in its general definition, online Yingyeo people are originally formed by external (offline) dynamics that make people feel bad about them and their situations.
The Yingyeo generation had to face situations of unemployment and underemployment after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. As the (male-centered) lifelong employment contract suddenly disappeared without any advance notice, South Korean society became panicked over the new socio-economic changes. For the post-crisis young adults in their 20s and 30s, the heteronormative and corporate model of salaryman and housewife — that had been prevalent and promoted during the industrialization era — has radically become something that is realistically unattainable, or even risky in case of loss of job or reduction of household income.
This foreign monetary crisis and the subsequent changes in employment patterns led to the emergence of unproductive and hopeless generations that don’t have stable jobs, a will or ability to get married or have children in traditional patterns. The elevated unemployed rate and the declined marriage rate have formed an implicit attitude in public discourses: Young people are unworthy and immoral (i.e. lazy, irresponsible) and that’s the reason that they do not have a stable job, secured income, or thriving future. In numerous youth discourses of both private and public spheres, the unstable futurity that is different from the past was regarded as the non-futurity and a subject of fear and anxiety.
What I have realized while doing my research on online Yingyeo culture since 2010, is that the online space acquires its unique importance in relation to the offline space. It does not mean that the online space is something that belongs to, or is secondary or additional to the offline world. Rather, it means that the online space can be more special when it functions as the outside of, or autonomous from, the offline. In other words, the special status or meaning of the online world tends to be created from its distance from the offline world. Online yingyeo world is somewhere you can stay and spend time forgetting the offline world.
The online world became a special arena for hopelessness in Yingyeo culture. Yingyeos are identified or proved by the duration of the time that they spent in the online world. Gamers can check how long they played, and online community members can see how often they upload postings and write replies. This digital immersion is regarded as the directionality toward the outside of the offline world. The Internet is somewhere Yingyeos can immerse themselves by forgetting about stresses or relations in the real world. On the web, it is full of admirable postings of Yingyeo acts that capably prove how one kills time consciously in a hopeless manner. For instance, someone boasts about the experience of counting the number of snacks in a snack pack. Or, someone shows off a work of sculpture that is made of stacked coins for no good.
In the online Yingyeo world, the unproductive time using of unproductive beings becomes the general pattern or even virtue. The collective time spending on the online world, in a specific manner, implies a kind of “structure of feeling” (Williams, 1954) that is formed among contemporary young Korean. This affect of online superfluity alludes to the impulse to have another space from the stressful offline world and to deal with mental hardships of having a stigmatized future, or no future. What the digital emotion of Yingyeo culture reflects is that Yingyeos share a commonality of no futurity.
Ernst Bloch argued, in his The Principle of Hope, that hopelessness dominates where there is nothing new to expect. Genuine hope is associated to the “What-has-not-yet-been,” although human beings tend to stick to the “What-has-been”, especially in a time of dismay or anxiety (Bloch, 1954). However, the “What-has-been” cannot exist forever and can be sometimes more illusionary than the “What-has-not-yet-been.” The stable future that was once provided by the corporate-centered and patriarchal family system during the industrial era is not sustainable anymore in South Korea. The future has vanished.
Aspiring for a stable future is seen as quite delusional in online Yingyeo culture. On the contrary, the no futurity becomes the common sense or condition with which Yingyeos have to live. Here lies the tacit, truthful claim of the online Yingyeo culture. Online Yingyeo humans are not hopeless or pathetic creatures. Instead, they can’t help but have no illusionary hope. It is not that they have no future, but the future is lost.
HyunJoo Mo is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her current research focuses on digital culture, youth, gender, temporality, and affect in South Korea.