Fan activism, cybervigilantism, and Othering mechanisms in K-pop fandom

Sun Jung

National University of Singapore, Singapore

[0.1] Abstract—Korean popular music (K-pop) fandom may serve as a case study to identify both cynical and utopian views of fans' participatory Net activism by addressing three key aspects: fan activism, cybervigilantism, and Othering mechanisms. Fancom (fan company) in the K-pop scene refers to the way fans systematically manage their own stars. These notions of assertive fancom practices address how fans actively participate in sociocultural events such as fund raising, donating to charity, and volunteering in emergency situations. This management may take another turn, however: antifandom surrounds K-pop star Tablo, signifying cybervigilantism of sinsang teolgi (personal information theft), a term referring to the online activities of a group of netizens who seek to expose the personal details of perceived wrongdoers by publishing them online as a form of punishment. The Tablo case revitalized public concern over privacy and the security of personal information in the digital era. Finally, Othering mechanisms in participatory online K-pop fandom display a strong sense of nationalism and even racism, as demonstrated by responses to anti-Korean rhetoric posted on the MySpace page of K-pop idol Jae-Beom. This highlights the relationship between participatory Net activism and nationalistic sentiment active within K-pop fandom. Some K-pop fan practices may have negative connotations, but by engaging with specific civic issues and social events, participatory fan practices encourage people to interact, discuss, and challenge conventional discourses, which may lead to new forms of social action.

[0.2] Keywords—Antifandom; Fancom; Jae-Beom; JYJ; Korean popular culture; Tablo; TVXQ

Jung, Sun. 2012. "Fan Activism, Cybervigilantism, and Othering Mechanisms in K-pop Fandom." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On June 10 and 11, 2011, SM Town Live in Paris was held at the Le Zénith de Paris concert hall in France. Five Korean popular music, or K-pop, bands from the SM Entertainment stable—TVXQ, SNSD, Super Junior, f(x), and SHINee—held their first concert in a European city and attracted more than 14,000 fans from across Europe. Initially, SM scheduled only one show on June 10. When the tickets to the first concert sold out in 15 minutes, hundreds of French fans performed a flash mob dance outside the Louvre Museum in protest, and SM soon announced a second concert. New media technologies drove fan-based Net activism via fan pages on Facebook and K-pop channels on YouTube, mobilizing fellow fans and promoting the event. The success of the French fans' protest for the SM Town Live in Paris concerts indicates the power of participatory online fandom in the K-pop realm. This example also demonstrates how new media technologies enable efficient communications within the Net-activist movements of fans, which can influence industry decision making. As such, participatory fan activism is a visible aspect of K-pop.

[1.2] In the realm of K-pop, Net activism is also evident from the ways in which the fan groups participate in sociocultural events such as fund-raising, donating to charity, volunteering in emergency situations (such as the Tae-an oil spill in 2007 and the Indonesian tsunami in 2004), and protesting media reform laws and media entertainment policies to protect the rights of young artists. This is not a phenomenon specific to K-pop alone, as demonstrated by the fan activism surrounding Western artists such as Lady Gaga and her relationship to gay rights, and U2's role in antipoverty campaigns. However, in the case of K-pop fan activism, the fans, not the stars, initiate fund-raising and charity events; fans donate the money raised under the name of their chosen stars. Fans practice such activities not only for local charities, but also as a way of promoting their stars. Each K-pop fan group thus functions more like an informal promotion company (note 1). Although there are certainly Western instances of music fandom where a similar bottom-up fan activism may be identified (for example, Tori Amos's fan community often mobilizes around issues surrounding sexual violence), in K-pop, this is the norm rather than the exception. K-pop fandom offers an example that uniquely emphasizes the fan groups' initiatives, as well as their active and collective involvement in online activities, the result of the nation's high Internet usage.

[1.3] According to Cisco's annual Visual Networking Index, published on June 1, 2011, in terms of Internet traffic, South Korea consumes 33 gigabytes per month per person, which is three times higher than France (11 gigabytes), which is in second place (Economist 2011). Extremely high rates of Web user participation are the driving force behind Net activism within K-pop fandom. In the case of idol group fandom, the fan base is assertive and devoted; further, it functions as a collective whole, and via these coordinated movements, it supports the current popularity of K-pop in Korea and beyond. Idol music and stars are the most crucial elements of current K-pop, and idol fandom is contradictorily immersed in the chosen stars. Some fans demonstrate hostile attitudes to any deviation from their vision of their favorite stars; they are dedicated solely to "protecting their stars themselves no matter what" (Kim 2011b). Cultural critic Kim Jak-Ga contends that the power structure of idol fandom can be as authoritarian as that of political groups, and that fan community leaders are privileged, wielding certain special powers, such as the ability to communicate with their chosen idol directly (2011b). On the basis of the accumulated rules and customs within a strict power structure, K-pop fans can collectively act in their star's interests. Fans now hold enormous potential to influence the decision-making processes within the entertainment industries, and digital convergence technology explicitly drives this participatory fandom.

[1.4] This emerging phenomenon is best supported by Henry Jenkins's notion of fan activism in the era of digital convergence (1992, 2006). Avid fans often participate in various fan-related activities, contributing to help to keep programs on the air, films at the box office, and celebrities in the news. More active fans have even had an impact on the outcome of television series and film because ultimately they have power as a consumer force (Jenkins 1992). Fans have become more aware of what goes into the decision-making process in cultural productions such as soap operas, and the Internet has greatly affected the way fan feedback has been managed within soaps (Scardaville 2005, 884). Within the Web 2.0 environment, fan activism is becoming a key method of expressing grievances within popular culture fandom (Earl and Kimport 2009, 220), and fans believe that speaking as a group amplifies their voices (Scardaville 2005, 889).

[1.5] It is important to note, however, that participatory fan activism does not always necessarily have a positive impact. Many complex aspects of fans' collective Net activism are present, as exemplified by online K-pop fandom. Their contradictory participatory activities can influence decision-making processes and create multiple narratives. K-pop fandom represents shifts in Web-based communication paradigms in the global cultural industry regime. Three aspects of participatory K-pop fandom are found online: fan activism, cybervigilantism, and Othering mechanisms.

2. Fancom: Fan activism

[2.1] Online fandom often represents a bottom-up participatory culture, enabling the transition to a more fluid, affective, and democratic media industry environment. Yet it also shows the ways in which fans are not always open-minded about knowledge that the Internet provides about their beloved cult object. As an anonymous mob armored in sometimes willful ignorance, they can be as oppressive as corporate media. Some critics and commentators have coined the term fancom to describe this new form of assertive bottom-up fan activity in the K-pop realm. The term, a shortened version of "fan company" (Im 2007; Kim 2010), demonstrates how fans now consider their stars to be subjects whom they keenly manage and systematically guide, which is different from the preexisting notion of fandom that emphasizes the ways in which fans adore and worship their stars. It is now a common practice for fan groups to circulate press releases about their star's recent activities, such as a new album release or movie launch.

[2.2] Fans also often conduct charity activities by using their star's name. A Japanese fan community for U-Know Yunho (a member of the idol boy band TVXQ) donated ₩10 million (US$8,700) under his name to an orphanage in Kwangju, Korea. When U-Know Yunho took a role in the musical Goong, his fan groups from various countries also sent rice sack (known as Dreame, literally "dream rice") mock-ups to congratulate him on his musical theater debut instead of sending standing wreaths (figure 1). Later, 3.15 tons of rice were sent to various welfare facilities in the country in his name (Choi 2010). It is now a common practice among K-pop fans to send Dreame mock-ups to show their support for their stars rather than sending flowers. This activity has become a representative form of fan activism in K-pop fandom; once largely driven by consumer desires, fan culture has become socially aware. Many types of fandom now concentrate on public welfare and social issues in Korea. These newly emerging fancom practices are driven by concerns and needs directly linked to the social welfare realm, and they reflect how some fandom-led campaigns transform Internet cultures, making attempts to bring netiquette and a broader social civility to Internet culture at least partly successful. The fast-growing online fan community environment and its connectedness enhance such fan activism.

Figure 1. Dreame mock-ups in front of the venue of the musical Goong. [View larger image.]

[2.3] Some fan communities are more efficient and well connected than others in regard to practicing fancom activities. For instance, in 2007, K-pop singer and actor Rain's multinational fandom produced a promotional poster for his film, I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK. Fans flew to the Berlin International Film Festival, where Rain was a guest, and distributed the posters to the international media as well as to general audiences in Berlin (Im 2007). The dynamic collaboration system behind such promotion is established among fans with professional careers, such as Web designers and magazine editors. Many of these belong to the 30-plus age bracket (often called "aunty [imo] fans"), who are able to shoulder the financial burdens (Im 2007; Kim 2011c). Another driving force is advanced new media technologies, which allow fans to be both consumers and producers, thus fulfilling Alvin Toffler's (1980) prediction about the rise of prosumers and Henry Jenkins's (2006) notion of convergence culture. Rain's international fandoms also often organize charity events. For example, on May 6, 2008, Rain's Singapore fan club held a charity gala premiere of Speed Racer, his Hollywood debut film. The fans raised and donated US$2,500 to the Singapore Disability Sports Council in Rain's name, demonstrating fan collective sociocultural awareness.

[2.4] Participatory fan activism is also visible in the ways in which fans have intervened with the business decisions of their stars' management companies, even influencing the shift of the media environment. The most notable example is the way in which TVXQ fans collectively and professionally reacted to the group's disbandment. On July 31, 2009, three members of TVXQ—Hero Jaejoong, Micky Yoochun, and Xiah Junsu—filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment, their management company since their debut in 2004 (note 2). The three had applied for provisional disposition of their 13-year contract with SM, saying it was too long and unfair, to which the court ruled in partial favor, stating that SM could not interfere with their individual activities. This led to an immediate halt of their activities as a five-man band in Korea, and a halt a few months later in Japan. The three then formed a new group called JYJ. After giving a series of sold-out concerts in Japan (including a Tokyo Dome concert in June 2010), JYJ made their US debut, produced by prominent US musicians Kanye West and Timbaland. Meanwhile, SM countersued the three singers in mid-April 2010 in a lawsuit worth US$2.2 million in damages for the agency and for the two remaining members (U-Know Yunho and Max Changmin). About 2 years later, the now two-man TVXQ released their new album Why? (Keep Your Head Down)—a move that implied the official split of TVXQ. Crucially, it was not only TVXQ who split up, but also their fans, who were now divided as well. As outraged fans of both TVXQ and JYJ mobilized, they actively participated in simultaneously protecting and promoting their preferred stars, driven by the rivalry between them.

[2.5] The participatory fan practices of these two fan communities clearly demonstrate how fan activism stimulates the both positive and negative effects of creating balanced Web-based communications in the cultural industry regime. The key function of TVXQ fandom is to maintain the existing fandom by supporting the remaining two members and acknowledging this reformed two-man band as the complete TVXQ. In doing so, the priority has been to protect the two remaining members from rumors about their supposed betrayal of the other three members, as well as from suggestions that they received preferential treatment by SM for doing so. TVXQ fans have argued that the real reason for the split was the greed of the three members who left the band: "JYJ attempted to exploit the fame of TVXQ to promote a questionable-quality cosmetics company which JYJ themselves had invested in" (see and Similar quotations appear across numerous Web sites, including DC Inside and Daum. Through in-depth analysis of various documents such as reviews of court hearings and interview clips of the members in the past, TVXQ fandom has tried to prove how JYJ left the band because SM did not authorize a deal they had made with a cosmetics company. Their collective fan activism is evident from the fan blogs and Web community forums, which were filled with archival databases in which fans created massive catalogs of multimedia audiovisual files to document the case. Fans also analyzed court judgments, and they even created a Web dictionary to explain newly coined terms related to the case. The fans' participatory analysis has added an extra dimension to the case.

[2.6] JYJ fandom demonstrates the power of fan activism more explicitly. Emphasizing the significance of "emotional attachments and passions" of fans in fan cultures, Jason Sperb highlights how these attachments become especially crucial "when dealing with politically charged texts" (2010, 29). Because the JYJ fans understand the case through the political framework of unbalanced conflicts between a gigantic media conglomerate and powerless artists, their attachments to and passions for JYJ have become even stronger. According to Earl and Kimport (2009), as fans become more active and outspoken, fan protests are becoming an increasingly common way to express grievances, leading fans to ardently adopt protest tactics when they have concerns that they want to express. By examining how the four institutionalized tactical forms—petitions, boycotts, letter writing, and e-mail campaigns—are used in the realm of fan activism, they argue that these political protest methods cross the boundaries of traditional political discourses and now allow pop culture fans to make claims and to affect decision-making processes (Earl and Kimport 2009). JYJ fandom also used these institutionalized protest methods by, for example, boycotting SM products. JYJ fans engage in three distinctive strategies of activism: online petitions, a bus advertising campaign, and Internet TV.

[2.7] As soon as the JYJ members filed the lawsuit, many JYJ fandoms, both inside and outside Korea, formed a group called People Who Are Against SM's Unlawful Contract. The group circulated a petition online that addressed how the 13-year contract was unfair and against human rights laws—an argument that other TVXQ fan groups had not adopted. They submitted a petition containing signatures of over 121,000 fans both on- and off-line to various governmental and nongovernmental bodies, including the Seoul Central District Court, the Fair Trade Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Korea Consumer Agency (Kim 2009a, 2009b, 2009c). The petition reignited the ongoing debate over so-called slave contracts in the K-pop industry, which drew huge media attention to the conflict; most media outlets used the term "slave contract" in their headlines (Jeon 2010; Khan 2010; Park 2009; Segye 2009; SBS News 2010; MBC News 2010; VOP 2010). When the Seoul central district court ruled in favor of JYJ on October 27, 2009, with the partial acceptance of the exclusive contract suspension request submitted by the trio, the progressive online newspaper Oh My News reported, "It is a victory for fandom" (Kim 2009c). From the beginning of the lawsuit, SM stressed that public focus on slave contracts or human rights was not the issue; instead, the case centered on a breach of confidence due to JYJ's financial involvement with the cosmetics business. TVXQ fandom expressed disappointment, particularly regarding progressive media reports that portrayed the trio as representatives of the working class. These fans argued that the claims were in fact absurd, as JYJ left TVXQ for no other reason than greed, even though they had already earned a tremendous amount of money. In any case, the JYJ petition has become a significant milestone in the K-pop history as many K-pop entertainment companies, including SM, as a result of the court order, had to modify their exclusive contracts, including long-term contract periods, the penalties for breach of contract, and unilateral decisions on schedules.

[2.8] Another progressive media outlet, Sisain, reported, "JYJ have struggled since leaving SM Entertainment, as the latter wields enormous power within the industry," questioning whether SM blocked the trio's TV appearances (Ko 2011). Likewise, JYJ fandom accused SM of blocking the trio's ability to pursue their careers in both Korea and Japan, and such beliefs inspired them to wield their collective power. They organized direct mailings to mainstream broadcasting companies, and they circulated countless online petitions to save JYJ. A leading progressive newspaper, the Hankyoreh, reported this as "aunty fans' counterattack against the cruel entertainment authority" (Kim 2011c). In order to promote their stars by themselves, fans planned and carried out a bus advertising campaign from January 27 to February 26, 2011. A total of 120 buses carried a supportive message for JYJ that read, "We Support Your Youth" (figure 2). Over 11 days (January 14–24, 2011) of fund-raising, 9,817 fans collected more than ₩158 million (US$141,000), including international donations. It has been reported that the financially stable aunty fandom at its center enabled such a costly campaign (Kim 2011b). The JYJ bus project, which was followed by a second advertisement campaign in the Seoul subway stations from March 7 to April 6, 2011, opened up the new era of K-pop fancom where fan activism became more assertive, more efficient, and larger in scale.

Figure 2. A bus with a JYJ advertisement campaign message. [View larger image.]

[2.9] This fan activism reached its apex with the launch of an Internet broadcasting service wholly dedicated to JYJ. On March 4, 2011, JYJ fans launched the Internet TV site ( to promote JYJ's releases and activities. The site moderators first started an online café (that is, an Internet forum) at Naver, an influential portal Web site in Korea that launched its café service in 2003. There they translated JYJ news into Japanese, Chinese, and English, and uploaded and shared JYJ videos and other media content. They soon launched the first fan-operated Internet broadcasting service in the Korean media industry, which demonstrates how grassroots media and fandom can now wield power as great as that of the mainstream corporate media. Upon its launch, many progressive media outlets, including Sisain and the Hankyoreh, highlighted how fandom had created a direct communication channel between artists and audiences by way of fighting against the so-called tyranny of the corporate power. The second day after its launch, broadcast a video clip of many celebrities sending their congratulations. Ironically, this included the right-wing politician Jeon Yeo-Ok, known for her strong stance against social minorities such as women, members of the working class, and those with limited educational backgrounds. Many fans criticized the inclusion of this controversial political figure, and the moderators of the Web site soon posted an apology on their site and then stopped the entire service.

[2.10] This incident reignited debates surrounding the progressive media's discussion of JYJ's slave contract lawsuit case, in which they created a distinct dichotomy between JYJ as poor artists and SM as a tyrannical entertainment corporation. In an interview with the Hankyoreh, the leader of JYJ Internet TV stated, "This JYJ case reminded me of the 1980s, the era when we were fighting for democracy." She then added that the trio helped her to reconnect to the spirit of seeking freedom, justice, and human rights (quoted in Kim 2011c). Similar articles suggest that vigorous fan activism has, with the help of progressive media outlets, assisted in the creation of JYJ's new image as democratic activists who supposedly represent a neglected and marginalized group. After Jeon's interview aired online, however, Web users on various online forums reinvigorated discussions about the absurdity of promoting JYJ through the politically powerful images of progressive democratic activists (note 3). Some Internet users have suggested that the power of obsessive fandom fabricated false activist identities around JYJ, resulting in a bizarre scenario where fandom itself rerepresented JYJ as a marginalized group. To highlight this point, one user posted two paradoxical news articles, one containing an interview with a fan saying, "To help JYJ who are suffering from the financial struggle, I often go to Yoochun's mother's ice cream shop to give them some business" (Kim 2011b), and the other describing how Yoochun bought his brother a US$120,000 BMW to congratulate him on his acting debut (Kim 2011a).

[2.11] The continuing lawsuit between SM and JYJ is mirrored by their fans' participatory Net activism, which promotes and protects their stars (both TVXQ and JYJ), and which is becoming increasingly dynamic and innovative. The assertive Net activism of JYJ fandom began a new era of participatory fan culture in Korea and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it also shows an unavoidable limit: blind fan activism, which often focuses on the ostensible phenomenon only, can create a mythical binary of the good "us" and the evil "them" while ignoring the ambiguity that could be derived from the insertion of political and capitalist variables. An important question thus arises: is JYJ fan activism really revolutionary bottom-up Net activism, or is this carefully designed and manipulated top-down training? (note 4). The rivalry between TVXQ and JYJ fan communities and their interactive fan activism represent the ways that fans' Net activist practices can create multidimensional Web-based communications, which can be contradictory. Yet such interactions can eventually allow heterogeneous perspectives in the realm of Korean popular culture.

3. Sinsang teolgi: Cybervigilantism

[3.1] Fan culture has been criticized for what some media culture critics deem to be the Internet's tendency to encourage obsessive behavior, even paranoia. Such negative connotations of Net activism often manifest through Web users' collective vigilantism. One of the most notable examples is the notorious Ok Taec-Yeon blood letter case. In November 2009, a teenager posted an image of a love letter that she had written in her menstrual blood to a member of idol boy band 2PM on DC Inside. The note reads, "Ok Taec-Yeon, you can't live without me" (Son 2009) (note 5). When netizens expressed doubt about the veracity of her extreme behavior, the girl uploaded another photo as proof: a bloody pair of panties. After the posts appeared, Korea's netizen detectives rushed to expose the identity of this fan. Within a matter of hours, angry Internet users (exhibiting a collective will to discipline this fan's transgressive expression of desire) had located her home page on the social networking site Cyworld, which they publicized, inviting others to add vicious comments. The fan offered a hasty apology, particularly to fellow 2PM fans and the pop idol himself, and stated that she had not meant to garner such controversy: she was not a stalker but rather a self-confessed obsessive fan. Oktaekyeon saengri hyeolseo (Ok Taec-Yeon menstrual blood love letter) became the most searched term for a few days on Naver, a Korean portal Web site. As the deluge of hateful remarks continued, the fan threatened her attackers with a lawsuit.

[3.2] There were several blood-related copycat cases in the following months, and each time, fellow fans and netizens discovered and publicized the posters' personal information online. By using simple clues like e-mail IDs, netizen detectives worked together to expose perceived wrongdoers to publicly punish them on the Web in a practice known as sinsang teolgi (personal information theft). DC Inside ( in particular has become a notorious mecca of sinsang teolgi. DC Inside is much like the controversial English-language image board site 4chan ( both have been closely linked to Internet subcultural movements and Net activisms, and both have been responsible for the formation and popularization of a number of Internet memes. The controversial hacking group Anonymous finds their roots in 4chan, and many of their activities have received great media attention, including Operation Avenge Assange, where the group took credit for attacks on Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal after these bodies severed business ties with Wikileaks. Anonymous can be understood from a Korean perspective as pyein, and DC Inside members have appropriated the term, whose literal meaning refers to an invalid or to an individual whose failures have left him or her dejected. But in Korean Internet culture more broadly, pyein refers to those who are enthusiastic (sometimes to an obsessive degree) with particular cultural products or phenomena (Lee 2005, 311) (note 6). Some highly skilled pyein can reportedly uncover crucial data about a target within minutes; they are respected as gosu (masters) by their fellow payeins. The connectivity inherent to social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter has made these practices easier than ever before, as Web users can pilfer more detailed and sensitive personal data via advanced search tools. Analyzing the practices of the Korean digital generation within the framework of a society composed of munhwa bujok (cultural tribes), Lee Dong-Yeon emphasizes how DC Inside has emerged as a new cultural phenomenon leading Net activism (2005, 70). As displayed on DC Inside, pyein culture shows the possibility of empowering grassroots media-driven Net activism by encouraging users to participate in various sociopolitical campaigns, such as public protests about the Iraq war and the movement against the impeachment of South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun in 2004 (Lee 2005). Indeed, although the DC Inside community evinces progressive characteristics, the appropriation of the term pyein highlights ambiguities: media and cultural critics have chastised the DC Inside community for inappropriate and obsessive Internet use, which is often exemplified by collective online vigilantism.

[3.3] Cheong and Gong examine the recent Chinese cybervigilantism phenomenon renrou sousuo (human flesh search) to investigate "how emerging media have been appropriated for online searches to hunt for personal information about social deviants to restore public morality" (2010, 2). Their findings suggest that the identification of corrupt officials and circulation of their private data online amplified attention on their abuse of power and pressured the authorities toward greater accountability. Although they emphasize the ways in which cybervigilantism reinvigorates legal justice or public morality, they ignore how cybervigilantism can also actively violate basic privacy rights. One example is the Kim Bu-Seon sex scandal in Korea. Actress Kim Bu-Seon confessed to having sex with an unidentified married lawyer turned politician who was the same age as her immediately after the 2007 presidential election. In the report, the actress said she decided to come forward about the matter because she felt unduly manipulated by him, alleging that "he was using his power to harass her" (Lee 2010c). On the basis of the information given in the story, netizen detectives on DC Inside were able to identify a politician and posted his personal details on various Web sites, and they requested a public apology from the politician. Kim Bu-Seon soon said that he was not the politician she had had an affair with, but netizen detectives' vigilantism continued. Pyein culture's vigilantism, inherent in sinsang teolgi, has triggered debates concerning new media communication and privacy issues.

[3.4] The case of the K-pop artist Tablo presents a concrete example of how sinsang teolgi is used for antifandom. Korean Canadian Daniel Lee, who goes by the stage name Tablo, is the leader of popular hip-hop group Epik High. Tablo has become popular not only because of his musical talent, but also because of his educational background: he received undergraduate and MA degrees with excellent grades in three and a half years at Stanford. Soon, suspicious netizen detectives created debate over the legitimacy of his impressive educational credentials. Netizen detectives claimed to uncover flaws in his story, arguing that the academic transcripts that he released to prove his attendance at an elite university were fabricated, and they responded repeatedly to Tablo's attempts to confirm the truth with charges of cover-up and conspiracy. In October 2010, a police probe concluded that Tablo's academic credentials were indeed authentic, and 14 of those who had posted defamatory comments were referred to prosecutors on libel charges.

[3.5] This incident has become a model case of antifandom in the K-pop scene. Antifandom, according to Jonathan Gray, is "the realm not necessarily of those who are against fandom per se, but of those who strongly dislike a given text or genre, considering it inane, stupid, morally bankrupt and/or aesthetic drivel" (2003, 70). Tablo's antifandom is somewhat different from the usual antifandom in the popular culture realm. Lee Dong-Yeon has stated that Tablo's antifandom reacts not against his musical talents and tastes, but seeks ethical honesty and justice from both him and society in general (2010a). The antifandom movement originated in several postings on DC Inside's Epik High gallery (community), where the probability of Tablo's impressive academic achievements was questioned. Responding to those accusations, many gallery pyeins began posting audiovisual evidence that appeared to clash with Tablo's claim. For instance, there are many video clips posted where Tablo says, "I was teaching English for one year in Korea," with some netizens arguing that the period overlaps the time he was supposed to be studying at Stanford. In May 2010, some of those antifans launched an Internet community called We Request the Truth from Tablo (Tajinyo). By using every possible channel and tool, Tajinyo members practiced thorough sinsang teolgi of Tablo. His life was placed under a microscope, and the smallest biographical details faced close public scrutiny. When considering fandom research as studying interactions that occur between text and audience, the antifandom concerning Tablo and the minute details of his life online warrants critical attention because his entire life became the text to be analyzed, from his high school photos to his Twitter comments. As the investigation continued, the initial controversy surrounding his educational background expanded and encompassed equally important issues, such as nationality laundering (a term widely used in Korea to describe the practice of changing nationalities for any unlawful reason), financial corruption, military service evasion, and accusations of plagiarism. Some members even inferred a connection to an international cartel of academic certificate brokers. The official members of Tajinyo reached up to 180,000, and some antifans created YouTube channels and promoted their beliefs through various fan-made videos (note 7).

Video 1. Anti-Tablo channel on YouTube, TheSurgeryFevers (

Video 2. Anti-Tablo channel on YouTube, Thagoora.

[3.6] On October 8, 2010, MBC, one of the three major broadcasting services in Korea, broadcast a program called Tablo Goes to Stanford. The producer, Jeong Seong-Hoo, stated that they made the program from a neutral position to discover whether Tablo had graduated from Stanford, and to consider why the current online anti-Tablo movement was problematic (quoted in Lee 2010b). Despite her claim, many netizens questioned whether it focused too closely on the negative aspects of Internet culture and Net activism. One netizen wrote, "MBC, from a biased subjective perspective, portrayed the majority of netizens as stupid blind maniacs." Another netizen said, "The program shows no intention to deliver Tajinyo's point of view and even from the beginning it started from their pre-established conclusion which is that this bunch of netizens are religious fanatics" (note 8). Son Gyeong-Jae, a professor at Kyung Hee University, stated, "It is not the Internet, but the people who misuse it that are problematic…Thus we need structural and contextual approaches and interpretations to understand such a social phenomenon" (quoted in Im 2010).

[3.7] What is the particular social context in Korea that drives such a phenomenon? At the core of the Tablo case lies Korea's notorious academic elitism. Chang Si-Gi, a professor at Dongguk University, has stated that Korea's modern education system (which is rooted in the American system) is heavily driven by ranking (of both students and universities), and eventually turns people into slaves of power and capital (2011). Korea's academic elitism hands graduates of prestigious universities the best opportunities, regardless of actual ability. Those from prestigious foreign universities in particular can enjoy special attention, and Tablo has benefited from these biases. At almost every media event, his Stanford master's degree was mentioned in tones of awe and praise. His academic background enabled him to gain more recognition compared to artists who have similar skills and talents. Antifans therefore often argue that "because of his lies, many talented artists have suffered. By emphasizing his prestigious university background, Tablo snatched the potential opportunities of other artists who are more talented than him" ( This rationale only highlights the reality of Korean society, where such excessive academic elitism is ardently practiced and broadly encouraged, particularly in the media.

[3.8] Another contextual factor is the widely spread distrust of governmental authorities, including the police and the prosecution as well as media authorities. Unusually for K-pop fandoms, 70 percent of the members of Tajinyo are over 30. As the backbone of society, they are the generation that, on the basis of their established social experiences, attempts to maintain justice when facing social problems (Lee 2010a). Their antifandom thus reflects their desire to uphold social justice, as they do not trust social authorities. According to psychiatrist Lee Hong-Shik, "As we can see from the example of the Cheonanham report, people have a profound mistrust of the government, and the Tablo case suggests that such a lack of faith is a widespread tendency in this society" (quoted in Baek 2010) (note 9). It has also been claimed that some of these celebrity fake-diploma scandals (like the Shin Jeong-Ah case) may have stimulated collective mistrust in the public (Baek 2010).

[3.9] Tablo's antifandom reflects not only the dark side of Net activism, but also the dark side of Korean society itself. Although the original Tajinyo has disappeared, there are various new Web communities where thousands of netizens continue to look for the truth of the Tablo case, and where they also demand clarification on many other sociopolitical issues (note 10). Starting from obsessed cybervigilantism, this antifandom went through a process of clashing and merging with different opinions from many citizens and media, until it finally expanded its concerns to embrace wider sociopolitical issues. This transition should be understood not as an aberration of religious-style fanaticism, but as an ongoing negotiation between social injustice and Net activism. The second and the third Tajinyos signify the ways in which Net activism—whether such activism is considered positively or negatively—continuously creates different opinions and concerns through which citizens can interact directly with sociopolitical representatives. Computer-mediated communications allow these citizens to easily express grievances that may be due to the biased sociopolitical system. Through assertive fan (or antifan) activist movements, fans create new modes of Web communication channels that can easily reach not only the industry, but also politics itself.

4. "Korea is gay": Othering mechanisms

[4.1] Online K-pop fandom often demonstrates Othering mechanisms of online participatory Net activism through displays of a strong sense of nationalism and even racism. The Othering mechanisms refer to the ways that certain online user activities—often represented by some extreme K-pop fan practices—can demonstrate nationalistic sentiments embedded in Korean society more broadly. Such nationalistic activities typify the negative aspects of Net activism within the K-pop realm. For example, in January 2011, a netizen posted a petition to eject all Chinese idol stars currently working in Korea. This act was criticized by a majority of netizens in the same community, and the petition was soon canceled.

[4.2] The Tablo antifandom also pertains to these Othering mechanisms. Along with the education certificate controversy, the nationality-laundering and military service evasion accusations are also significant issues in the Tablo case. Some antifans argue that Tablo laundered his nationality and obtained Canadian citizenship to avoid serving in the Korean the military. On March 10, 2011, a news article appeared on Naver entitled "Tablo, After Education Controversy, Now Preparing Comeback?" (Kim 2011d). Within a few hours, the article attracted more than a hundred netizen responses, many of which suggested that "a Canadian should go back to his own country." A netizen remarked, "Even though he hasn't done anything illegal, what he has done and is doing is morally corrupt because he enjoys all the rights making a lot of money in this country and still evades serving the army which is the key national duty that all Korean men should do." According to the conscription policy in Korea, all able-bodied men are required to serve a mandatory 21 months of military service. Because issues related to serving military duty are always sensitive in Korea (especially among young men), those who try to avoid military service are harshly criticized (note 11). Korean-descent celebrities who hold foreign citizenship are often at the center of fierce discussion, and Jae-Beom (former leader of idol boy band 2PM) is one of them. Holding foreign citizenship is a double-edged sword in the Korean entertainment industry; as a result of the exotic image of "the foreigner," it often allows an express path to becoming a star, but it can be turned into a dangerous label that is also "foreign" at any moment.

[4.3] In September 2009, Jae-Beom's MySpace controversy swept Korea, which was triggered by his statement that "Korea is gay…I hate Koreans." The word gay is often used in the United States (primarily by adolescents) to defile and degrade someone, and it has a negative connotation demonstrating a homophobic assumption that "gay is bad." The Korean media and other netizens responded passionately, generating news articles and blog postings that included many criticisms of Jae-Beom's arrogant "American" behaviors. According to PD Note (an influential current affairs program in Korea), more than 760 on- and off-line news articles were produced in the first 4 days, and as a result, only 4 days after the comments were first revealed, Jae-Beom left the group and flew back to his hometown of Seattle in the United States (cited in Hong 2009). Of the 760 articles, 330 were intensively published in the 6 hours between the announcement of his leaving and his actual departure (Hong 2009). There were various fan activities on- and off-line asking Jae-Beom to come back. Fans from all over the world made and uploaded a series of flash mob videos on YouTube; they put up a sky banner saying, "J. What Time Is It Now?" above his house in Seattle; and some even placed newspaper ads (figure 3). Consequently, 9 months later, he returned to the K-pop scene. Social media–empowered international fandom enabled his comeback, as cultural critic Kang Myeong-Seok remarked: "YouTube was a bridge between Jae-Beom and his fans" (cited in Ko 2010). Although he has come back, this incident revealed how participatory Net activism can create a fiercely nationalistic sentiment that easily reinforces Othering mechanisms in the K-pop realm. It is ironic that both social media and online participatory Net activism were behind both ousting him from the country and supporting his comeback.

Video 3. "For 2PM–1:59 Time Stop Flash Mob" by Malaysia Hottest (2009).

Figure 3. Ad that "Missy USA Hottest," 2PM's Korean American fan group, released to Korean American community newspapers requesting Jae-Beom's comeback. [View larger image.]

[4.4] Jae-Beom was strategically included in the group mainly because of his transcultural Korean American identity, which is now a common practice in the Korean entertainment industry to target the global market (Jung 2011, 78). Such practices reflect the transcultural cosmopolitan desires of the industry, which are concerned with the transgression of boundaries and markers between the familiar "I" and strange "Others" (Stevenson 2003, 5). However, instead of transgressing cultural boundaries, the practices are often in the mode of simply Othering, exoticizing, or even fetishizing such transcultural pop products. A clear example of this is the way in which the local media highlighted Jae-Beom's foreignness while repeatedly focusing on his English-language ability and his cultural origin as a B-boy (break-dancer) from Seattle. In many television game shows, the hosts have often randomly asked him to speak English as a sort of parlor trick, while other guests look on admiringly. His speaking English is considered a special skill in the K-pop industry, stemming from Korea's obsession with English-language education (note 12). Like Tablo's "Stanford grad" label, his "Seattle B-boy" label and his fluent English-language skills enabled him to gain relatively higher recognition than other idol wannabes. He has addressed this fact himself, noting that "everyone thinks i'm like the illest rapper wen i suck nuts at rappin…so dass pretty dope…haha" (from his MySpace comments, at Despite his rapping ability, which he said "sucked," he could still become a popular idol, maybe because of his extra talent: speaking fluent English. In other words, his ostensibly superior (stemming from his foreignness) yet fetishized transcultural identity has been constructed by Korea's popular industry system within its English-crazed sociocultural contextual environment.

[4.5] The MySpace controversy articulates a different, yet just as deeply embedded, method of Othering as it marginalized him as an arrogant American who mocked the entire Korean nation. This sudden shift shows how a strategically constructed transcultural identity, largely driven by the industry's globalization desires, can easily be deconstructed by fiercely nationalistic Net activism. This deconstruction demonstrates clear Othering mechanisms. It is significant to note when and how the positive foreignness of Jae-Beom turned to a negative strange Otherness. As soon as he said "Korea is gay," he located himself outside the circle of uri nara saram (literally, "our country's people"). Normally, Koreans like to use the term "our" instead of "my." For example, uri eomma (our mom) is said instead of nae eomma (my mom), even where there are no other siblings. The Korean people's sense of collectivism is already a well-known national characteristic and is often discussed around a discourse of "we-ness." In this sense, by using the term Korea instead of uri nara (our country), ironically, Jae-Beom has Othered his fellow Koreans first; he has become Othered while he has Othered Korea. From that moment, his American identity overpowered his Korean one, and he became an arrogant American boy who, from the perspective of Korean netizens, was backbiting uri nara and uri nara saram. Ever since the incident occurred, I have often speculated whether Korean netizens would have been as angry if he had said, "Uri nara is gay" instead of "Korea is gay."

[4.6] Jae-Beom is still a target for blunt nationalistic online comments from netizens, such as "serve the army" or "go back to your country." Netizens, especially young men, are disturbed by the ways in which celebrities seem to be exploiting all the benefits of being Koreans (such as earning a lot of money in the K-pop industry) while claiming a foreign identity to avoid fulfilling their national duties. Ironically, the highly praised and strategically promoted transnational attributes of K-pop idols can be shifted to disturbing attributes that represent a hypocritical double standard. The Jae-Beom case demonstrates that rapid shifts can be mobilized by the Othering mechanisms of Net activism, and that this Net activism is largely contradictory. There is also a strong sense of collectivism active within both the nation and the Net-activist movements themselves that propels such contradictory Net practices.

[4.7] This contradiction can be identified as stemming from the fact that it was the fans' Net-participation-empowered action itself that facilitated Jae-Beom's return. While in Seattle, Jae-Beom posted a video clip of himself performing B.o.B.'s hit American pop song, "Nothing on You," and within a day, the clip attracted over 2 million hits. Various online fan communities from across the world collectively and systematically worked together to boost the hit count to make Jae-Beom popular online. Other clips of Jae-Beom performing B-boy dance moves with his crew have also gained popularity on YouTube. Certainly the effectiveness of the participatory fan activist practices cannot be doubted: it was soon after these videos gained attention on YouTube that many multinational media outlets were able to identify both Jae-Beom's popularity and his commercial potential. Sidus HQ, one of the major entertainment companies in Korea, launched negotiations on the basis of this online fandom, thus marking Jae-Beom's return to the industry. While the Othering mechanisms may indicate a largely negative, even blindly nationalistic, aspect of Net activism, such conflicting participatory fan interactions can influence the decision-making processes and potential outcomes of the cultural industry itself. These can be both positive and negative, and are fundamentally diverse. In K-pop, Net activism can therefore be understood as a continuous negotiation between contradictory views and concerns, where fans' participatory interactions can potentially lead to new forms of social action that can enable contradictory yet more democratic Net communications.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] As a result of the rapidly increasing diffusion of digital technology at a mass level, there have been various modes of planning and coordinating sociopolitical activities at the organizational, institutional, and individual levels. The Internet forms a participatory Web space, "free from centralised control with intrinsically empowering characteristics—costless, space-less, timeless," and such a decentralized mass communication environment reinforces people's participation in decision making (Gibson, Rommele, and Ward 2004, 1). Case studies in K-pop the domain center around fan activism, cybervigilantism, and Othering mechanisms to demonstrate the contradictory characteristics of fan activity that may influence both the positive and negative decision-making processes of consumers and the K-pop industry as a whole. Such contradictions reflect the complex sociocultural contextual circumstances of Korea, in which participatory Net activism enables unique Web-based interactions and communications, and eventually creates diverse voices and opinions around the Korean cultural entertainment realm. Although K-pop fans' online activities often create a nuisance, they also engender meaningful and deliberative conversation across different societal groups and enable the construction of multiple perspectives.

[5.2] This is visible in recent events and K-pop fans' responses to them. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific Ocean near northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, causing widespread damage to the entire nation. Soon after the earthquake, a TVXQ fan gallery on a major news portal, Daum, started a thread to suggest collecting aid for the earthquake victims in Japan. One fan posted, "They have given so much wonderful support to TVXQ so far. I want us to give the support back to them." This simple thread had the potential to spark a significant social movement. Although some online fan practices may have negative connotations, by engaging with specific civic issues and social events, participatory fan activism encourages people to interact, discuss, and challenge conventional discourses. These interactions may lead to new forms of social action that enable a complex and continuing negotiation between social injustice and Net activism. As is evident from these case studies, digital technology–empowered fan activism has become a key force in producing and circulating not only media content, but also public opinion. Popular culture fandom may have once been in the margins of the media industry and in society's shadows more generally, but the emergence of digital technology has allowed it to rise as a key player in the industry and as a constructive social agent in Korean society and elsewhere.

6. Acknowledgment

[6.1] This work was supported by a postdoctoral research fellowship at the School of Communication and the Arts at Victoria University.

7. Notes

1. There is a Western counterpart to these informal promotion companies. Street teams are a promotional tool often used by entertainment companies and record labels to promote new albums and artists. The street team members often consist of fans of artists. Unlike in K-pop fandom, fans involved in street teams are usually hired and organized by media entertainment companies.

2. Since their 2004 debut, TVXQ (discovered and managed by SM) has arguably been one of the most successful K-pop acts in Asia, with reportedly the largest fan base (over 800,000) in the world. Enjoying great success in the Japanese music industry in particular, they became the first foreign artist to top the Oricon singles charts six times and placed their single and album simultaneously within the top three slots of Oricon's singles and albums chart—the first time a foreign artist had done so in 15 years.

3. See discussions on MLBPARK, a major league baseball community forum (; and 82 Cook, a lifestyle community forum (

4. In K-pop fandom in Korea, the word joryeonhada (train) is widely used to refer to the way the stars attract or captivate their fans through certain behaviors and activities.

5. For additional details and the image of the letter, see

6. Pyein is similar to the Japanese notion of otaku.

7. There were quite a few anti-Tablo channels on YouTube. However, after the police announcement in October 2010 (which ruled in favor of Tablo), most of them disappeared. One of the few channels still operating is TheSurgeryFevers (

8. These comments are netizen responses attached to Park (2010).

9. On March 26, 2010, the Cheonanham, a South Korean navy ship carrying 104 personnel, sank off the country's west coast, killing 46 seamen. A South Korean–led investigation carried out by a team of international experts presented a summary of its investigation on May 20, 2010, concluding that a North Korean torpedo fired by a midget submarine had sunk the warship. North Korea denied that it was responsible for the sinking. A survey conducted in September 2010 noted that "only 32% of Korean citizens believe the government's report" (cited in Jo 2010).

10. A few of the main ones are the Republic of Korea We Want (, the Society We Respect (, and the Society Netizens Respect (

11. A Korean American singer, Steve Yoo (Yoo Seung-Jun), repeatedly said on Korean television that he would fulfill his military duty as a healthy Korean man. However, in 2002, just before he was to be drafted, he became a naturalized US citizen. As a result, thousands of angry Korean netizens formed a furious antifandom and circulated petitions to deport him. The Korean government considered his action an act of desertion and deported him to the United States, permanently banning him from entering Korea.

12. See Park and Abelmann (2004); Lee and Koo (2006); Shim and Park (2008).

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