Proximity in the Digital Age
New Rooms, New Connections

In times of social distancing, digital rooms allow proximity where physical contact is not possible.
In times of social distancing, digital rooms allow proximity where physical contact is not possible. | Photo (detail): © Keun Young Lee

In 2020, as measures to contain the corona virus dominated social life, many people began to connect even more online. In an interview Dr Doo-Hun Choi, professor of journalism and broadcasting at Konkuk University in Seoul, speaks about the development of digital rooms in South Korea.

By Minjee Kum

Since the pandemic, activities in the digital realm have increased. To which extend might that be the case?

Prof Dr Doo-Hun Choi: In 2020, the South Korean Press Foundation asked 1,000 men and women about changes in daily life caused by COVID-19. 70.3 per cent stated that their use of media increased and that this was the biggest change in their daily lives. And 78.9 per cent answered that they used their mobile phone more, that is, for over-the-top media services - services that provide content online without an internet service provider retaining control over it – with 65.5 per cent and web portals like Daum or Naver with 63.7 per cent, as well as social media like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok (43.7 per cent). Furthermore, 72.2 per cent said that they kept track of the news in more detail, mostly to be informed about the pandemic through news portals (79.5 per cent), which they trusted with 71.2 per cent.

While people withstood the pandemic, they started to communicate mainly online. Have people drifted apart even though they keep in touch online?

Prof Dr Doo-Hun Choi: That is hard to say. The audio based social network app Clubhouse, for example, has gained a lot of popularity in South Korea. Since the pandemic, chances to engage in small talk have decreased, so Clubhouse was able to satisfy this need to some extent. It is also very fascinating to South Koreans to be able to have conversations with famous enterprises or celebrities. The audio platform Spoon Radio became especially popular within South Korea’s millennials. Such new experiences may be able to move online communication into a more intimate direction.

How do you think did the use of social media help people to cope with the restrictions during the pandemic? 

Prof Dr Doo-Hun Choi: I think, that the positive role that social media plays in the pandemic, deserves much more attention. In fact, information about the pandemic that is helpful for keeping it at bay, has spread thanks to users of Facebook and other online communities, which leads to a kind of a collective intelligence. Furthermore, I noted that people learnt through social media to understand the difficulties and unease of others that is caused by isolation, and so helped to sooth it to a certain degree. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all OECD countries - 23.5 out of 100,000 people in 2021. Also, in a study that I conducted about the influence of social media use on the attitude towards suicide, the result was that the more actively someone engages in social media, the happier he or she is. People feel less socially isolated and tend to have a more negative attitude towards suicide. Though it is necessary to keep social distance because of the pandemic, it helps to maintain communication in the digital realm.

What do you think about the so called “infodemic” phenomenon, in which fake news spread like an infectious disease in social networks?

Prof Dr Doo-Hun Choi: Of course we see this phenomenon in South Korea as well that false information is spread very quickly through social media. However, in my experience, many users try to do a fact check on information and news about the corona pandemic to see if it is true and hereby try to limit the spread of an “infodemic”, which is an active approach against fake news.

At the same time it is also the responsibility of governments and municipalities to quickly publish official information and share it with the people. For example, Daegu, a metropolitan city in South Korea, corrected false information about data on tracking infected people via Instagram. As always it depends on the users‘ efforts how useful social networks as tools can be.

What efforts do we have to make to be able to connect with each other in the future?

Prof Dr Doo-Hun Choi: Since the pandemic, metaverse, a collective virtual space, has emerged, which provides new room for communication. From now on, we will witness the birth and extinction of new rooms. When it becomes possible through algorithms to only connect with those who are similar to us, discrimination and conflicts could increase. In order to avoid this, users must develop tolerance and reflection, so that they can accept opinions different from their own.

Besides that, social classes that are excluded from the use of digital media, for example older people with a deficit of media literacy or those who do not have the financial resources, must be provided with economic and technological support. In order for everyone to be able to communicate freely and equally in digital rooms, we should continue to try to do so. Continuous effort has to be made, so that everyone can freely and fairly communicate in the digital realm. If we succeed, we will live in an age with ever new platforms that allow new connections and with which we can communicate independently of time and space.  



Doo-Hun Choi is professor of journalism and broadcasting at Konkuk University. At Wisconsin-Madison University in the USA, he earned his doctorate degree (PhD in mass communication). His focus of interest is the role, that digital media plays in society and he currently researches about health communication.