By Lee Youkyung
SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- A controversy is boiling in South Korea over the role of social networking services (SNS) following a series of incidents that have highlighted the seamy side of the instant, constantly connected communications tool.
South Koreans, who enjoy widely available broadband Internet and 3G mobile networks, have joined the worldwide social networking boom with millions using Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. that facilitate an instant spread of information at an unprecedentedly cheap cost.
Riding on the smartphone craze, the number of SNS users has risen at a breakneck speed in South Korea. Socialbakers puts local Facebook users at 3.6 million, compared to 2.1 million six months ago. OikoLab estimates Korean Twitter users at 3.8 million.
As the uncharted territory unfolds rapidly, however, SNS has spawned voices of criticism over its unforeseen ramifications and self-reflection among the world's most avid Internet users.
Earlier this week, Song Ji-seon, a popular sports channel host, jumped to her death from the building of her studio apartment just a few days after her online account of a relationship with a famed baseball player was accidentally made public.
The account, which the 30-year-old TV celebrity denied having written herself, spun out of control when it was made public on the Cyworld SNS site and quickly swirled around other platforms.
The post prompted many fans of the pitcher Lim Tae-hoon, who denied having a relationship with Song, to lash out at her. Many considered that Song was a victim of malicious cyberbullying, sparking debate as to whether SNS is to blame for her death.
The incident shows how the instant nature of SNS, which can be a powerful tool for a positive change, makes it also impossible to be undone, experts say.
"(SNS) helps you keep in touch with everyone and improve ways of communication," said Naveen Selvadurai, a co-founder of Foursquare Labs Inc., which offers social networking service based on locations. "What better thing can technology do than help us communicate better?"
"People should just be more aware of where these things end up. People should think it through before putting the data out," said the co-founder of Foursquare.
Some could have benefited from heeding such advice. Park Yong-mo, a member of the ruling Grand National Party's advisory committee offered to resign after he cussed at an actress on Twitter.
His swear word, directed at actress Kim Yeo-jin who called former president Chun Doo-hwan a slaughterer on her Twitter account, was screen-captured and spread online. Park deleted his Twitter account and apologized for his foul remarks -- except to the actress.
While there are movements from the government and legislators to introduce new bills to curve cyberbullying and protect privacy rights, others worry that those moves may run against the freedom of speech on the popular communications tool.
Earlier this month, the country's regulating agency blocked Web access to one Twitter account (@2MB18nomA) deeming that it contained harmful content.
The Twitter ID, which imitates the sounds of cursing at president Lee Myung-bak, was found to violate a communications law that bans excessive cursing, according to an official at Korea Communications Standards Commission.
"As we get bigger and more people are expressing themselves and connecting online, society will start expressing itself through those tools," said Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, an SNS platform. "It's a big challenge but something that we should strive to achieve for a better society."
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