Gongbang: your virtual study buddy
South Koreans are orderly. They obey laws, offer things with both hands, avoid eye contact, work hard, believe the number 4 is unlucky, and have small dogs. That is a fairly typical collection of national characteristics, in the same way that the British are obsessed with class, drink too much tea and alcohol, and say ‘sorry’ all the time. But the Korean approach to internet culture is fast becoming a new national characteristic. They have one of the world’s fastest broadband infrastructures, which makes online life pretty zippy. South Koreans spend virtually their entire lives online in one form or another. And that ubiquity of the Web has led to some bizarre trends.
In around 2010 the West first wrinkled its nose at the Korean phenomenon of mukbang – people eating food in front of the camera in live streams. Why this is popular is a topic perhaps best left to the wilder reaches of sociology, but theories include vicarious eating for those on diets, easing loneliness, and getting some kind of kick out of the slurping and munching sounds. Mukbang, which translates as ‘eatcast’, has since gone global.
It seems that in Korea, the internet is not so much a tool or service that you use as an ambient window, an always-on part of the backdrop to everyday life. This is further demonstrated in an educational context by the phenomenon of gongbang: the live streaming or webcasting of oneself engrossed in study, often for hours on end and usually with a clock in the background to give credence to the ‘liveness’ of the cast.
First reported in 2018, but likely to have been going on for years before that, gongbang roughly translates as ‘study broadcast’. It consists of many hours of unedited footage of people at computers and/or piles of books, studying either in silence or with background music. Here is an example.
While on the surface it seems rather odd, those familiar with gongbang swear by it as serving three purposes:
- Putting yourself on camera motivates you (and others) to study
- It combats loneliness
- It shows your parents that you are working hard.
Just like mukbang, gongbang has escaped its Korean origins and gone global. Here, for example, is Study Vibes, the YouTube channel of a Belgian girl called Heleen who films herself learning every day for up to 10 hours. Each video has the tagline ‘Study with Me’ and starts with a brief spoken introduction and some motivational words. There then follows 4 to 10 hours of unedited studying.
The comments on Heleen’s YouTube channel are from other students and constitute a forum on all things study, and frequent thanks for her assistance in keeping them focused. It’s a study community, a virtual silence-shrouded library, a place to concentrate. It’s actually very wholesome, and gives a much-needed sense of solidarity between students as they sit studying, separated by space but not (in the case of live streams) time.