Another Promise’s Digital Civic Network and Samsung
Ethan Zuckerman's Thin and Thick Engagement Framework
Another Promise, a South Korean film released in 2014, describes how a father seeks justice in the courts after his daughter has died of leukemia contracted at a Samsung semiconductor plant where unprotected workers were exposed to toxic chemicals. This is the first film in Korea cinema history funded entirely by crowdfunding and individual investments. Its success can be largely, although not entirely, attributed to digital media.
As in many other societies, digital media is changing the way people engage in civic life in Korea. Understanding these changes is challenging and may require new analytical tools. Zuckerman’s two-dimensional matrix, introduced in the web posting “Beyond the Crisis in Civics” (Available here), provides a useful framework for analyzing the complex phenomenon of civic engagement in the digital age. One axis of the matrix shifts from “thin” to “thick,” and the other from “symbolic” to “impactful.” On the first axis, “thin” activities include those of little commitment––such as signing a petition, clicking “Like” on Facebook pages, or retweeting Twitter mentions; “thick” activities require substantial commitment or action to find solutions—such as developing organizing strategies for a political campaign. On the second axis, “symbolic” engagement includes activities of “making voice,” the purpose of which is to show support, rather than make an immediate change. “Impactful” engagement on the other hand is directed towards concrete results such as policy changes. Among the four possible combinations, “thin and symbolic” engagement seems applicable initially to the new civic culture created by digital media, but it also can potentially lead to thick and impactful influences. The transition from the former to the latter is not automatic, however, because thin and symbolic phenomena are likely to be volatile and often remain in echo chambers in many situations. Another Promise’s digital civic network illustrates how a particular small voice leaped from “thin and symbolic” into “thick and impactful” influences against Samsung, which is often seen in Korea as almost invulnerable.
Phase 1: The First Stage of Crowdfunding and "Digital Flock"
In June 2005, Yun-Mi Hwang, then a 20-year-old woman, was diagnosed with acute leukemia 20 months after beginning work at one of the Samsung semiconductor plants. She died in 2007. Her father, Sang-Ki Hwang, soon began a long legal battle against the world’s largest electronics company, with the intention of proving that his daughter’s death was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at the plant. Yun-Mi was among the numerous victims beginning in the late 1990s whose deaths were allegedly from the same causes. Still, this event barely drew public attention; Samsung repeatedly denied that the work environment contributed to this fatal disease.
A newspaper article about Yun-Mi’s case inspired the film director Tae-Yun Kim to bring this issue to the screen. Soon after, the best filmmaking staff and crews in Korea volunteered to undertake the project pro bono. The filmmaking team, however, faced an unexpected financial issue resulting from major commercial investors’ abrupt retraction of their investments. This action was presumably due to their reluctance to be involved in a film that was critical of Samsung. The only funding option left for the filmmakers was crowdfunding—originally intended solely for marketing.
In November 2012, the filmmaking team launched a crowdfunding project using an online platform, Good Funding. Within one month, about $100,000 was gathered from approximately 2,000 people. Ki-Ho Yoon, the film’s producer, said that crowdfunding contributors of the first stage were a group of people who were actively informed and critical of various social issues, and who were already aware of the Samsung workers’ occupational diseases. Attracting the attention of a “digital flock” beyond this small and informed group was a challenge.
Video 2: The Teaser Trailer for Another Promise at the Official Webpage
Another Promise’s filmmaking team initiated a strategic movement to avoid digital echo chambers. In January 2013, Yoon launched an official webpage for a second crowdfunding effort called The Filmmaking Co-Op, as well launching a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The team hired a media specialist to facilitate not only communication and advertising, but also fundraising.
In February 2013, the filmmakers began to appear on well-known podcasting shows that critically examine controversial issues largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Nonetheless, these podcasting shows drew audiences who might have already participated in the first round of crowdfunding. Thus, these appearances were not as effective at developing support beyond the first “digital flock.” No connection had yet been made with the diverse public offline; promotion was still hovering around the second quadrant of “thin and symbolic.”
Phase II: Escaping Echo Chambers and Creating Thick and Impactful Changes
A breakthrough took place in April 2013 when the filmmakers appeared on one particular podcast show hosted by a hip-hop musician. Most of the audience were young fans of the hip-hop musician and not necessarily socially active or informed. After this appearance, however, the filmmakers received dramatically increasing public attention. It is believed that once the film became connected with a new audience, interest in the film snowballed and news readily spread across varied networks at an increasing rate. Over the next two months, roughly 7,000 more people donated about $1 million in exchange for cinema tickets or DVDs. The effect is evident in the list of donors at the end of the film credits. Donations continued after official production and distribution ended; 8,290 people made contributions as of June 2014.
This movement provided the funding needed for the production. More importantly, it succeeded in publicizing the issues that motivated the film’s story and helped form a strong and widespread digital civic network. Yoon made it clear, nevertheless, that such dramatic attention––what we see as “thick and impactful change”––did not automatically follow the appearance on the podcast show in and of itself. The show certainly brought the filmmakers the new audience they needed, but the main reason for the success was the film’s story. The controversial topic, which most people did not think could be treated publicly in Korean society, had broad appeal.
After production, the film successfully debuted in October 2013 at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) under the title Another Family (this title is a famous slogan in Samsung’s commercials and was altered to Another Promise before distribution to avoid potential legal action). Mainstream media, including television broadcasting as well as news and movie magazines, called attention to the film. It seemed that success, a tangible result of the film’s first substantial transition to “thick and impactful” change, was just around the corner.
Phase III: Unexpected Hindrance, Crowd-distribution, and New Participatory Culture
Although the film barely broke even financially (500,000 people watched it, short of the original target of 700,000), Yoon did not see the film as a failure, but saw it as confirming the possibility of change and promoting civic solidarity.
From the filmmaker’s perspective, the film was made by a civic network of 10,000 ordinary people, not just by the filmmaking team. Above all, without the Internet dramatically boosting the development of an active civic network, the film would not have come into existence at all. Yoon also stressed that the foundation of the film was in the long-standing offline activism surrounding Hwang (Yun-Mi’s father) and Sharp (a group organized by victims of the chip factories’ toxicity and their families). Another Promise was a tipping point for change, but the film would not have been nearly as successful without these earlier contributions.
Many of the meaningful accomplishments of Another Promise can be attributed to its use of digital media to change public opinion. The film’s most notable triumph was to break the stronghold of self-censorship and fear of Samsung’s influence. Indeed, what the Another Promise’s digital civic network fought against was not Samsung per se; rather, it was a fear of Samsung deeply entrenched in people’s minds.
Another Promise was not simply a film––it heralded a new phenomenon of digital activism and participatory culture in Korea. It shows how thin and symbolic actions can create a collective civic power that enables real change in the midst of institutionalized censorship in Korea during this digital age.
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