Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, February 2020
Watching People Study:
The Strange Internet Craze Gripping South Korea
SCMP, February 14, 2020
Study buddies: South Korean YouTubers take cram sessions to new level
With gongbang or ‘study broadcast’ videos, Korean students offer virtual partners in hitting the books The bizarre internet trend has caught on in the rest of the world, with one British gongbang YouTuber boasting 530,000 subscribers
Published: 2:00pm, 14 Feb, 2021
Post A screenshot from the popular gongbang video channel “The man sitting next to me”. Photo: YouTube The YouTube video zooms in on a South Korean girl studying at a table, intently focused on her assignment while accompanied by the stark sounds of turning pages and the scratching of pencil on paper. The video is part of a bizarre internet trend in South Korea called gongbang, or “study broadcast” – people broadcasting themselves studying in almost total silence for hours on end.
Many South Korean students study up to 16 hours a day to prepare for their gruelling college or university entrance examinations, and the video trend is believed to have started after a Korean student filmed himself poring over his schoolbooks so that his parents could see he was diligently preparing.
Now gongbang videos are proliferating, and have spread to other countries including the US, Japan, Britain and India. With titles like “Your study buddy has arrived” to “Med School Finals – Hard Work Will Pay Off”, the videos make other students who watch them feel like they are studying with someone – in other words, they are virtual study partners.
Viewership of the videos has shot up during the coronavirus pandemic , as online classes and learning have become the norm around the globe. Some viewers liken the ambience the videos provide to being in a library.
One of the most popular gongbang YouTube channels in South Korea is entitled “The man sitting next to me”, and features an anonymous male student whose aim is to become a tax accountant. He bills his channel as the “world’s first 24-hour live study broadcast”.
He live-streams himself studying at a desk, lined with books and with snowfall visible outside his window, and has 53,000 subscribers.
EXPORTING A TREND
In the United States, a popular gongbang YouTube channel called “The Strive to Fit”, with 406,000 subscribers, was started by a New York-based doctor named Jamie, who started her channel when she was in medical school. Since then, she has expanded to include videos on everything from skin care to what she carries in her backpack.
Young Indian professionals, who have long been enamoured with Korean trends, including K-pop and watching Korean TV serials and films, have of course taken to gongbang videos in droves.
“I follow a lot of gongbang videos and because of my medical profession I follow medical video blogs … for cardiology exams.” said Dr Pavitra Thamizharasan, 30, a consultant working at Global Hospitals Chennai, who must continually take and pass various medical classes to remain professionally certified.
In fact, for every medical specialty, there is a gongbang YouTube video.
“I feel mentally stronger when I watch these videos, because I feel that I am not the only one out there who has to study so much or is stressed with a pile of books to read,” Thamizharasan said. “Because of the pandemic, most of us are at home … and our usual hang-outs like cafes inaccessible, so it’s great to have this virtual support that makes you feel less lonely.”
Anuj Pachhel, a medical student in Nagpur, India, has a popular study blog containing YouTube videos, and has 170,000 subscribers. Shweta Mahajan, an Indian PhD student in the Netherlands, has 19,000 subscribers for her YouTube channel.
Gongbang streamers almost never connect with their audience. Some of the study videos don’t even reveal the identities of the student, like SN Log, which showcases the life of a student preparing for India’s civil service examination – a popular aspiration for many in India. Her videos – sometimes 10 hours long – focus on note taking, flipping pages and writing, without showing her face.
Ritika Suresh, 21, an engineering student based in Chennai, India, says that she follows a British YouTube gongbang channel run by Ruby Granger, which has 563,000 subscribers. Granger studies English literature at the University of Exeter and posts study videos that sometimes run up to 20 hours long.
“Why I love these videos is because it’s like another person is sharing your struggles and pain as a fellow student, and also find it motivating, because this other person is focused on studies and it pushes you to do your best and put in more effort.”
“Students in particular can struggle to motivate themselves and create the drive to study,” Dr. Kamna Chhibber, a psychologist at Fortis Healthcare in New Delhi, said in explaining the popularity of gongbang videos. “In this context, seeing peers study is encouraging and can shape their behaviour too, as it gives them the encouragement and push to work harder and realise their potential.”
Many of the videos have hundreds of comments by viewers, including “You helped me study and ease my exam anxiety”, and “You help me in being disciplined and committed.”
“Most of these [gongbang] YouTubers are not in it for viral fame or money, though they do make some because of advertising,” said Paresh Desai, an engineering student in Ahmedabad, India. “Some of them give their earnings to charities and nursing homes, as well as give gift cards to people who get good results studying with them. It’s more about helping other students focus on their studies.”
But others feel that these videos perpetuate the idea that a student is guaranteed success only if they study for long periods of time.
“Studying for up to 15 hours a day is unhealthy and not the only way to do it,” says Anita Rao, an engineering student in New Delhi.
“I sometimes use these videos as a background while I study, but don’t take their hours of study too seriously. I have my own pattern of study punctuated by some breaks, where I watch TV or go for a walk.”***
Kalpana Sunder is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India. She writes on travel, environment, gender, architecture, culture, lifestyle, food and fashion. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera and the National Geographic Traveler.
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