Thor's Korea Diary
An Interview with Jeff Lebow
@ 4 January 2003
[Thor has been the Writings Manager for Pusanweb since February 2002]
For much of its recorded history Korea has been home to small expatriate communities, mostly from China, or Mongol territories, but also Japan. As conduits for external ideas and cultural practices, the influence of these foreigners over time has been considerable (it would make a fascinating study). Thus Koreans have always been aware that there are different cultures, though often as threats to be mollified, or in the last resort to be fought. However, since the new (South) Korea arose from the ashes of colonial Japanese occupation, an increasing tide of "different" foreigners has come to inhabit a niche in the landscape.
American military forces apart, these new incomers are essentially mercenaries invited and hired by the Koreans themselves. This is something new in the history of the peninsula. A significant number of these foreigners have come as English teachers from the West. They tend to be a laid-back, sometimes unruly group, though generally harmless. A few have married Korean women, and an increasing number are settling in for quite a long term stay. Korean is a difficult language to master, so it is not surprising that where foreigners gather, they have developed conduits for chattering in their own barbaric tongue (the English teachers especially). For them the Internet is truly a blessing. It was probably only a matter of time before English language web portals sprang up in South Korea to serve the needs of the country's current expatriate community. Prominent, even pre-eminent, amongst those English language portals is Pusanweb (www.pusanweb.com).
Pusanweb has done much to make the English speakers in Busan aware of themselves as a community, and to define their public identity. As important as this role is, Pusanweb also has some potential to be an English language window on the world through which others may gain some sense of Korea, and hopefully, some Koreans may find a voice to express themselves to the international community.
The interview which follows takes a close look at Pusanweb in its present form, makes a stab at guessing the what the future holds, and briefly traces the evolution of this important website. The story of Pusanweb is really the story of its architect, creator and guiding spirit, Jeff Lebow. Jeff comes disguised as an English teacher for one of Busan's universities, but his heart is, well his heart is Pusanweb. Here is the tale in his own words.
Preface from the Interviewee
When Thor first proposed the interview, I thought it would be a useful reflective activity, and that it was. Being the man of integrity that he is, Thor chose to present my answers verbatim, with all the 'ums', half sentences, and grammatical errors. Seeing my spoken word in print like this has given me a whole new sympathy for George W. Bush. In any event, I would like to thank Thor for taking the time to conduct and transcribe this interview. Any feedback for me can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. -Jeff
T: Jeff, the New Pusanweb is coming up to its first anniversary. What had you anticipated to achieve in this year?
J: I had anticipated .. well what happened is similar to what I had anticipated, just on a smaller scale. I had hoped for having other people manage most of the website. As it turns out, they manage portions of the website. Um, I wanted a new graphic structure, and that is pretty much where I thought it would be. .. Discussions were something that I wanted to develop technically and managerially, and both of those have proceeded pretty well. There are a few technical things that didn't come off quite as I had hoped, particularly the Yellow Pages .. and getting the Classifieds to be paid classifieds. But the larger question relates really to getting other people involved .. and .. slower progress than I had envisioned, but in the direction I had hoped.
T: Well, over that period, what do you think has worked best ?
J: What has worked best in terms of the different sections ? I would say that Discussions has been the most successful in terms of being managed by other people. I mean, there's somebody who manages Discussions and a team of moderators, and I've been able to step back from that. Especially since it was a huge drain on my time and my energy. Um, and I would follow that up closely with Writings. I have been thoroughly delighted not to have to convert e-mails and Word documents to Writings, and deal with writer's comments, ... and to [have someone] bring some life and fresh perspective to that, and to ... even the quotes that go along with the Writings, I feel, add more value to the site. When something goes up and there's a little quote ... I feel like the Writings section ... even though there was a bit of a lull mid-year ... I feel like its a friendlier environment than it was... and a huge easing of my workload.
As far as what has worked well in terms of getting people involved, the big meeting that I had in March or February (2002) was a success in some ways. I got a few people involved, but failed in other ways in that a lot of that energy, momentum, drifted away. I wasn't able to provide concrete enough tasks or organization to tap into it. And I didn't quite figure out what do with the people who were willing to follow through. I wasn't really comfortable with assigning them much responsibility. So next time around I'm looking to provide more concrete structure to the kind of help needed, and go into it with some managers in place, so they would make some key decisions.
T: Hmm, what hasn't worked so well then ?
J: In terms of specific sections ... Links ! Links is really weak and needs to be tweaked a lot. There's a lot of other kind of information gaps on the site. Um, the whole management system that I'd envisioned .... I'd envisaged five or six section managers, each of whom would oversee a team of sub-managers, or whatever. And that never really got off the ground, as those key five or six people never appeared. So the next step needs to be taken with those people lined up. I think I'm halfway there. I'm closer than I was a year ago, but I'm not there yet. In general decentralization did not work as well as I had hoped. Because those managers weren't found, I was still spending too much time on micro tasks and grunt work to evolve the site in a more macro way, and develop other sections and stuff.
T: Have there been any real surprises ?
J: In the past year, not really because I've been through this before and had a set of goals .. they weren't quite expectations. I've learned that things never quite unfold the way I'd like them to and think they're going to. I'm still shocked that not everybody has their own webcasting station and their own computer ... Back in the early days when I was still discovering the wonders of webcasting, I thought "my god, this is ... everyone is going to have their own global TV show by the year 2000!" So that was surprising ... but this past year .. not really surprised.
T: What do you see as the audience segment for Pusanweb, and how do you expect that to change, if you think it will change at all ?
J: Well certainly the biggest slice of the pie is English teachers. I think the Korean audience has grown slightly. There is an awareness amongst parts of the English speaking Korean community. And the non-teaching expat community ... I think they're aware of it. I don't think they tune in as regularly as the [teaching] expats. But you know ... I should say kind of .. the Western expats. Non-Western expats, I'm not sure how tuned in to Pusanweb they are. What I'd like to see change is .. really tap more into a Korean audience -- the English learning audience and the English speaking audience. And so we need to give them a reason to visit. Right now it's not a very Korean-friendly site. So that's a significant portion of the next year's goals.
T: Do you have any explicit ideas about how you might actually make that contact with English-speaking Korean audiences ?
J: I'm not sure I'd use the word 'explicit' yet. I'd choose 'percolating' ideas. But, uh, the quickest and easiest is a Korean discussion forum, which is now technically supported and wasn't a year ago. All we really need to find to make that happen is a Korean moderator. And I think ... I'll be happy when that's happening. And, um, providing Korean language information, I don't think is such a significant factor. That already exists on other sites and I don't think a Korean is going to come to Pusanweb to find out about Jalgachi. They're coming to find out about the foreign perspective. So in line with the Korean discussions, producing ... this one is particularly non-explicit ... producing round-table discussions, or some kind of presentation .. text or audio or video .. addressing the issues concerning conflict between expats and Koreans. That's one segment of the pie.
Another huge one is teaching materials. I would like ... a huge part of our audience is teachers. If we give them something they can use in their classrooms that heightens awareness for the students and is of genuine interest ... There is such a craving amongst our students to have contact with foreigners ... "what do foreigners think about this?" ..and "I want to say this to foreigners" ... If we can tap into that and provide an educational utility that .. uh, that's a whole new pie ..
T: Most large information gateways, like Pusanweb, are either sponsored by governments or are into serious marketing in some way. Pusanweb runs on your own sweat and the work of a few volunteers. Do you expect the commercial component of Pusanweb to increase much, and if so, in what direction ?
J: I do, and I should have mentioned that as a success -- what's gone well this year. Not, well, in a big way, but I achieved legal commercialization, and I paid the bills. Nominally for the entire year, Pusanweb lost a small sum, as opposed to losing much more heavily in previous years. Since we started legally accepting advertising in May 2002, we're up a small amount. It's not big money. It's not enough to pay people anywhere near enough what they're worth or deserve, but at least token compensation is being provided to some managers. So that's a step in the right direction, a small step. I think we've got marketability.
But I don't think Pusanweb is ever going to make anyone rich. I don't think I can retire on [the proceeds of] Pusanweb. But I think we can head in the direction of providing more decent compensation for the people who do the work.
I think that developing the educational content is where the money is... It's a little bit separate from Pusanweb. I don't see that educational stuff as being "Pusanweb educational stuff". It would probably be Worldbridges' or Koreabridge's educational content, but using the Pusanweb audience to help launch it.
T: Pusanweb keeps you pretty busy on top of a day job. It's always hard to get skilled volunteer help that's in for the long haul. You can get, you know, a day's help or something, but long term it's difficult. What sections of Pusanweb could be really developed with the right kind of long term volunteer help, or some other kind of help?
J: My first thought is.. every section! You know, different sections require different levels of technical know-how and long term commitment. Links ... if someone spent a month tuning up Links it could be a much better section. Um, Culture ... I've gotten some great texts for Culture this year, and haven't put any photos or videos or anything together for that.
And for me, Multimedia ... and I'm not even sure if its marketability is so important. I don't know how vital it is to the bottom line of Pusanweb. But as far as what I really enjoy doing ... I put it up and I say "alright, I'm doing my thing" -- it's the multimedia. The Asian Games stuff ... it wasn't the greatest multimedia in the world but I had fun, and I feel like that's some of the uniqueness of Pusanweb. ... So I'd like to have a Cooking Show, and I'd like to have Saturday Night Virtually Live (???) and other kinds of creative multimedia. And the talent is out there. The production teams need to be put together. There are enough people with cameras, and enough people who will be here long enough, and are willing to put in the time to figure out how to do it. Hopefully [we'll] take a step ... just having one or two production teams would make a difference, because I don't get around to doing that nearly as often as I'd like to.
I'd really like to have someone oversee the Guides, the Living section. That needs to be presented in a better fashion and maintained. Writings is pretty much perfect. Photos ... Photos have been much too dormant this year. That's one of the most visited sections when it's happening, so .. And... every section.. is the short answer.
T: OK, maybe you've partly answered this too, but you probably have a wish list. Well, let's be a bit more realistic than that -- an expectation list -- for the rest of 2003. What's your hope or plan?
J: Well, I hope to be able to answer that more clearly in a month. Last year, taking my month off and enjoying my hammock time was invaluable for me to get my batteries recharged and think about stuff ... but also before I left I put up the note, "The Curtain's Falling" .. and everything .. and got a lot of feedback and encouragement. That was helpful. Before I go this time I'd like to put up .. not quite a call for help, but a .. I guess a "Help Wanted", but a more specific kind of "Help Wanted", and an open call for suggestions and ideas .. and then kind of process that and begin having meetings in February with new talent. I have to say up there [is a request] for Pusanweb to get three or four people who are responsible for managing significant portions of the site. Yeah, I mean, to take the next step, that has to happen.
Um, making progress in finding managers, making progress in commercialization, beginning the educational content process -- and I know that's going to take longer than I'd like, but it's time to make some progress with that, like one educational module that I envision by September -- that's an expectation.
T: How does your wife feel about competing with a website for your attention?
J: We've come to terms with it. It's been a healthy process for me personally, and been a factor in Pusanweb's development. Had I not been married, I'd still be spending pretty well every minute on Pusanweb. Maybe more would get done, but I think burnout would happen more seriously and my mental health would not be as sound. And my wife is very busy. She's working all day, Monday through Friday, and half the day Saturday, ... and likely to get up late on Sundays, so um, I have enough time to do what I need to do. Maybe I've learned to be a little more efficient, when I know that I can't stay up 'till four every night, so I need to get my stuff done by twelve. It's ... been a positive thing. I mean, sometimes it'd be nice to stay up a little later or spend more time on it, but overall I'd say it has provided more balance .. which is a key factor in my overall development plan. I work hard, but I'm not a workaholic. And I don't ..I'd much rather, you know, be on my deathbed saying "you know, I enjoyed the process and created something that's decent" .. than "well, I met all of my expectations with the site, and made lots of money" .. and .. it's a journey ... not necessarily Pusanweb, but this web stuff is my art. It's my creative thing, and so as long as it's growing and evolving, and I'm enjoying it, and I'm having a nice life, that's cool.
T: Do you ever expect Pusanweb, or something like it, to become a full-time job?
J: I don't know if I'd say "expect". I think it's a little dangerous to expect that. But I'd like to work towards that. I mean, I'd like to earn a living in a way that I enjoy and feel that I'm doing something good with. I certainly think there's potential in it. If I was an MBA kind of guy, I think I'd already be doing it. I mean, I think this is a very marketable place to be doing international web projects in, especially educational web-related projects. So sure, it's definitely possible, and I'd like to evolve in that direction. But I'm keeping the day job for now.
T: Let's take a step back. Not everybody knows Jeff Lebow's history, so a lot of people probably wonder how you got interested in this game and where it all began..
J: How much tape do you have, ha ha .. It actually started in 1997. I had a Korean friend who was opening up an internet cafe -- and this is before there were PC bangs or anything -- and at the same time, someone had shown me how you can use Netscape to make a web page in Composer. So I thought, "well why don't I make a site to help promote his internet cafe ?" Then I thought, "well there's just no information in English about Pusan, so I'll try to put something together." So I started in March of 1997, and I had Movie Listings .. and not much else ... but I thought the Movie Listings were very cool. That got about ten visitors a day, most of them my friends, for the first four or five months. I went back to the States that summer to attend my parents' renewal of their vows, and bought them a little Casio digital camera. I started using it, fell in love with it, and bought my own when got back ..
I started taking pictures when I went out on a Saturday night, and putting them up on the website. That took the site to a whole new level. I discovered that narcissism is a major tool for websites. It grew from there, and that Fall I discovered how easy it was to put audio and video online. My old Masters project of Worldbridges came back to me in the form of developing this multimedia, home-grown educational network. I had grand visions and expectations. I went to the Nagano Olympics and produced stuff there... I was planning on launching the empire and quitting my job ... and very quickly got burned out by everything being so disorganized and underplanned, and having no idea what I was doing.
I ended up quitting my job, and putting Pusanweb on ice for six or eight months. I gave the big project a go, but it never got far off the ground .. but I had a nice six or eight months. Then I came back to Korea and restarted Pusanweb, and struggled for two years to figure out how to make it a commercial entity, at the end of which I was once again burned out and thinking about dropping the whole thing.
That was last year, when the baby was reborn.
* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals, unless stated otherwise.