A brown tabby cat looks into the camera with a judgmental expression. Behind her and to the right, a laptop is open to the Dave's ESL Café website.
Phoenix and the computer (Eileen Cahill)

No offense, but …

Where Korea’s cyberbullies (and a few cool people) did their thing before the rise of social media.

Sometime around 2007, a woman I barely knew started a thread on a message board and addressed it to me. She made sure to tell me to fuck off in the subject line.

Another member of the same site sent me a private message with the subject line “I found your picture.” The attachment showed a naked woman on all fours, eating her own diarrhea as it was coming out.

Another sent me a butt plug and Vagisil. (These were “gifts” the site owner made available to members.) Accompanying messages included “Up your ass, baby!” and “This is for your other hole.”

Then a site administrator said he had my real name and personal information and hinted he was going to cause trouble for me at work.

That site thankfully seems to have been taken down.

Meanwhile, the Korea boards at Dave’s ESL Café are like a ghost town.

That’s where I was harassed for years. Site owner Dave Sperling and his “moderators” had endless tolerance for rude, vulgar, racist, misogynistic, hateful, insulting and idiotic messages. Officially, Sperling encouraged users to contact the mods with concerns, but I was punished for doing exactly that in 2006 in response to serious harassment and bullying.

In fact, I was banned three times for no reason at all.

In the beginning

In my early years in Korea, I was a pretty naive person.

I first registered on Dave’s in 2003 when I was teaching at a hagwon (private language school) and my pay was late — fortunately, that problem was solved before Dave Sperling approved my registration. Unfortunately, it left me with a silly username that pertained to a past situation. I kept lurking and didn’t post for another year and a half.

It was a shocking story about animal abuse that prompted me to reregister.

“My Korean boyfriend killed my dog,” read the subject line. The victim was a helpless Maltese who’d finally bitten the poster’s boyfriend after repeated teasing. The man had retaliated by throwing the tiny dog against a wall.

Of course most forum members were shocked and wanted the killer to be brought to justice. But many dismissed the possibility, saying, “This is Korea.” The killer’s ex-girlfriend decided not to go to the police.

At that time, Dave’s had two camps: the haters and the “apologists.” The haters dismissed the killing as typical Korean behavior — ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Koreans don’t find such conduct acceptable and it violates Korea’s Animal Protection Act. I countered their ignorant statements with links to the legislation and to the sites of several Korean animal protection groups.

I wanted to refute the haters’ bigoted assumptions. I also wanted to encourage the woman who’d posted — to show her the situation wasn’t hopeless, that with enough persistence she could get justice for the little dog. A successful prosecution wouldn’t bring him back, but it would send a strong message.

I couldn’t believe the reaction from the “apologists”: They uniformly shared all the haters’ negative assumptions about Korea! One person said Koreans who operated a shelter for homeless animals were “Westernized” and that their site must have been “hijacked.”

The conversation went back and forth, and every time this hateful individual would twist my words around and accuse me of everything from Korea bashing to insulting his mother. More bullies joined in, and the harassment spread to other conversations not related to animal rights.

The moderators sided with the harassers. No one ever stepped in to stop the attacks or acknowledge what was going on.

This was before terms like “gaslighting” and “sealioning” became everyday English words.

One time, a Dave’s mod responded to my concerns with a deliberate false accusation that was never withdrawn. There was never any public apology or acknowledgment by Sperling or any of his representatives that the moderator in question had acted in bad faith. Just an invitation to kiss the mods’ collective asses.

Yes, a mod really said that to me.

The troll attacks were bizarre because I’m the furthest thing from a Korea basher. I’ve had setbacks during my time here, but I’ve also had opportunities that I never would have had in Canada or anywhere else. I never thought I’d end up staying as long as I have, but I don’t want to bash the country.

Dave and his moderators, on the other hand? That’s a gang that deserves a good bashing.

Banned from the café

Years after the initial battle instigated by the death of that tiny Maltese, the usernames on Dave’s had changed but not the culture of the boards. Misogyny and gender-based harassment were still the rule, and victims were still punished for retaliating. Dave’s was still dominated by Korea bashers and by a weird brand of apologist that hated and feared Western women.

When a loosely organized group of volunteers threw a fundraiser to help a struggling dog shelter in 2008, they posted an open invitation on Dave’s. I had no intention of going — the fundraiser was in a bar, and I don’t like going to bars. I was going to send in a donation instead.

But one of my stalkers hijacked the thread, saying he’d be there watching to see if I showed up. I was pretty much forced to go to the bar just to prove I wasn’t afraid of him.

Animal abuse, as always, was a running joke on that site. When a crazed drunk threw a cat out of a highrise building in 2010, the Dave’s gang thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. When I tried to reply, I got a message informing me I’d been banned from the site.

I wrote to a mod known as “Mr. Kalgukshi” requesting an explanation, and he cited a complaint about the mods I’d made earlier in the week. That discussion was about violence against women, and the mods had allowed it to fill up with insults and victim blaming. And I knew the mods were reading because they deleted my comment while letting the inappropriate comments stand.

“Most members seem to appreciate both the site and the work of the Mod Teams,” Mr. Kalgukshi wrote back.

Can anyone really be that dense? I’ve lost count of the number of users who regularly referred to Dave’s as a cesspit and complained about moderators abusing their power. The place was notorious for bullying, and only Dave and his mods had their heads far enough up their own asses to deny that.

Mistaken identity

In any online space, there’s no way of knowing which posts are serious and which are the work of fictitious characters.
 On Dave’s, more often than not, things didn’t add up. Posts would disappear and reappear under different usernames. People would post inconsistent stories, or stories that sounded a little too familiar. Sometimes their writing patterns would give them away.

There was no policing. Each time we were left to speculate that maybe so-and-so had quietly gone away and reappeared as such-and-such. On the diarrhea-eating website — not Dave’s but one that served the same clientele — I thought I’d figured out who sent me Vagisil. I jokingly threatened to show up at a real-life event and tell his wife about his “gifts” to other women on the internet. This brought on more harassment, with the full backing of the owner and mods at that now-defunct site. 

That may have been a case of mistaken identity, but if so it wouldn’t exonerate the original suspect. All it would mean is that the two guys were friends and must have shared inappropriate confidences.

Now that the “community” is as good as dead, can I look back on it all and laugh?

Not really. Dave’s ESL, RIP? LOL.

Forces for good

The crowd on those sites wasn’t all bad. There were a few cool people there, like JongnoGuru. I never met him in real life, but I got to know him through his posts. He was funny without being mean-spirited or belittling, and I looked up to him as a writer. Once, he wrote me a supportive message when everyone else was bullying me.

In November 2009 I learned to my shock that JongnoGuru had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Everyone shared good memories of his presence on the boards, and no one had a bad word to say about him. Once in a while I still think of JongnoGuru when I see a motorcyclist risking life and limb on the streets of Seoul.

And there was Duncan from New Zealand, who joined Korean environmentalists at rallies to protect Korea’s remaining wilderness areas circa 2008. He posted a polite message on Dave’s ESL inviting other foreigners to come out and show their support for clean air and water. 

What a welcome he got from the old boys who controlled the site. Poor Duncan was repeatedly reprimanded for going “off topic,” so he edited his posts to make them more helpful to the typical Dave’s poster.

Regrettably, I think his funniest efforts got taken down.

Once, around the same time, there was a message from a Korean human rights group, reaching out to foreigners about the invasive medical testing requirements that affected most foreign English teachers at the time.

Don’t contact this person, the Dave’s rumormongers warned. The poster had a hidden agenda and represented an “anti-foreign group.” Bad things would happen to anyone who got involved in “politics” in Korea.

I always hoped to join a rally or connect with the human rights group to learn more about its work, but sadly I never followed up.

Still, I met some great animal advocates and vegan warriors through the site. Some of Dave’s long-term members were knowledgeable about world politics and social justice issues and used the site to educate others. One of the most active posters, a teacher from Canada, turned in a co-worker to Interpol and helped put him behind bars where he belonged. And there was Mithridates, an English-speaking Canadian who’d grown up monolingual but taught himself multiple languages as an adult. He’d isolated himself for a year or more in a cheap gosiwon room, studying Korean and refusing to use English. I can imagine isolating myself like that, but I can’t imagine having a laser focus on language and diligently taking steps to reach fluency.

To Duncan, JongnoGuru, Mith and others who were forces for good on the internet during those nasty and lawless years, thank you.  

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