Thesis ID: CBB234764226

Heterogeneous Navigating Through Platform Expansionisms/Protectionisms: The Sociotechnical Construction of Naver, 2000-2019 (2023)


This dissertation is a sociotechnical study of a South Korean search engine company Naver Corp’s expansion in domestic and international research, engineering, and business from August 2000 to late 2019. While non-U. S. and not-Chinese platform and tech companies have had domestic and regional impacts, their technological system buildings have been disproportionately less analyzed. We can’t simply extrapolate inwardly or ‘scale down’ the methodologies used to study the U.S. American or Chinese “Big Tech” into the non-U.S. and not-Chinese platform companies’ cases not just because Naver’s expansions have been being intervened by, but barely intervening, those of Google and other more influential corporate entities. It is also because Naver has been struggling gaining advantages and reputation out of far less resources and employed protectionist schemes like preventing its user-generated content from being collected by Google, which in turn causing domestic users to often complain about Naver in relation to Google on an equal footing. This research argues that Naver's multi-aspect expansion can be best understood as the “heterogeneous navigating,” by which I mean an expansion project is a function of conflicts, negotiations, and civil contestations between the expanders and hostile or indifferent external heterogeneous entities, including technical, cultural, social, and Infrastructural. I propose this notion of the heterogeneous navigating as a pluralizing and diversifying revision of a classical STS notion to symmetrically explain technical system building, what John Law called the “heterogeneous engineering,” which may insinuate to take aggressive expansionist as an analysts’ for-granted toolbox. My new concept extends its implications to the decolonization of global digital world order. Based upon those research methods, to delineate this modest expansionist’s trajectory, this research tackles and addresses five research questions: First, transpacific technoscientific origins: how did Naver become capable of conducting research and development? I argue that Naver’s research-conducting capability originated as its core research team had shifted from “informatics of the oppressed” (information science research for low-resource and underserved mass people, conducted by public/not-for-profit funding) to “informatics of the ordinary” (information science research for Internet users’ a low-to-high quality information, conducted in the form of corporate research). Second, domestic legitimacy: how did Naver come to win domestic approval of its locked-in content-generation-to-search ecosystem to which many publics had disliked? I argue that Naver won the favor of the Korean public, to many of whom Naver’s search and content ecosystem in Korean had been deemed notoriously protective and exclusionary and Naver did so because it made successfully convincing two claims that it inherited earlier sociotechnical imaginaries: one from modern Korean business history, and another from pre-modern-up-to-date Korean cultural heritage history. Third, infrastructural expansion: how did Naver expand its physical and business infrastructures? How did it succeed in reviving infrastructure scalability projects that had been stuck? My argument is twofold. First, I argue that central to Naver’s infrastructure scalability and expansion projects and particularly to Naver and the outsourcing contractors on trial in multiple courts in the Republic of Korea was that the Korean courts denied fraudulent claims made by infrastructure outsourcing contractors about the ownership of the technological arrangement. Second, I also argue that an extensive form of preparatory agency of Naver can endure through the duration of heterogeneous configurations that wait for a specific force that are beyond the pull of local agents to make a specific decisive decision, with a good chance that the force might decide against their completion. Fourth, poor domestic developer relationship and lagged international business expansion: what did Naver developer relation teams expect their open-source software initiatives to do toward the domestic third-party web developers and independent website business owners? What were the consequences? And if it was not successful, why not? I argue that Naver’s developer relation and open-source software efforts lost its steam in winning domestic developers’ favor not just because Naver lacked its social capital to convince domestic developer communities of its commitment to the greater good. It was also because the core employee developer for the open-source software effort, who had in turn struggled with such the corporate disreputation and the lack of community support, was dispatched from the open-source team to a new mobile application launch project in Japan, called LINE, which would dominate Japanese mobile market and bolster Naver's 2010s era international business, research, and engineering expansion. Finally, global and transpacific software reputation: how did Naver try winning global reputation in the Internet open-source software development, only to losing initial ground? I argue that interface-less automation is not scalable by local entities which has unknown faces (i.e., weak sociotechnical prestige/reputation in global industry) to other global entities, but only by U.S. (and recently Chinese) entities which know each other by high-profile faces (globally well-established sociotechnical prestige/reputation/hegemonies). To address such research questions, data acquisition has been informed by two methodological orientations, that are (i) connected history as an STS method (Subrahmanyam 1997; 2007), (ii) platform studies’ epistemic threshold as an STS method (Apperley and Parikka 2018). Informed by those orientations, this dissertation research uses three major data analysis methods: document analysis, interviews, and archival research supplemented. In addressing such research questions, this dissertation contributes to push forward four scholarly conversations: (i) social studies of search engines, (ii) “data colonialism” thesis critiques, (iii) complicating the dynamics of expansionism/scalability/protectionism (Tsing 2012), and (iv) large-scale software and code studies, informed by critical race and digital studies (Chun 2011).

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Authors & Contributors
Bak, Hee-Je
Chen, Hsin-Hsing
Chen, Nancy N.
Cho, Hyun-Dae
Hong, Sungook
Jeon, Chihyung
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
Acta Historiae Rerum Naturalium necnon Technicarum
Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
Journal of Asian Studies
Duke University Press
New York University Press
Cross-cultural interaction; cultural influence
Science and technology studies (STS)
Public understanding of science
Science and technology, relationships
Stem cells
Hwang Woo-suk
Kuhn, Thomas S.
Time Periods
21st century
20th century, late
20th century
South Korea
East Asia
Korea Institute of Science and Technology - KIST
Industrial Technology Research Institute- ITRI
Google (firm)
Facebook (firm)

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