(공방)Gongbang or”study with me”: my test of this strange Korean phenomenon

(The above YouTube video is by Kim Dong-min. It’s his most popular video, which has more than 400,000 views).

Gongbang is an internet trend that originated in South Korea; it involves people studying alongside a live stream video of a Korean person studying in almost complete silence. Over 4,000 South Korean gongbang videos were uploaded to YouTube in 2018, and their number continues to grow. Though the videos are meant to be dull/relaxing, there is some variety; in some videos, there is rain or soft music in the background; some show a vlogger’s face; others just show writing materials and books with a view of hands turning pages or tapping on a keyboard. There are different settings- indoor and outdoors. Length varies from 30 minutes to twelve hours. Gongbang is particularly popular among Korean medical students who have to study for long stretches of time and get lonely. Although the trend was first picked up by journalists around 2018, its become increasingly popular during the pandemic–a uniquely solitary time.

When watching these videos with my teen son, the two of us wondered if these vloggers are actually doing any work or whether the scribbles they make on paper are pretense. Notably, the videos never zoom in on the work product! I have to say, these vloggers are not altogether convincing as study partners. If they are actors, they are clearly not method actors who observe real people. Kim Dong-min, (the blogger above)on occasion primly sips a miniature cup of liquid and yawns sweetly with his mouth barely open. When he drinks, liquid does not miss his lips and splash onto his study materials. He never shoves chewy, messy snacks into his mouth. (Perhaps that is all just unique to me). I crave a buddy that covertly wipes a runny nose with the back of his hand, picks a scab, gnaws on a pencil top, rubs his eyes vigorously, adjusts his contacts with bare hands or sneaks repeated glances at his smartphone. Maybe this would be too distracting? (Hey, I think there’s a market for this type of authentic gongbang so get going and make me a more realistic one please).

We enjoyed the throngs of comments by viewers praising Kim Dong-min: “OMGGG my heart stopped at 39:20.” (We checked. At 39:20, the vlogger looks up from his work, smiles and waves). Commenters were divided as to whether his looks were distracting or study-inducing. In my own experience, I once “studied” with a good-looking guy I liked in my college’s library. My hands on my pen death-grip style, I sure looked busy as I furiously wrote words onto note cards for a final paper but my end product was tawdry. (I’m so pleased to use the word tawdry this way. I hope it works.) So lesson here: good looking study buddy= low productivity!

Funny comment left on vlogger Kim Dong-Min’s YouTube page. When you click on the blue time on the YouTube page, it takes you to moments when he looks up at viewer. I am amused.

As I recently discussed this gongbang trend over dinner with my dear family friends the Shafran-Knells, Rachel, a millennial whom I used to babysit when she was two and is now getting her Masters at Oxford U (no doubt thanks to the stimulating company she kept in her formative years-pat, pat on my own shoulder), said “why would I do this when I can just head over to a coffeehouse and sit amongst real humans?” Why indeed! Her younger brother Ben (who makes great electronic music and is a clever entrepreneur, again, thanks to people like me in his life) wisely joked that sure a coffeehouse is an option, but one can’t always find a spot with such a prime view of a good looking person! Valid point Ben!

This post has me further reminiscing about my college years when I was not yet diagnosed with ADHD but often had challenges studying. I recall “studying” as I lay on the grass with friends on the modest field we called the Bald Spot every Spring and watched students emerge outdoors for the first time after a grueling Minnesota winter–a little wobbly with excitement. l also remember sometimes studying to loud music, even hip hop– to no avail. I can’t erase memories of countless all-nighters—me sitting erect in my desk chair as I typed desperate, dizzy Morse code into my keyboard. Nor could I study in a totally quiet setting like my dorm room when my roommates were out. For me, there’s always been a hard -to- define plum spot between monastic silence and Spring Break revelry that motivates me to study and focus. You may be asking how I managed, with these horrid study skills, to graduate from college relatively unscathed. I look back and wonder myself. Miracles.

Studying with friends in person was at times fruitful but in my memory, largely distracting so I’m intrigued by this trendy video option. People are way too interesting and susceptible to taking study breaks/gossiping and otherwise piercing my steely resolve. Back then, we didn’t have smart phone distractions but in a snap, we could bust into the college chapel to play a midnight round of sardines, play pool (which for me once meant hitting a ball so hard it went careening off a balcony), blow a soap bubble outside when it was -30 degrees so that it froze and then watch it shatter like glass when you blew it gently, or go skinny dipping in a shallow fountain outside our art building. (I never did that but some did). I’m also intrigued by this trend as someone who still feels a bit socially isolated these days but who is not quite willing to join the masses for lots of travel and parties. Could I be content to forego real people (other than my immediate family) for these video companions?

My son suggested I test out the various gongbang options to see which of them are the most conducive to studying. I set out to: 1) work in our apartment as I watched the video above with the handsome Korean man; 2) work in our apartment alongside the video that is all hands and study materials;3) work in our apartment as I watched the below video of a faceless person sitting outside to work and finally 4) working at a coffeehouse with real, live people present.

My hypothesis: I will be the most productive without a handsome face in the video and/or during a live coffeehouse experience. I will measure my productivity by how many pages of my novel I write during each video.

Here are my results:

I produced 1.5 pages of my novel on my laptop as the handsome vlogger’s one hour video played on my desktop computer. (For me that rate of writing is not half bad). I liked the sound of pages turning and him softly gulping his drink. Good study sounds. He has a zen vibe and is a little cat-like. I think it’s ridiculous that he appears to be reading a blank book. Give him some Henry James for goodness sake or an advanced Calculus textbook. I wanted to feel that he was exerting himself in some way.I was surprised that I produced the most during this video, disproving my above hypothesis. Apparently, having good looking people in my vicinity is a boon.

Watching the video below that features hands and study materials alone, I produced 1/2 page in one hour. I liked the variety of activities like lighting the candle, highlighting, loud typing and such but maybe I need a face to feel motivation/energy.

Watching the below video of a faceless human that included some peaceful outside noises produced a half page of writing. I loved the outdoor sounds like the plane whirring in the distance but I think it made me sleepy somehow. (I should have known that this wouldn’t be successful given my above story about studying outside on the Bald Spot). I also missed hearing the office sounds like typing. It was maybe too quiet and again, having eyes in view, seem to add some accountability.

Going to the PlantShed coffeehouse, which unfortunately these days consists of a partially covered outdoor shed that’s not exactly cozy, I wrote one page in an hour. My chair was on a bit of tilted sidewalk so the table was wobbly and that was distracting. Plus it’s still cold outside, which can cut either way–keeps you alert or pushes you to leave. There was noone really around except two jogger-type moms gossiping at a table far from earshot. Perhaps this outdoor coffee shed wasn’t the best variable–so different from a good coffeehouse that has cushy couches, bad student art and close quarters with people.

Nail-biting Conclusion: My best study scenarios were the in-person coffee house and the gongbong with the handsome guy. I guess I need people. Don’t you love reading these experiments of mine that have limited utility? hope so.

(How about a stuffed animal gongbang? See our little impromptu gongbang featuring my 6 year old’s stuffed unicorn bunny (“Millie Harmony Hopper”) studying? See carrot snacks and an actual book (Doestoevsky’s The Idiot). I have yet to test this one out).

Seemingly related to this gongbang trend is the ADHD self-help practice called “body doubling.” ADHD body doubling is “a practice in which a person with ADHD works on and completes potentially frustrating tasks alongside another person. This other person is the “body double” for the person with ADHD. The body double’s job is to help anchor the person with ADHD to the present moment and task, reducing the risk of distraction.”

I like the idea of body doubling for all my mundane household chores. Lord knows I would love an actual live friend to do dishes with and to cheer me on as I fold laundry every day. As wonderful as my friends are, with their busy schedules, I don’t think they’d be game and as much as i’ve tried, laundry is not a chore I can bribe my kids to do every day.

Although body doubling is supposed to be done by a live human who offers you support as you focus on hard tasks, I discovered some laundry folding videos. (Note that the laundry buddy video below is way less popular than the study versions and does not feature cute Korean vloggers).

While the gongbongs usually feature an almost unnatural, neat setting/workspace with pulled-together Korean vloggers, the laundry variety are chaoticly glum, aesthetically displeasing and uncomfortably “genuine.” In one video that I charitably did not include, the female vlogger who looks, let’s kindly say, beleaguered, begins her video by saying “I will not brush my hair or wear more flattering clothes because I’m not in a good place mentally,” and then proceeds to sloppily fold a comically large mountain of clothing in a sad, mournful manner. Perhaps this is just a reflection of reality: doing a never-ending rotation of laundry sucks and causes rage and sadness for many! I do know that doing my laundry with such a morose video companion by my side might not make the task easier/more desirable but might instead heighten my own angst. Although, it is true that some people like to suffer in company!

I am imagining these videos for all the tasks that I find burdensome: completing my health insurance claim forms, doing intake for new clients at work, cooking meals for my family when I’m tired and last of all sleeping. (There are, FYI, YouTube videos of people sleeping).

Which gongbang works for you? I’d love to hear from you.

2 responses to “(공방)Gongbang or”study with me”: my test of this strange Korean phenomenon”

  1. Maria Avatar

    Have you heard of focusmate? It’s really great! I use it for a bunch of different things and it makes me so much productive..it’s a website and it pairs you with a person for a 50 min or 25 min video call. You tell each other what you’re working on (often setting specific goals for the session), work side by side (usually video on, muted, but some people prefer unmuted), and then you check in at the end and see how it went. Everyone I met through it swears by how productive and pleasant it is.


    1. CrazyMiddleClassAsian Avatar

      I just read about it when doing this post. I am going to try it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: