Between climbing the social ladder, navigating first loves, and actual schoolwork, high school students have enough to contend with. Social media only amplifies the excesses of high school’s petty and often bizarre social ranking system—the “popular kids” don’t just enjoy higher status in school, they probably also get more “likes” on their Instagram posts. Bullying in school extends to the online world, leading to mental health issues and even suicides.
Enter Love Alarm, Netflix’s latest original Korean drama. The show imagines a world where a Tinder-like app called a Love Alarm “rings” every time someone within a 10 meter radius “loves” you. The app is somehow connected to the user’s heart to promise authenticity—a prospect that would make Elon Musk excited about potential applications for his Neuralink.
Boilerplate High School Drama
Love Alarm follows the format of a typical high school drama; we leave the reader to determine whether 16 year olds really know what “love” is. The Love Alarm adds on to the numerous stresses of regular high school life, creating a quantitative indicator of social hierarchy and adding another dimension of tension to budding crushes and relationships. Just like how modern teenagers compete for Instagram likes (or Snapchat streaks), everyone in the show’s school vies to get the most Love Alarm rings.
Hwang Sun-oh (Song Kang) is the stereotypical “popular kid” in school. His wealthy parents are a politician and a famous actress, and Sun-oh himself is a child model. Sun-oh moves back from the US and transfers to the local high school. The moment he walks onto campus, his Love Alarm explodes with rings from just about every girl.
Meanwhile, Kim Jojo (Kim So-hyun) couldn’t be more different. Orphaned at a young age, Jojo lives with her abusive aunt and her socially popular cousin Gul-mi (Go Min-si)—who is determined to have Sun-oh ring her Love Alarm.
However, Sun-oh develops feelings for Jojo instead, and the two begin a blossoming romance—a story so resembling Taylor Swift’s ballads she could’ve been the one writing it. Add in judo jock Il-sik, nerdy social outcast Duk-gu, and “best friend who likes the same girl” Hye-young, and you’ve basically got the cast for a Korean remake of Lizzie McGuire.
Dystopian Trojan Horse
At this point, you’re probably thinking that Love Alarm is just a mediocre boilerplate high school drama—and on the surface, you’d be right. But once you peel back the layers of abstraction and inspect the story’s elements, you’ll find that Love Alarm is more like Black Mirror than High School Musical. While writer Chon Kye-young didn’t intend for Love Alarm to be a dystopian series, at times it certainly comes off as one.
Not everyone is made equally attractive, but in the era before mass social media, at least we weren’t bombarded with perfectly Photoshopped pictures of Zhou Dongyu everyday on our news feeds. Similarly, not everyone will get their Love Alarm rung thousands of times—some may never have their Love Alarm rung at all.
After a mass suicide of people with zero rings, an anti-Love Alarm activist group forms to protest usage of the app, and urge users to uninstall it. Meanwhile, Gul-mi resorts to extreme measures in an attempt to buy rings, much like how wannabe Instagram celebrities buy likes.
Love Alarm brings to light the dark side of social media: whether it’s self-esteem issues, or how social media makes our relationships more superficial (after all, if 5,000 people “love” you, aren’t we cheapening the word “love”?). Every episode ends with a note on social media obsession, such as a reminder that “the most powerful number is one [person who loves you].” While Love Alarm comes up short in plot, it shines in social commentary that’s increasingly necessary as we realize social media damages both our individual mental health and society’s collective mental health.
As it turns out, the team behind Love Alarm know quite a bit about technology, even beyond its societal effects. Unlike most portrayals of programming on-screen, Love Alarm actually depicts software development fairly accurately—a database reference book pops up in one scene, and fairly accurate software code underlies the Love Alarm app. This is perhaps due to the fact that there’s a real Love Alarm app with over 100,000 installs. No, it’s not a real Love Alarm, but it resembles the user interface in the show, and is being used for promotional activities in Seoul.
That Love Alarm initially comes off as a brainless, teen-friendly high school drama is perhaps an advantage then. The series is a bit of a Trojan horse for unassuming teen audiences: they might be drawn in by the Cinderella-like love story, but end up learning a lesson about the ills of social media addiction. However, adult viewers might be more inclined to skip the series entirely unless they really want high school to never end.
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Love Alarm (Korean: 좋아하면 울리는) —South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Na-jung, and based on a webtoon by Chon Kye-young. First released August 22, 2019. Starring Kim So-hyun, Song Kang, and Jung Ga-ram.