Cyworld, the world's first (popular) social networking site.
Although facebook may be the most popular social networking site today, many other social networking sites came and went before it. Some of you may recall Myspace, Friendster, and even before that (in the late 1990’s), I was actually a member of the now defunct Asian-American social networking websites, astyle and Asian-Avenue. These types of websites have had a profound effect on the way people interact, and the years between 2004-2010 especially came to be dominated by Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, and twitter. But, having a social network at the level of participation that we have today (facebook has over 400 million users worldwide. The population of the United States is 310 million) wasn’t something that was new to Korea. Korea’s been using Cyworld since 1999, and it is said that 99.9% of Koreans between 20 and 30 years old has an account on Cyworld.
Don’t Koreans have facebook?
Well, yes, facebook is available in Korea, but most of the Koreans who use facebook only do so to keep in contact with their international friends. Cyworld has been popular for so much longer, that in order for Koreans to start using facebook more, it would take a mass exodus from cyworld to facebook. So basically Koreans don’t use facebook because Koreans don’t use facebook.
I’ve even heard Koreans discussing facebook to each other by calling it the “American Cyworld”. It’s clear that cyworld has cemented itself in Korea and isn’t budging. The only way to compete with the tidal wave that facebook is becoming is to have started much much earlier. Japan’s mixi.com also enjoys popularity in Japan, being created at the same time that facebook was merely one guy messing around in his dormitory computer. If your country didn’t have a social networking website that got to be super popular before about 2006 or so, chances are your whole country uses facebook.
What’s Unique about Cyworld?
Well, for one, it’s in Korean.
Right, of course. Well, in each person’s front page, called “minihompy”, you get a pixelated avatar and a house. You can arrange the house however you want and dress the avatar in whatever clothes you want. It’s really hard to explain, but you get to play dress-up and house so that your little digital self is customized to look and be like you. This comes complete with rare items and unlockables. That’s kind of how it originally started. Eventually there was a section where people could upload pictures of themselves. After this was made, you were able to restrict access to the pictures, by allowing only people you have designated as your (1-cha) friends to see certain areas. And that’s how sophisticated internet social networks began. Yes, believe it or not, it’s a Korean phenomenon. Cyworld took Korea by storm! Year after year, Cyworld membership continued to increase so much, to the point that today, the majority of Koreans use Cyworld. Cyworld’s popularity was also aided by the fact that Korea leads the world in internet connectivity. That is, in the early 2000’s Korea’s internet infrastructure was so good, that everyone was using the internet. Keep in mind, that Korea had cable and DSL at the time, as well as countless PC rooms. In the U.S., unless you were at a university, you were most likely using dial-up to access the internet.
Wasn’t there anything before Cyworld?
It’s really hard for me to say. I didn’t grow up in Korea and didn’t really interact with many Koreans from Korea until about 1999 or 2000. I do recall however some friends mentioning that there was one website called “I love school” in which users could reconnect with their former classmates through the site. Simply list the name of the school and the years you attended, and voilà, you’re instantly connected to everyone else who registered for that site who went to the same school as you did. I’m not really clear on the specifics about that site though. Any of my Korean readers here might be able to comment on what was before Cyworld better than me.
If Cyworld was so popular, and was created so long ago, why didn’t it become the main social networking site outside of Korea?
That’s a good question, and there are a quite a few reasons. One reason leads to the next. Just as earlier, I said that Koreans don’t use facebook because Koreans don’t use facebook, because they’re all using cyworld, the same can be said here. Non-Koreans didn’t use cyworld because non-Koreans didn’t use cyworld.
But if there was no alternative at the time, why didn’t anyone outside of Korea use Cyworld? Afterall, Starcraft wasn’t designed with Korea in mind, yet Koreans love it!
I’ll try to explain. The obvious reason is that Cyworld was in the Korean language. There
are only two countries is only one country where Korean is spoken. This would have limited use to Koreans, others who speak Korean, and their friends. I still feel that Cyworld could have caught on at the time DESPITE this limitation.
Well what was the reason then? Instant messaging? Online forums? IRC Chat?
Woah, going waaaay back there. Yes, it’s true AOL instant messenger, and msn messenger were huge at the time, and people got to have their arguments in online forums. Specific interests could be talked about in IRC chat. Even so, I STILL think Cyworld could have become popular.
I’m stumped. Why do you think Cyworld failed to take the world by storm?
The answer is that most Korean websites require the user’s Citizen’s Registration Number (주민등록번호) for membership. For Americans, this would be the same as requiring that you submit your Social Security Number if you wanted to join any website. ANY website! If you want to make an e-mail address, you’d need to input your number. Want to order pizza online? Input your number. Want to play a quick online game? Enter your number. Otherwise go away.
What??!?! Are you crazy? Why would anyone be willing to give over that kind of information just to join a website?!?!?!
You’ve got me. I know for sure that Americans would never stand for it if Yahoo started requiring Social Security Numbers for registration. Yahoo would go out of business overnight… unless of course all other websites followed suit. So the only reason I can guess Koreans do that is because they have to. One problem with a technologically advanced interconnected society is that the government has less control over the media (as the media is no longer books, TV and radio, but the internet!). Furthermore, the internet allows people to communicate while remaining anonymous. I guess someone in the Korean government thought it would be good to see who’s saying what on the internet in the interest of national security. And with that, all Korean websites required you have a Citizens’ Registration Number to join.
But that would mean only Korean citizens would be able to use Korean websites.
Exactly. And that’s why Cyworld remained popular only in Korea. Not only was it restricted to Koreans, but any of their international friends (including ethnic Koreans, like Korean-Americans) weren’t able to join and spread the word. I can remember a time when the superior infrastructure of the Korean internet was touted as an example of Korean ingenuity to the world. Granted, this is true, Korea still leads the world in this area, but if you weren’t a Korean citizen, then the Korean internet ironically looked like this:
Korea had, at the time, a HUGE opportunity to really flex its cultural muscle on the world. More Koreans would have had discussions with non-Koreans, and more importantly, non-Koreans who otherwise would have had no interest in Korea would have naturally encountered Koreans on Cyworld, thereby boosting Korea’s international image. Korea’s image amongst the young people would be much closer to reality; a modern society that excels in technology and has an emerging economy. Instead, the policy requiring the Citizen’s Registration Number to join Korean websites made it look like Korea didn’t want non-Koreans to use their websites, didn’t want them to play Korean online games, and didn’t want any non-Koreans tainting the purity of the Korean internet. Now, of course that’s not what people were thinking, but to those who wanted in, that’s how it felt.
The policy also damages the Korean economy.
I can even recall a specific case where I was living in Japan, and wanted to buy a ticket for a soccer game in Seoul between Japan and Korea. I knew the exact website and the exact time the tickets went on sale. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t a Korean citizen, I couldn’t join that website that was selling the ticket. So I ended up not buying one.
In comparison, when the Korean team came to Japan to play, I bought my ticket in seconds, on a Japanese website. That website didn’t require anything other than an e-mail address for me to join.
This rule basically lost Korea a lot of money from me.
Well, the ticket itself was about $20 and I was planning to buy 2 of them. In addition to that, I was going to pay for airfare to Seoul on Korean Air or Asiana (which at the time, 2 people would have been about $700). I’d then need a hotel room for the 2 or 3 days I was planning on staying in Korea ($250). My “friend” would have undoubtedly gone shopping in Myeongdong for BB cream and other cosmetics that are overpriced specifically because Japanese ladies like them ($400). We’d probably have spent a lot on food ($200). The customary present that I’d have had to buy for my Japanese coworkers ($30, I’m cheap afterall). Transportation fees ($50). Even if my cheapskate instincts had prevailed, the Korean economy was deprived more than $1000 USD because of this rule. And that’s just from one person. Imagine all the others like me who were willing to make a trip to Korea provided they could have gotten a ticket to that game.
Now think about all the Korean websites that sell something. Korea has basically limited the customer base to Koreans only. Sorry non-citizens, we don’t want your money! You want to spend your money on the internet in Asia? Try Japan or China!
Well what if you were a non-Korean citizen who lived in Korea?
Too bad for you! And this is a problem that many people who live in Korea complain about. Constantly. Even now the problem still persists. Some cellular phone companies won’t do business with you if you don’t have a citizens’ registration number. (Thankfully, LG Telecom does. I have proof.) Some internet companies won’t allow you to subscribe to their service unless you give them you citizens’ registration number. (Thankfully, SK broadband does. Though I’m not sure why SK cellular phones won’t.) Some banks won’t allow you to change large amounts of money or give you a loan if you don’t have the citizens’ registration number. It’s a problem that EVERY non-citizen in Korea knows too well. Often these rules are sidestepped by the non-citizen asking a citizen to register the service in the citizen’s name. That’s a nice cheat, but this also has its problems, as if the relationship between the citizen and non-citizen sour, the non-citizen can suddenly be unable to control his own affairs.
All this is changing however….
Yes. Recently it has come to my attention from this website, that non-citizens have FINALLY gained the right to register for websites using their foreigner’s registration number (외국인등록번호) or certificate of domestic residence for brethren of foreign nationality number (외국국적동포국내거소신고번호). I personally tested it and Cyworld finally allowed me to join. However, because I already have facebook and most of my Korean friends do as well, I see no need to join Cyworld. I’m glad that I’ll finally be able to register for other Korean websites if the need arises. But this still doesn’t address the problem. There are millions of non-citizens outside of Korea that probably want to use Korean websites. Isn’t it ironic that the government is so proud of the Korean wave, but won’t allow fans of Korean pop culture to access Korean websites to get their fix? Instead other middle-man sites outside the country are making all the money off of Korea’s cultural products.
As far as other services that require Citizens’ Registration Numbers, all F type visas have their restrictions eased for most services. (F visas are for Spouses of Koreans, Children of Koreans, Overseas Koreans, Children of Overseas Koreans, Adoptees, and Permanent Residents.)
Didn’t Cyworld try to expand to the U.S. before facebook became popular?
Yes, and it failed miserably. There are several reasons for this. I’ll start with what went right (not much) then continue with what went wrong.
Probably the only thing that went totally right was that to join the U.S. Cyworld site, no national ID of any kind was necessary (as it is with most websites outside of Korea).
The platform of Cyworld was exactly the same as the Korean one. It had the avatar that you dressed up and a room you decorated.
That’s all that went right. Now here’s what went wrong.
Friendster was already popular before Cyworld even thought of moving.
Myspace had already toppled Friendster to take the #1 spot before Cyworld USA was officially launched.
Instead of leaving the cutesy avatars and clothing and cute accessories for the room, Cyworld USA’s avatars all had huge eyes and big noses because that’s what white people look like (according to Korean stereotypes).
Even if the white people accept the avatars, it alienates everyone who isn’t white. These nonwhites live mostly in the cities, and would be more likely to use the internet than those who live outside the cities in rural areas (mostly whites).
This last reason is probably the most devastating to Cyworld USA; there was no way to connect to members of the original Korean Cyworld. I would have signed up for Cyworld USA in a heartbeat if it meant I could finally contact all my Korean friends on Cyworld. Instead, they made a whole new network seperate from Cyworld Korea. I’m guessing that it consisted of people who wanted to use the REAL Cyworld, but weren’t allowed to, because they weren’t citizens.
Cyworld still could have made an impact if they hadn’t messed this one up, but instead of already drawing upon the word of mouth marketing of the tens of millions of members it already had, they decided to start from scratch, building a social networking site that they changed to meet the tastes of “foreigners” based on what they assumed foreigners would like, without doing any market research. If they had allowed it to connect with Cyworld Korea, then I still think facebook would have overtaken them, but Cyworld USA wouldn’t have been the miserable failure that it was.
All that aside, I can only wonder what the social networking landscape would have been like if Korea had gotten it right in the beginning. The whole world would be talking about their “Cys.” Facebook may have never been created in the first place. And Korea’s image in the world would undoubtedly be much better.