It seems that predictions I've made are coming true. Seems arrogant to say, but I make certain predictions, some people say I'm a blowhard, then when they come true, everyone forgets that I was...ahem...right.
If you read what I said in "Web 2.0 and Korean Media" in December 2006, the summer after they rolled out "UCC" (YouTube-style "user-created content" in the form of embeddable videos) a couple years after YouTube had hit it big, you'd remember I said:
Enter the Korean concept of "User Created Content." Sure, it's probably a term picked up in the communications field somewhere, but it's a Korean concept, deployed in a Korean way. The big companies here are pushing "UCC" to the people as ways they can "get in on the action" and create content (THAT WE'LL USE) with the implied promise of perhaps being able to become as famous as all those YouTube people you hear about in the news, like that guitar kid everyone is talking about and who got on Korean TV because of it.
Problem is, I think it's doomed to failure. The overall trends are going in exactly the opposite direction, and savvy Korean netizens are going to be demanding their real user power, and will resent being crippled by ugly Daum and Naver blog templates, and creating content for portal sites, which is essentially what they are doing.
The biggest sponsors of the UCC drives are, not surprisingly, big Korean media companies. I call this system the jaebeol media model, and it is particularly and uniquely Korean. Make video content and we will let you put it on our site, for the company's commercial benefit. It's pretty much using the content – with limitations, set templates, and rigid feature sets – for the benefit of the company...
...Maybe it's a peculiarly Korean way of doing things, but I don't think it can be sustained for very long, especially since the rest of the world is offering all kinds of free space, open-source freedom, and the ability for the market to grow and expand without control from the top. The Korean model offers – not surprisingly, given this country's style of business and governance – top-down, centralized control, limitations, and lack of a user-centric experience.
I remember people back then laughing at Google's increased vigor in making headway in the Korean market, since Naver will NEVER lose its dominance, right? People laughed and said Google overly-American dedication to simplicity would NEVER go over in Korea, and its little attempts at coloring up the Google Korea site with cute little animations was something akin to pitiful. People also laughed when YouTube Korea rolled out, swearing up and down that they'd be crushed by the better resolution of the domestic sites. Those techheads missed the point.
I've been saying, since that post, as well as in "The Mis-execution of Korean UCC" in April 2007, when I continued criticizing the utter lack of content on Korean UCC, that the Korean Internet is woefully devoid of ideas, and pitifully cordoned off from the rest of the world. Like the Korean economy, this is not just a side-effect, but totally intentional and a key part of how it succeeds.
In the 2006 post, I called the Korean Internet a "jaebeol" system, which I very much think it is. Inherent in the system isn't a core of intensely creative people and ideas that find expression in a myriad different ways, that come together and combine in unpredictable ways.
For instance, who knew how the synergy between blogging, embeddable video, other social media such as Twitter, social bookmarking, and other things would come together? It's led to new forms of media, business models, and ways of disseminating information itself. It's changed pop culture, politics, and so many other fields in a real -- not gimmicky -- way.
The Korean Internet? With broadband that leaves the US in the dust, no real problem of a "digital divide", computers everywhere, a high degree of technical skill with all kinds of programs and electronic devices, and a youth culture that is deeply socially invested in the Internet -- where's the beef? Meaning -- where's the content?
Where are the new ideas? Why didn't Koreans invent YouTube, Digg, or Twitter, or even the concepts of blogging, podcasting, or social bookmarking? Where are the funky new business ideas, new revenue models, or even (and especially) THE CONTENT?
That's the main problem you have with the Korean Internet. It's insular and doesn't think ahead. Take my piece on the stupidity of Pandora TV in "Pandora.TV Suck Rizzocks" in which I point out how ludicrously stupid it was to require ActiveX controls to watch a stinking video, and how dumb it was to require watching a 15-second commercial before EACH video.
Why can a non-specialist see how fucking braindead this was? Isn't the point of being a video portal to have as wide a database as possible? So what was with the labyrinthine registration process, ActiveX downloads, and watching commercials all damn day. I predicted that Pandora would drop that ActiveX shit like it's hot, but that's not even a good prediction; it's just common sense. The point of streaming video ISN'T to go to your stupid website and watch it THERE: YouTube's success was partially enabled by it being able to easily embed video ANYWHERE and EVERYWHERE ELSE, fools. Argh. Of course, Pandora.TV switched over to Flash-based video only a couple months after my rant. Could have saved a year of wasted time by just doing what YouTube had already been doing for years -- duh! If you're gonna copy, at least get the IMPORTANT part right, right? And in the fall of 2007, Pandora announced they were switching to Flash-based viewing as if they'd figured out some really cool shit for the very first time. Duh.
Or there's MNCast, which I'd always liked, and was always Flash-based and always easy to embed. The resolution was killer. It was kinda better than YouTube, minus the Korea-only database of content. But still.
WHY NOT MAKE IT AN INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SITE, with menus in English? Keep the Korean ones, too. It's the INTERNET. It doesn't matter where people are. When Metacafe and Revver were trying to do the same thing, MNCast could've been a player. But they weren't. Because it apparently never occured to them to market themselves as a general-purpose media site. After I'd had that ever-so-shockingly-revolutionary thought, MNCast later added some lame-ass English menu for whomever they thought international users were, or to make themselves seem more global...to themselves. Who cares? Too little, too late.
The Korean Internet is completely controlled by conglomerates, called "jaebeol" in Korean. The traditional jaebeol were and are Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, peeps like that. On the Korean Internet, they're called Naver, Daum, Cyworld, and other names. But the point is still the same: they control the production of nearly all the content on the Korean internet, their blogs, cafe bulletin boards, and other forms of content are proprietary and territorial. One has to login to Naver to even VIEW certain items for sale on one bulletin board, or open pages of a cafe or blog. Getting listed in Naver's search engine? Unless you paid money or are a Naver blog or other product, you're essentially not going to show up at all. Unless you pay the piper directly. Which is how Naver makes its money.
There is no room for real innovation, no incentive for it. Even the possible incentive would be to make an internet idea good enough for Naver to just buy it. Good, say you? Sure, that's the goal of many a startup. But the reason Korea will never invent a Facebook -- the most highly traveled site in the world -- is because if someone had that particular idea, it would just be bundled into the functions of the existing portal site, be in Korean only, require a Korean citizen ID number, and not at all be open-sourced for other parties to freely make applications for.
You'd just get Cyworld, which is a dying idea, akin to Friendster. Done Korean-style, you don't get a new PLATFORM that is compatible with other Web 2.0 company -- Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, anything can be integrated into Facebook. In Korea, you just get macro-sized monstrosities that simply suck in resources to themselves as Naver-Godzilla prepares for continued battle with King Kong-Daum.
Where's the room for the little guy? The startups? The good ideas that suddenly pop up from a college kid into one of the biggest sites on the Internet?
They get crushed by the jaebeol-monsters, of course.
And that's without having gotten to the cultural environment in which both the actual and virtual jaebeol exist within, but have also helped sustain -- the complacent, consumptive nature of social/Internet participation.
Now, I'm getting into territory that I can't "prove" or quantify materially. You either will or will not feel me on this issue, but I believe in what I'm saying here: there are too many cultural barriers here that prevent the production of "UCC" or the promulgation of innovative ideas. That's on top of the fact that there's a huge, gaping absence of business/capital infrastructure to support such ideas even if they DID exist.
Without getting into totally separate conversations, Korea is now facing a slow, core meltdown that is far different, more challenging to fix, and fundamental than most people tend to consider it. The ongoing failure of the Korean Internet to innovate is just another sign of the problem. It's possilby the best sign, too.
Simply put, Korean Internet infrastructure ROCKS. Korea's a small country with a centralized government that can wire everywhere on the peninsula with fiber-optic, supersonic, pro-bionic, high-ionic, gin-and-tonic Internet supercable in the blink of an eye. It doesn't cripple upload speeds to a fraction of download. Computers are everywhere, as are bootleg copies of Photoshop, Premiere, and Illustrator that are thought to be as automatically present as Clock or Calculator on a given Windoze XP install. The Internet is everywhere you wanna be in Korean society.
Except that every media form or function on the Korean internet was originally invented somewhere else (usually the American Internet) that was researched, reheated, and rolled into a "new" function on one of the Korean portal-jaebeols.
That's the key, and what Koreans are used to. Down even to the style of consumption, as when you leave your Samsung-constructed apartment building in your Samsung-built car and use your Samsung phone to tell your best friend doing laundry in a Samsung washing-drying machine to meet you at the Samsung Plaza to shop for clothes made by a Samsung designer. Isn't that scary?
No. For a long time, that's been very REASSURING to the average Korean consumer. And it's no different from Naver. Although things are fraying a bit a the edges, most people LIKE the fact that Naver is like a proto-god figure here, magically dispensing information with authority, hosting your blog, hobbyist cafe, filtering your news, and doing just about anything you can imagine. In fact, right now, Naver's social/psychological/cultural power simply can't be conveyed in terms that say, Americans, can understand. Because the WAY people relate to Naver ain't nothing but a Korean THANG, baby. Unless you use Naver every day like we over here do, you just can't understand.
But what one should understand is that this isn't thought of as a negative. In Korea, one doesn't use the Internet; ones uses NAVER. Of course, there are others, too. But you get the point.
You don't check the BBC for news. Or go to your favorite (and non-portal) social bookmarking site. Or update your blog at a non-portal, commercial blog service. Or even know what Wordpress is. Open-source? That's for Naver to use and base its private blogging service on -- not for YOU to do the same.
Partially because of the language barrier, partially out of habit, and partially because the portals keep people dependent on them and discourage weaning, the Korean internet is amazing insular. But that doesn't mean it doesn't get influenced from the outside, it just means that Korean Internet users don't often go outside the Korean Internet. Yet, it's those who parse, Koreanize, and implement outside ideas for the Korean Internet who make the big bucks.
Take Naver's recent makeover, for instance. I remember saying 4 years ago that Korean big media is losing touch with its base, and that Korean tastes have become far more varied, complex, and Americanized than Korean media realizes. I said this a lot in reaction to Koreans who often would categorically tell me that "Koreans only like variety shows" or "Koreans don't like American-style media." Then what's with the runaway success of pretty much every major American television show on Korean TV?
The same thing I said to those who would tell me "Koreans like complex things on Internet pages." Really? Or is that the assumption that leads to Korean internet pages always being complex and busy? I think that the Korean consumer -- especially on the Internet -- simply doesn't have many other options, and it's assumptions such as these that lead to a lack of new ideas, a willingness to take risks with any that are there, and help foster a deadly conservative Internet culture.
People laughed at YouTube when it opened here. They also scoffed at Google Korea trying to add a few doodads to its pages. Funny how the new Naver after the New Year has very much simplified and streamlined its notoriously busy front page in a way that I guess few would have imagined just a couple years ago. Because "Koreans like complex web pages."
Just like "Koreans don't eat cheese and pizza will never catch on" (80's) or "Koreans just don't use iPods." Uh-huh.
Let me make a 2009 prediction. I've seen the market share of iPods go from 2% in the brick-iPod days to 17% in the single year after the 1st-generation Nano was introduced. During Steve Jobs' speech, I rightly predicted that the market share would jump off the charts, simply because of 1) price, 2) form factor, and 3) aesthetics. iPods were simply too big, didn't have the megabyte-for-the-buck oomph, and simply weren't sexy enough. At that point, I knew they had the Korean market. And I was right.
I don't know what the present market share is, but anecdotally speaking, more than half of the MP3 players I see on public transportation and on the streets are iPods. Definitely at least half.
And there's a very high market awareness of the iPod Touch, and expectation about the iPhone, which should be able to make it to market this year in Korea.
I hereby predict that if the iPhone is released here, along with the opening of an iTunes Korea music store, podcasting will hit the critical mass it needs to take off here, mostly because of the pre-existing content out there, and not because so many Koreans will start producing their own podcasts. Even after the buzz has died down back in the West, I think podcasting is going to help drive iPod sales as more language and other programs recommend the hardware purchases, and as the platform of iPod users grows to the point that people start taking advantage of it.
In short, now's a good time to be podcasting, and I'm going to be restarting Korea's first podcast -- Metropoliticking in Seoul -- under a new name and format, and taking things a bit more slow and carefully. More on that later.
Ah -- this has been a truly Metropolitical rambling. The overall point was that the Korean Internet faces some huuuuge content-production problems, as does the overall "information economy." Korea's slowly coming up against a wall, and it's mostly determined by authoratative systems of control and education reinforced by top-down modes of social interaction and consumption, atop a social rigidity and risk-averseness seldom seen in other countries and cultures.
Korea, I think, is faced with more cultural/social rigidity that results in hardware being bereft of good software, to use that metaphor. The problem in the US seems to be just the opposite, as we let the "hardware" of our education system, science and math programs, and other aspects of the educational environment rot away; Americans are culturally/socially all about self-expression, high self-esteem, and a "look at me" culture in general -- that's not our problem. It's the hardware machine that's breaking down.
But if I were to pick between the two situations, I'd choose the latter. Hardware's easy to fix, especially if money and commitment can come; however, deeply-ingrained cultural/social patterns that refuse to budge even after infrastructure has seems to be a pretty nasty problem, especially when competing on a global level.
I hope all this gabbing and prognosticating has resulted in some ideas worth chewing on. I apologize for the length, but hey -- it's me!