Back when it seemed unbelievable and everyone guffawed at me, I made a bet with my "Korean Wave and Media" class that I teach at Myongji University that Facebook would inevitably take over the Korean Internet.
Whoa, they said. That's crazy. Nothing can beat Cyworld. Because nothing ever changes on the Internet, right?
Or alternatively, as is always quoted when it comes to new things, "Facebook is not right for Koreans."
Yeah, just as pundits predicted Koreans would NEVER take to pizza because of unfamiliarity with cheese, or eat Western-style cereal with milk, or how YouTube Korea would be humbled and die a quick and dirty death (the Korea Times was yelling this to the hills, but all their links are dead) because some domestic portals had higher resolution at the time. Umm, right. (I think I remember saying something like, "It's the content, stupid!" at the time). From that list given in the Mashable link, MNCast and Pandora.TV are out of commission, and even from the beginning, most of the content on all those portals were videos from YouTube. Something the "pundits" would have gotten had any of the Western reporters actually navigated around any of the Korean sites. It's the content, stupid. And everyone in the world uploaded and uploads to YouTube. Not some idiotically-named site called "Mgoon." Sorry -- that name's just fucking stupid. And all the world's content is on YouTube. Oops!
I also remember very publicly saying back in 2006, when UCC was first rolled out, that it would fail. And booooy, did it ever, so fabulously, FAIL. ("It's the structural and cultural barriers to making diverse and sustainable amounts of content, stupid!" Said that in 2007.) All the "UCC cafes" and UCC-based marketing to sell camcorders and cameras is noticeably absent. That campaign went down here in Korea worse than Sony's Mini-disc format did in America. And that's bad.
My actual bet with my Myongji students was that, by the time Winter 2009 finished (and I made the bet at the end of spring semester 2009, just before summer), most of what I call "domestic Koreans" -- the bulk of everyday, non-overseas connected Koreans who don't have foreign friends, haven't lived abroad, prefer kimchijjigae over cream sauce spaghetti for lunch, and largely use Cyworld -- would at least have heard of Facebook and at least 1/2 of them would have accounts.
At the time, when I started the course, most of my Myongji students hadn't even heard of Facebook, as shows of hands in several classes showed, and using the site to introduce the problem of Korean media and Internet showed. The problem was this: Facebook was (and is) the most accessed site in the world, but the vast majority of Koreans had never even heard of it. This went to show what is a pretty typical Korean pattern: major ideas, trends, and sites that are used in the rest of the world never make it over the barriers put up around the "walled garden" that is the Korean Intranet (which is really what it is), and the major portal sites that all Koreans use (Naver, Daum, Cyworld/Nate) act like the hard industry conglomerates (chaebeols) that dominate the Korean formal economy (Samsung, Hyundai, etc.) Korea always seems cut off from the rest of the world, to an extreme degree, and is always running 3-5 years behind -- in 2006, most "domestic Koreans" had never heard of a "blog" in Korea.
OK, that's summer 2009. Most domestic Koreans hadn't heard of Facebook, and I predicted by winter 2009/10, most students and young people would have, and even have an account. Lo and behold, when I started my new semester in March, when I asked the same question about Facebook, more than half the students raised their hands. And most had accounts, with the question of whether they used them or not being a separate issue.
Now, I know this isn't scientific, and since I was the force that had introduced a good number of students to Facebook in the first place at Myongji (although I doubt 20+ students started any kind of wave there), I couldn't just use that as evidence. But all around me, I noticed my domestic Korean friends -- not my more international crowd of acquantainces from UNESCO Korea, or foreign language high schools, or students from more affluent and international schools such as Yonsei University -- were adding me to Facebook.
Tick. The girl I gave a business card to at the makkoli bar. My Korean aunt. Tick, tick. The girl I had gone on a few dates with some months ago, who works as a civil servant and has no foreign friends. The photographer I had shared the photo pit with in a previous Seoul Fashion Week. Tick, tick, tick. People who were very, very domestic Korean were hearing about Facebook, and it wasn't from me. And all of them were using their names in the Korean script, not English.
Tipping point? Yeah.
It was just like me, back in 2008 or so, and I had signed up for Facebook at some point, had heard of it before that point from some college kids, hadn't thought much of it. But then, somewhere in the late spring/early summer of 2008 EVERYFRICKIN' BODY WHO I KNEW FROM BACK IN THE DAY, IN THEIR 30'S LIKE ME, WAS ADDING ME AS A FRIEND. It was literally like several random add requests a day, from an 8th-grade girlfriend, high school prom date, buddies from my freshman dorm in college, grad school friends -- it was ON, and seemingly instantaneously.
And here we go again. Tick, tick, tick. And then there were other x-factors: the iPhone had come in, and Twitter has already become the de facto standard for instant social messaging. One random reason? Kim Yeon-ah, the champion Korean figure skater, was a twitter, tweeter, a twitterator -- whatever. Best publicity Twitter ever had here, besides being the default standard in the rest of the world and getting mentioned in the news all the time. And now, we had the iPhone.
iPhone, with standard Facebook and Twitter apps around from jump, was something that would help. Even now, I had a domestic Korean contact, a model, try to show me her pics from Cyworld on her Korean "smart" phone. Epic fail. Cyworld -- get your shit together. Oh, too late.
The "tick, tick" of my Facebook-o-meter is really starting to pick up, anyone remotely hip I now meet has an iPhone, wants to "Bump" me, and often tells me to become a "Facebook friend" with them, and many people now make the corny joke/literal translation of FACEBOOK (얼굴 책) in Korean, just like they did with HOT MAIL (뜨거운 메일).
Facebook's here in Korea, and for the same reasons that YouTube took over the market (being the international standard and possessing an international database of users, as opposed to merely being limited to domestic users, and despite refusing to cooperate fully with Korea's real-name system), for the same reason that UCC failed (the paltry amount and types of content could not support the full weight of the service, and like a dying star whose internal energies cannot support its own weight, collapsed), and because Korean sites/sights are so short-sighted (why couldn't Cyworld have simply internationalized its single portal, like Facebook always has, instead of trying to launch its lame-ass Japanese and US versions, while of course adding real functionality) -- Facebook is going to become the de facto standard here.
With a little help from friends who are already international, in terms of being open-source and standards unto themselves -- iPhone and Android. Because Samsung is lame and won't be able to compete in terms of the lame OS it has put onto their phones, they're going to do the smart (and only) thing and simply make kickass hardware for Android. And those two standards are going to have up-to-date and varied Facebook apps and options.
Again, leaving Cyworld, a Korean domestic company, alone to battle the full force and power of a platform that is international, has a huge head start in making apps open-source on their own site, as well as battling against the tendency to become the de facto standard on two international phone OS's.
Good fucking luck, Cyworld.
I feel the huge mass of the mainstream starting to quiver and creak, as it starts the slow tip over the other way. And how do you stop the slow-but-massive force of everyone-else-in-the-world, even if you are an island in the stream?
And that's game.
By the end of the year, Koreans will be Facebooking, while Cyworld becomes the new MySpace.