As I've been teaching in one of my Media and Korean Internet classes, the Korean Internet is in big trouble. No one really buys anything I say at the time, like 2 years ago when I was saying that Facebook dominating Korea and Cyworld digging its own grave was an inevitablity, or that "UCC" would fall flat on its face, which I said even as it was being rolled out, so I said it again in 2007. This, as Korean pundits were predicting YouTube would die a quick and dirty death, or that iPhone would fall flat on its face when it launched in Korea. I told my classes that Cyworld was doomed in 2007, and I bet my media classes at the end of 2008 that Facebook would be breaching Korea's shores within two years. Everyone back then thought that was ridiculous. "Facebook isn't right for Korean users." Which was said about cheese, pizza, coffee, the INTERNET, Macs, iPods, YouTube, and over the past couple years, Facebook.
If you've been here a long time, you hear this ridiculous statement all the time -- "It's not right for Koreans." (한국 셩격에 안맞아요.") Why do people keep saying this, when cases upon cases, time and time again, show that not only do foreign ideas come into Korea and get adapted to what Koreans want, but also (and more importantly) Koreans bend over backwards to adapt themselves to many new foreign ideas, trends, and tastes. The prime example of this is Starbucks' entrance into Korea, which any marketer worth their salt should know about and which should have shut up forever this ridiculous notion that anything is impossible for Koreans to adapt themselves to, given the right impetus.
And in the big picture, I see Google increasing its presence in Korea and becoming a major player within the next 12-16 months. By the time 3 years has passed -- an eon in Internet time -- Naver will no longer be dominant. That's not even really an amazing prediction, actually, since you could see it a mile away, coming for "UCC" companies such as MNcast (which I happened to use and like very much, but still) or Cyworld now. Would you put money down on Cyworld or Facebook now?
The reasons? They're simple, obvious, and their force as inexorable as the inertia of slow-moving, but huge boulders or other immense objects.
1) Korea is bizzaro-land, Monster Island, the "walled garden" to those who put it politely. Because of a huge language barrier, insular cultural habits, as well as technical aspects of the Korean Internet that don't play nice with any potential foreign users, the Korean Internet just exists all by itself in the online universe, subject to its own rules. New trends come in slowly, or parsed through by the big Internet jaebeol (conglomerates), which runs everything on the Korean Internet, another thing that stifles innovation, combined with a culture-based aversion to taking risks and doing new things. And no one wants to be the first and be different when it comes to Internet entrepreneaurship -- people would rather see something that works and copy. The phenomenon of online "shopping malls" (online boutiques that are really not much more than hobbyist fashion blogs posing as "stores") is a case-in-point. After the "$40,000 girl" made the first successful one years ago, it's all fashionistas do -- buy and sell trinkets on the Internet in a completely saturated market. But no one makes fashion content, for a lot of reasons, both mentioned above as well as others it would take another post to write about.
2) The entire Korean Internet -- in its pure, original forms -- is based on a pay-for-play model. Prime example? Naver. You simply have to pay for high placement. In the world's Internet terms, this is backwards. The entire online world is going in the direction of free, free, free, and Google's strength and reason for the high quality of its searches is that they're fair. They tell you who has the most traffic, links in (authority), and recency, etc. A Google search will tend to tell you who's the best in your search category -- Naver will tend to show you who paid the most for their high ranking. That reduces search quality, and that system is only maintained by old-fashioned, Korean-style, press-the-flesh business relationships. But the rest of the Internet isn't exclusive, plays well with others, is open-source, fair, and free. Naver is the opposite of these things. They're roller-skating uphill.
3) Exclusivity, closed-sourced coding and thinking, centralized portals and access, and a general unfriendliness with international markets (why didn't MNCast, a Korean-style YouTube and pretty cool channel, ever offer an English-language menu? likely because it never occurred to them that it doesn't matter if you're in Korea or the US or Zimbabwe if you want to attract as many users as possible) makes Korean ideas out-of-date or completely irrelevant to the outside world, and at worst, incompatible.
4) The hard-to-say and sensitive issue is that Koreans don't create content. Well, of course, they do, a little, and one or two ideas have made it past the Korean borders (OhMyNews, the best implementation of "citizen journalism" in the world and very much a function of Korean cultural habits and Internet usage style). But the Internet infrastructure here has been far more robust, a zillion times faster, and just plain cool since late 1998, when most Americans were still using modems. We actually haven't had that much of a head start as Americans on the Internet -- most people didn't even start making sense of "WWW" anything until 1996, and the Web hadn't really been commercialized even then. Assuming that structure enables an environment for innovation, as is the big assumption with most conversations talking about "creating infrastructure," then what happened? Where are the worldwide, international-level Korean Internet ideas? I mean, think about it. Korea has a highly-able population of kids raised on computers, schools and public institutions have been far better hooked up in Korea than in most places in the West, including and especially America (had you seen an American public school computer room in the late 1990's? I have, and it wasn't pretty), and most average Korean apartments have had the equivalent of a T3 connection on their home computers, with no upload or download caps. Most small offices in the States share such a connection between dozens of computers. Little Cheolsu and Yumi here in Korea are playing Maple Story while big brother downloads gigabytes of illegal movies, even as mom catches up on dramas, online, in the other room. Still, most of the big innovations and companies come from a few snot-nosed kids, starving grad students, and small operations in the US. Actually, even before the Internet, we've had college dropouts Bill Gates and Steve Jobs revolutionize an entire industry, and more dropout visionaries, garage outfits, and precocious college kids founded Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Digg, Twitter, Facebook, and a hundred others I could name. It wasn't the more robust infrastructure, the US didn't really have a head start on the Internet, and it's been EONS in Internet time for anyone else (especially an Internet utopia like Korea!) to play any catchup needed. So Korean Internet and entrepreneurs, why haven't we heard from you?
Why is Korea so....off when it comes to new media? Why is it such a strange little island?
The other parts of the equation aren't so pretty. There are a lot of cultural factors that I relate back to the specefic culture of the education system, negative reinforcement, and the active discouragement of creativity and critical thinking in pedagogical terms.
But that's the conclusion anyone can come to 2 weeks off the plane in Korea. The shit actually gets deeper than that.
There's an overall culture of conformity, vicious envy, and a huge averseness to risk-taking behavior that acts as one barrier. There's the lack of vision and patience that Korean VC's have had, until more recently, when Koreans have started looking to what needs to be done to turn a profit, and no, you're not going to successfully monetize even the most successful Internet idea in 6 months -- sorry. Success is measured in years, and also in failure. Yes, failure, and as my biz and tech friends always tell me, Korean companies don't realize that 9/10 of your startup investments will fail -- and that's alright! You're looking for the next Google, waiting out the better ideas longer, and taking more risks on some long-shot ideas.
Facebook is here, and got here against all the broken-record arguments that always followed everything else that came here and took over (Me2Day employees, are you packing your desks and freshening up your resumes? Twitter's already the standard), and in terms of apps ("The Web Is Dead -- Long Live the Internet!" -- did ya'll get the memo?), Google has some pretty damn good ones, even as pirating and copyright infringment are gutting the Korean android market.
And sign of the times?
When I watch commercials come on the big screen pushing smart phones, even Korean companies are showing the Twitter, Google, and Facebook apps prominently. Didn't even see Naver up there, even as news announcers, radio stations, and pretty much everyone is now giving out Twitter addresses to get user feedback.
And now, Facebook? With the movie, on TOP of the fact that it was about to hit critical mass and tip around now, ANYWAY?
Bye, bye Cyworld. For reals, now.
You know what? It's the user base, stupid. Why did YouTube finally become the standard, even in real-name law, YouTube-unfriendly Korea, back when domestic UCC portals had HD and faster streaming?
Duh. The content. Worldwide user base, and eventually better features.
Facebook? Check. Facebook? Check. Facebook? Check.
Same with the iPhone. Many (well, journalists in the pocket and on the payee list of Samsung) predicted its failure at launch, and many of the same people with the same Schadenfreude are saying Android will demolish Apple's phone.
If anything, Apple has a huge cache of brand-name value, which is even more extreme than back in the States or other parts of the world, since Apple (Macs, specifically) were associated only with the super-elite and/or super-rich from the days when Elex Computers, the sheisty reseller for Macs until 2001, sold a $1200 Mac Classic for nearly $4000. The iPod in its first, disk-based iterations was simply too heavy for Koreans to use. Everyone said it was "안맞아" for Koreans. Until the flash-based Nano came out, when I also predicted Apple's Normandy into Korean territory. And market share went from 2% to 17% within a year, while I anecdotally noticed that amongst most women with MP3 players on the subway, over half were Nanos. Shall we calculate the market share of Apple in the the MP3 player field?
Yepp, Cowon, and iRiver -- where aaaaaaaarrrrre you?
Now, Facebook's invasion is well under way, and it seems like a no-brainer. After the film, which actually succeeded in making nerdy entrepreneaurial activities look like the shark feeding that went on in the movie Wall Street, and actually made a web site seem sexy, what is Facebook's brand cache in Korea now?
Yesterday, I was chatting with the new chatty girl who works the front desk of my apartment building lobby. She's not in college, she's a typical Korean girl who lives in a lower middle-class apartment complex in Seoul and has no foreign friends. Yesterday, I mentioned I was going out to see Social Network and had she heard of it? She was actually bubbling with excitement over it, and had actually already reserved tickets to see it on the weekend with her friends. They had all heard it's really good, Justin Timbaland's in it, and it's a really good drama.
And she also said that after the movie, her and her friend were gonna go register for Facebook. Something 95% of the students in my media class at a local university hadn't even heard of 1.5 years ago, and even 6 months ago was something only Koreans with foreign friends, a semester of exchange studenting under their belt, or who worked in international organizations had accounts in. Now, my domestic-Korean-only friends are adding me left and right.
All the models at Fashion Week -- and I mean nearly all -- have iPhones and were asking for my Twitter address for their show pics, and two added me to Facebook. Huh?
My 60+ year old Korean uncle, a hard-working pharmacist who's used a single email address for years, since his son probably set it up, just added me. Jigga-what?
And the girl who works the counter downstairs? She said that after she saw the movie, she would "Facebook" me.
Facebook's arrived in Korea.
And a year from now, it'll seem ridiculous that this was ever even an argument. And so it goes.