My argument has always been that with Korea's robust internet infrastructure, it should have been the breeding ground for the growth of global internet companies from Korea, on the level of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Digg, examples ad infinitum.
But it hasn't been. Korea hasn't grown a SINGLE world-level Internet brand or idea. Not a one. I'm not talking about tech and infrastructure and things. I'm talking about the "cultural content" (문화컨텐츠) that's the buzzword these days, as well as the huge amounts of "soft power" that Korea's supposed to have, which people like former culture minister and public intellectual Lee O young (이어령) are always pushing as the next frontier for Korea to conquer. "Nation Branding" is a complete failure, and that I define not as the absence of an image or a set of associations for Korea, but that the government and private bodies who strive to achieve mastery over the message of Korea's brand have not had any success. After millions of dollars and much fretting, years later, Korea -- as the sum of many campaigns, silly slogans, and irrelevant mascots -- is no more able to actively control the message and its image than any time before.
As much as the Korean goverment is pushing esoteric Chosun-era, royal foods, Korean BBQ and chicken dominate, especially in the Koreatowns across the world. A tipping point factor? In LA, one reasons Korean places became so popular, besides the good food and universal appeal of roasting meat, is because they stay open late and ignore no-smoking laws. And the universal combination of chicken and beer is so successul because -- DUH -- in the States these days, there's no established way to consume chicken and beer! Together, that is. Fried chicken is primarily delivered through fast food restaurants, or as dinner. But not as a specialty unto itself.
But it wasn't top-down, Korean government campaigns that were responsible for any of Korean food's popularity.
Nor with kimchi, whose growth in popularity has been as organic as most of its ingredients. While the government now is singing the praises of fermentation (and, no, it's "not sexy"), or people are still worried about whether "it might be too hot for foreigners" (umm, guys, we're not "foreigners" in our own countries, can we do something about that term?), or if it smells too bad (note that feta cheese is very popular, but it literally smells like shit), kimchi's popularity has simply naturally grown. The involvement of Korean government suits hasn't affected things one bit, either way.
Same goes for Korean film, pop, and the like. Certain things become popular on their own merit, but the government is inherently incapable of pushing anything that people actually like or want, before the government knows that people like or want it, before it becomes an obvious trend. Remember that Old Boy, a film the government would never have wanted "foreigners" to see had it not won at Cannes, started the so-called "wave" as the government named it, but that was more the result of the relaxing of censorship laws and the maturation of the Korean film industry, which was more of a "perfect storm" than a perfected plan.
And back to the failure of the Korean Intranet. Korean business and forward planning in general is all about laying the groundwork and creating the environment for growth. That's why we have specially zoned areas like Guro and such, so as to grow certain industries. But what about the Korean Inter(intra)net? We are talking about Korea's "soft power" in having a culture that can be promoted and spread overseas, Korea being a hub of "cultural content" production, etc.
But no one is willing to ask the obvious question of why there isn't a Korean Google, YouTube, or ANYTHING on global level? We've ALREADY done the experiment, which has to do with the creation of the concrete conditions conducive to the building of stuff -- the Korean Internet had/has all the technical advantages there can be -- no "digital divide," broadband internet penetration on a level that boggles the mind, widespread computer/electronic literacy, no upload speed caps, you NAME it.
Where has Korea's "soft power" been? Sitting idly by, waiting for just the right moment to formulate itself?
People are afraid to deal with a key issue -- while Korean IT and infrastructure, with the help of the government clearing a path, has done really well as a physical structure, where's the beef? Why has it FAILED to produce anything?
You know what the answer is here.
It's other factors -- the "soft" ones that have added up to a crisis. An outdated, colonial education system that has evolved into increasingly more stringent, but less educationally-effective testive regime, a social structure that owes more to nearly a century of militarized culture than true Confucianism, and the myriad ways that has added up to stifling innovation, not rewarding creativity, penalizing people for having new ideas, and causing an aversion to risk.
All of THESE things are the key to LEVERAGING whatever potential for "soft power" you might have. But would anyone really argue that Korea is a culture -- on ANY level -- that encourages innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and going against the grain?
Somewhere in the magical mix that created global companies, which were ALL created WITHOUT major government help running interference, since if you remember, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, etc. were once the ideas of nerdy punk kids with an idea in their figurative garages -- creativity, risk-taking, innovative thinking were all KEY ingredients.
That's what's missing in the Korea's secret sauce here.
And government can't help with it. Even the PERFECT infrastructure and growth environment didn't help Korean IDEA PRODUCTION one bit.
And now that the Korean Internet has essentially been OPENED by the smartphone, mobile devices, and open-source software and such, Korean Internet is in no condition to even compete.
As a person who'd LIKE to see Korea produce some ideas, who'd LIKE to see Korean "soft power" find traction, I'm worried. I'd call this a crisis. Twitter came in here and kicked Me2Day's ASS. Facebook is about to put the finishing moves on Cyworld. Groupon and dozens of others are entering the markets agresssively. And yeah, Google is working out, improving its Korean searches (have you used Google these days in Korean recently?!) and pumping up its muscles, like the little dawg on the cellblock who is prepping to someday soon make the big man in the yard his little byatch.
Excuse my French, but things aren't looking good.
But like before, I'll probably be accused, at worst, of fan-boy boosterism (remember my predictions about the iPod or UCC or Facebook -- "you're crazy! Koreans will never..."), or at worst, of being "anti-Korean."
More predictions to come true: Korean Facebook users are being added in exactly the REVERSE direction that they were in the States. Here's it's also classed and cultured -- those with more interntional biz/social connections were there first, concomitant with English-speaking Koreans, and those who were generally more tech-savvy and open-minded. It tended to start with professionals in their late 20's/30's and internationally-based students in their early 20's. Right now, Koreans in high school and below are the last to go. But they'll be mostly on board by the end of the year, and Cyworld is going to shit a 황소.
Twitter's won. Game over.
Tumblr's only being used by those in-the-know, the super-coolios, as in the States, but it's spreading.
The smartphone is driving it all -- Korean friends, all the time, say things like, "I plan to register for Facebook as soon as I get my smartphone!" And after they "study" it, with the help of a couple best-selling books with titles such as "How to Use Facebook" and such.
And Google? With the infiltration and integration of Android, along with it generally being the standard on the iPhone as well, Google is getting trojan-horsed in like a mofo.
Bad news for Naver. Along with its archaic, pay-for-play search results. And the more financially squeezed Naver gets, the more it'll sully the quality of its search results. Even as Google has a worldwide user base and many more income streams, such that it doesn't have to compromise the quality of its search.
Google making Naver its bitch? Crazy talk?
When I was talking up YouTube Korea, when I was involved in its launch, everyone laughed. Korean video sites are so much faster! And they have HD (YouTube was just starting then). YouTube "isn't right for Koreans" (I haven't heard THAT a dozen times!) And with the real-name verification system, YouTube doesn't even have an advantage here -- and yet, they're still the standard.
When's the last time a high school kid uploaded a video to MNCast to expose an abusive teacher?
Oh, right. MNCast doesn't exist anymore. And the videos on domestic systems -- along with most of their content -- are just rips off of YouTube, or put there as an afterthought.
Whatever. I'll be right about this again, and when it all comes true, people will respond like they knew it all along. I'm just glad these blog posts have date stamps.
I wouldn't be writing this if I weren't wincing at the idea of "Korea" getting its ass kicked on the playground. Or slowly being made into a bitch in its own backyard.