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South Korea:Local Twitter and Facebook Alike Facing an UpHill Battle

In every economy in the world, there are at least one or two local brands that manage to survive a fierce battle against global powers. Korea had been a well known holdout country in Global IT trends with its portal ‘Naver.com’ beating Google and its social network ‘Cyworld.com’ trumping Facebook. As the country enters the wave of TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPhone, Facebook), Korean SNSs (Social Networking Service) are rapidly losing ground. Korean IT companies have come up with their new ‘socials’, but young, tech-savvy Koreans are disclaiming them as ‘faux-socials’ and continue to lean toward Twitter and Facebook.

The mid-2000s was a heyday for Korean IT brands. It was almost impossible for Korean college students to build social relationship without a Cyworld account and often their online lives were formed around Naver’s email, blog, café and club service. Korea's biggest portal site, the Naver, was invincible, usually ranked number one on almost every IT chart. It is still No. 1 in traffic, but things have started to change. Among global social network services, Twitter has gone wild in Korea, with its growth rate the second fastest in the world. Facebook users have doubled in recent several months. Both were totally unblocked by the  ‘C-log’ of Cyworld and ‘me2DAY’ of Naver. These two are self-proclaimed formidable opponents of Facebook and Twitter.

Right under an introductory article to Cyworld’s new social network ‘C-log’, which is a combination of Facebook and Twitter,this comment was added by netizen ID: Ppyororong.

트위터와 페이스 북만 있어도 충분히 웹 서비스 사용하는데 불편함이 없더라구요. 그래서 싸이월드+네이트 계정을 모두 지워버렸다는.

Twitter and Facebook are more than enough for me when using (social) web service. So, I deleted my Cyworld and Nate accounts all together.

Losing a good head start in the SNS battle can lead to a huge defeat. Unlike any other market where switching from one brand to another does not cause major inconvenience, in the case of SNS, the lock-in-effect kicks in at a certain point and the compatibility between two or more social services can become a major obstacle in switching to new service. It takes a certain amount of time and effort to carry all web content and relations formed through the previous site to new one, and some information and connections  can be  lost in the process. So, users nearly HAVE to choose between a lineup of Google-Twitter-Facebook or the Naver-NaverME-me2DAY.

The Bloter, a combination of Blogger plus Reporter, is a Korean new media specializing in Internet tech field. In its article “That’s not what ‘Social’ is”,it argues that the Naver is facing an uphill battle against Twitter and Facebook.

트위터와 페이스북을 대상으로 한국 사용자 사이에서 빠르게 형성되고 있는 ’잠금효과(Lock-in-effect)’를 네이버 소셜전략이 극복하기란 쉽지 않다.

It is very hard for Naver's social network strategies to work out when the lock-in-effect kicks in. The effect has started working  in favor of the Twitter and Facebook among Korean users.

It is very easy to be forgotten in the fast-changing IT field that Korea was actually the birth place of SNS. Around the early and mid-2000s, it had a high reputation in the IT field and the Cyworld's SNS model had been benchmarked by foreign companies and taught in several MBA courses. Local Korean financial newspaper, Maeil Business lamented about Korean SNS’s fading glory. According to Maeil report, this reversed trend was due to Korea’s biz-environment which is hostile to medium-sized venture companies. Small companies have struggled in tough competition with big corporations and even after they survived the battles, they soon disappeared after being merged or being destroyed by intense power struggles in management.

Nowadays there are numerous micro-blogs like Twitter in Korea. The up-and-coming social networks are Yagg, Tocpic, and me2DAY. Blogger Ebizstory commented about Naver's ‘me2DAY’ having poor compatibility with other software, though it had made small gains with celebrity marketing, and evaluated ‘Yagg’ as most resembling Twitter, calling it a Korean translated version of Twitter. The ‘Yagg’ and ‘Tocpic’ provide the SMS service which is unavailable in Twitter in Korea.

Twitter, which was rooted and used in English using countries, is not a really convenient service for most Koreans. Only the login page and several major pages are translated in Korean. In a local bookstore, there are many  ‘Twitter for dummies’ sort of books helping Koreans to keep up with the trend. Plus, the Twitter’s core service, its SMS service is not even available in the country. Blogger Donghoda commented that the twitter’s inconvenience has given birth to  clones in Korea.

트위터의 페이지. 오른쪽 붉은 색 부분이 현재 핫 이슈를 나타내는 부분이지만, 모두 영어로만 나온다. 또한 한국의 이슈가 무엇인지 알 수 없다는 문제점이 있다…또한 국내 트위터 이용자들은 휴대폰 SMS로 문자를 올리는 것도 불가능합니다… 트위터는 영어권 서비스이고, 회사 규모가 직원 60명에 불과한 중소기업인데다, 전세계가 단일 채널이어서 야후나 구글처럼 그 나라의 실정에 맞춘 나라별 서비스를 제공하기는 쉽지 않을 것 같다. 그래서 한국형 트위터들이 우후죽순 생겨나고 있다.

The Twitter page – the red part (red letters) on the right side –  is where the society’s hottest topics should be shown. [note: the color can be different depending on default settings] But since these are all written in English- I can’t learn about Korean topics from the page…Furthermore, the cell phone SMS service is unavailable in Korea…Twitter is basically English-based service and it is a medium-sized company with only 60 employees. And it has a single channel covering in the world. Thus, it is very hard to provide a localized service as Yahoo and Google did. That is why Korean versions of Twitter are mushrooming.

Photos taken by Neokin

IT power blogger Neoskin posted his review on the Naver's conference he attended. The Naver promoted its “GO SOCIAL” strategy of combining all three social networks inside its territory: Naver’s ‘me2DAY’ (Twitter look-alike) and its social homepage ‘NAVER Me’ (Facebook look-alike) and the ‘NAVER Talk’ (a combination of MSN service and SMS service between smart phone users). The blogger wrote that he got the impression that Naver coalesced all the other social networks quite well and predicted that it will not be extremely hard for Naver to reclaim its glory to certain extent, since it is still most widely used, go-to portal site in Korea. But he later added it is not a perfect social and comments wrote below his article echoed this view:

토이솔저 “네이버에 적을 두는 터라 아무래도 관심은 있으나, 아직까지는 ‘역시나 네이버'란 느낌입니다. 개방적인 척 보이려고 하면서 여전히 폐쇄적이라는 부분부터 해서. 분명히 꾸준히 뭔가를 한다는 인상은 있지만 좀 두고 봐야죠.

ID: Toy Soldier wrote: As I have my address (meaning a currently active account) in Naver, I am still interested in it. But I still can’t get myself from thinking ‘it is still just Naver’. It wants to look much ‘opened’, but it still is a ‘closed’ service. Well, at least it tries quite steadily, anyway- (skeptically) we will have to wait for the result.

The major difference between Naver and Google at first glance, is the appearance. While the Google leaves almost nothing but the search box, Naver displays too many functions and gadgets from its main page, enough to distract users to forget why they came here for and lead them wander on the website for several hours. And its daring ‘Go-Social’ move, if it goes right, will only strengthen this pattern.

명섭이 “껍데기님도 말씀하셨지만 자꾸 네이버 안으로 가두려는 것이 불안해요. 네이버와 같은 포털사이트는 ‘과자로 만든 집'이라는 말이 생각나더군요. 멋진 과자집의 문을 열고 들어서면 그 안에는 많은 달콤한 것들이 있어서 무엇을 위해 그 집에 들어갔는 지 알기 어렵다는 것이죠. 이러한 모델이 당분간은 효과를 발휘하겠지만 앞으로는 어떨지 모르겠네요.

ID: MyungSeop wrote: As the blogger said, I am worried too by Naver’s move to further lock people inside its system. A portal site like Naver, is like ‘a cookie house’ (from Hansel and Gretel), where you open the door to a stunning cookie house and find there are so many sweet things lying over that you forget what brought you there. This kind of model will work in the short run but I am pretty doubtful how it will work out later.

The bloter article from the previous paragraph added:

네이버가 네이버라는 울타리 안에서 ‘소셜’을 덧붙인 것, 다시 말해 네이버 블로그 및 카페 글부터 사진첩, 뉴스, 웹툰 등에 이르기 까지 네이버 ‘안’에 존재하는 콘텐츠에(만) ‘소셜 버튼’을 추가하는 방식은, 네이버 입장에서 볼 때 ‘개방에 역행한다’ 등 다양한 비판에도 불구하고 어쩔 수 없는 선택이다.

Naver added ‘social (functions)’ in its enclosure. In other words, Naver had merely added a ‘Social button’ on Naver's already existing contents like Naver blog, Naver cafe, Naver News and Naver Webtoon and so on. Criticisms were directed at this ‘reverse-openness’ of Naver. But I have to admit that it is the only option Naver has.

Korean local IT powers may feel remorse for opening a bout against global SNSs in a field where they once dominated, but at least Korean people took ringside seats to watch one of most fierce matches between the local IT brands versus the TGIF trend.

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