The Mini Hompy at 10: A Potted History of Cyworld

by Niels on September 22, 2011

On September 17, the Cyworld Mini Hompy, long the unchallenged king of Korean social media, celebrated its 10th birthday. Predating Facebook, MySpace and even Friendster, the Mini Hompy was groundbreaking in its time — many Koreans claim it as the first true social networking site — and still has far and away the most members of any SNS service in Korea. Despite the recent onslaught of Facebook, Twitter and their slew of Korean clones, Cyworld still boasts a massive 26 million (and climbing) registered users, more than half the country’s population.

In a recent interview with Bloter, Cyworld founder Lee Dong-hyung gave an overview of Cyworld’s early days and the challenges it now faces. Drawing heavily on that, along with some other material, here’s a brief recap of the Mini Hompy’s 10-year story so far:

Cyworld, sans Mini Hompies, was founded in August 1999. Following two barren years, Cyworld’s founders decided to have one last shot at popularity through their Mini Hompy concept. Though cutesy in an Asia-friendly, Hello Kitty kind of way, Mini Hompies were broadly comparable to personal pages on MySpace, with customisable features providing a personal homepage (hence “hompy”) that your Cyworld friends could visit. Those features included a “diary,” a “jukebox” and a photo gallery, where friends could visit and leave comments.

Even then, however, success wasn’t instant.Having started as an online “club,” Cyworld had initially lagged against similar clubs offered by then-rising star FreeChal and the still popular “cafes” from Daum. After making the shift to the Mini Hompy concept, Cyworld found its idea being aped three months later by FreeChal’s “My Hompy” service. Cyworld sued but, following a temporary injunction and a six-month legal battle, the court found in favour of FreeChal.

But as Lee tells it, Cyworld’s temporary loss became a long-term triumph.

Over the course of the lawsuit, both Cyworld and FreeChal became much better known through the media. FreeChal became a very popular service at the time. But after a while, FreeChal announced that it was going to switch to being a paid service, so users began moving to Cyworld. We declared on our site: ‘Cyworld will never be a paid site.’

Which is not to say that Cyworld wasn’t a money-making venture. With the April 2002 creation of the “Mini Room” — one of the Mini Hompy’s most popular and enduring features — Cyworld hit on a hugely successful way to shift its own virtual currency: dotori, or “acorns.” (Each dotori costs 100 won.)

The Mini Room gave the growing band of hardcore Mini Hompy users — a phenomenon referred to as Ssaijil, or something like “Cyworld addiction” — the chance to use virtual currency to buy decorations and furniture for their virtual rooms. The Mini Room remains one of Cyworld’s best-loved features and, presumably, one of its top money spinners.

In August of the following year, local telecoms giant SK Communications acquired Cyworld. One month later, foreshadowing the hugely successful Facebook Pages, Cyworld launched its “Brand Mini Hompy” service, which offered companies the chance to set up their own Mini Hompies. Alas, corporate Korea was apparently not yet ready for this idea — a position not helped by Cyworld’s decision to charge for the service — and the Brand Minin Hompies failed to take off. “Imagine,” Lee says wistfully, ” if they had. Today, we could have Korean companies and celebrities hosting Cyworld Mini Hompis instead of websites.”

As it looked to expand, Cyworld was to face a host of other disappointments. Efforts to crack the US and German markets in 2006 ended in failure, with Cyworld pulling out in 2010 and 2008 respectively. Besides the built-in disadvantage of coming from Korea — a far smaller, lesser-known market than the United States with attendant linguistic/cultural gaps — Cyworld made several key strategic errors. A decision to back Windows-mobile smartphones, though understandable from the perspective of IE-dominated Korean, proved costly when iOS and Android took off. Worse, however, was Cyworld’s insistence on setting up separate operations in each country it entered, meaning a Cyworld member in Vietnam, say, was completely cut off from a user in Korea. The contrast with Facebook couldn’t be greater.

The arrival of the iPhone in late 2009 was also a game changer for Cyworld. In a market previously known for its aversion to global social networking sites and search engines, the iPhone (closely followed by Android phones) stoked an explosion in the use of Twitter and Facebook. Having conspicuously failed to export its success, the Mini Hompy was now under attack on its home turf as never before.

Yet for all the forecasts of its impending doom, the 10-year-old Mini Hompy has proved a resilient creature. The site now boasts 10 billion pictures and a brand spanking new, Twitter-influenced iPad app. Though its moment for international success has almost certainly passed, the Mini Hompy remains so deeply entrenched in its home market, it’s hard to imagine it being usurped anytime soon.

UPDATE: I guess it pays not to make predictions. This story from Penn Olson reports that recent figures indicate that Facebook recently surpassed Cyworld for the first time in terms of monthly visitors. Nonetheless, Korea still has only 4 million registered Facebook users in Korea compared with Cyworld’s 26 million, and that figure will surely take a far longer time to change.

NB: This post was based on my own imperfect reading and knowledge, along with invaluable help from @sunlars. If any of it is inaccurate, please feel free to correct me in the comments.

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Is IE 10 Going to Kill ActiveX? (No, but…)

by Niels on September 18, 2011

In a development with potentially far-reaching consequences for Korea’s internet, this post on the Building Windows blog announced that the Metro-style browser on Internet Explorer 10, part of Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 OS, will be entirely free of plug-ins.

Besides spelling an end to support for Flash-based content, this also means that ActiveX — the archaic and roundly loathed plug-in still widely used in Korea to facilitate online payments — will not function on the newest form of the browser!

Dean Hachamovitch, head of the IE team, wrote:

For the web to move forward and for consumers to get the most out of touch-first browsing, the Metro style browser in Windows 8 is as HTML5-only as possible, and plug-in free. The experience that plug-ins provide today is not a good match with Metro style browsing and the modern HTML5 web.

Running Metro style IE plug-in free improves battery life as well as security, reliability, and privacy for consumers. Plug-ins were important early on in the web’s history. But the web has come a long way since then with HTML5. Providing compatibility with legacy plug-in technologies would detract from, rather than improve, the consumer experience of browsing in the Metro style UI.

Unfortunately, it’s a little too early to start dancing on ActiveX’s grave just yet.

Though Windows 8-powered mobile devices — ie, a possibly very small crop of tablet PCs — will only come with the Metro UI, the OS will continue to offer the option of an older format on desktops and PCs.

From Hachamovitch:

On Windows 8, consumer sites and “line of business” applications that require legacy ActiveX controls will continue to run in the desktop browser, and people can tap “Use Desktop View” in Metro style IE for these sites. For what these sites do, the power of HTML5 makes more sense, especially in Windows 8 apps.

Given how much online content in Korea still runs using Flash, not to mention the ubiquity of ActiveX, the prospect of a plug-in-free IE world must be a profoundly worrying one for Korean companies and developers. However, the writing is clearly on the wall for relics such as ActiveX, and the sooner it can be eliminated from Korea’s internet, the better, surely, for everyone.

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My Yonhap Interview with I Can Has Cheezburger? Boss Ben Huh

September 16, 2011

I recently interviewed Ben Huh, the boss of I Can Has Cheezburger? and FAIL Blog, among many others, for Yonhap. He was a very engaging, media-savvy fellow, and had some fascinating stuff to say about being a Korean-American entrepreneur in the United States, and whether he’d have been able to succeed back in his native [...]

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Graph: Bloter Reveals Most Used Korean Characters on Twitter

September 15, 2011

As part of an exhaustive study of Twitter, part of which I covered here, Bloter has released a series of graphs showing the most commonly used words and characters in the Korean Twittersphere. The good news? Korean Twitterians seem to be a fairly jolly bunch. Behind the ubiquitous “RT,” ㅋㅋ, the Korean symbol for a [...]

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Kakao Talk Data Changes Enrage Netizens — But Is It Much Ado About Nothing?

September 13, 2011

Mega-popular messenger service Kakao Talk recently implemented changes to its data collection policies. And in true Google+ style, they told people unwilling to sign up that they could take their custom elsewhere. In its announcement last week, Kakao Talk — used by some 18 million people in Korea and another 4 million or so worldwide [...]

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Money Today Lists Top 4 Korean Apps for August

September 9, 2011

Another busy month for apps, it seems, as Money Today has selected four favourites for August: (Apologies for any translation/transliteration errors. I’m writing this from the UK with a hangeul-free keyboard.) Name: Room Escape   OS: Android, iOS   Developer: GameDay   This claustrophobic game begins with you waking up trapped inside a room, from [...]

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Infographic: How Koreans Use Twitter

September 5, 2011

Bloter, working in conjunction with local data mining firm Gruter, has come up with an informative infographic drawn from Twitter use in Korea between April 1, 2009, and July 31 of this year. As they were unable to base their research on nationality per se, Bloter instead focused on Tweeters who wrote at least 10 percent [...]

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Strife-Weary Naver Lets Users Disable Real-Time Search Terms

September 4, 2011

Naver, Korea’s No. 1 portal site, now lets uses switch off its “real-time soaring search terms,” (실시간 급상승 검색어) long one of its most prominent features. Updating every 15 seconds or so, the function purports to show the portal’s most popular search terms in real time, generating very high volumes of click-through traffic to whatever [...]

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‘Devil’s App’ Makers Return With Daily Deals for Dates

August 29, 2011

The makers of the infamous Oppa Midji app — whose stalker-esque USP briefly landed its key developer in custody — are back. And this time, they offering the chance of dream dates — to the preferred bidder. Having changed their name to 플라스크모바일 (Flask Mobile, presumably), the developers released their latest creation, called That Boy, [...]

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Distimo: Korea Ranks No. 3 Worldwide for Free iPhone App Downloads

August 19, 2011

New figures from analytics firm Distimo have revealed the rather astonishing fact that Korea ranks No. 3 in the world for daily downloads of free apps from Apple’s App Store. According to Distimo’s analysis, Korean iPhone users downloaded an average total of 1 million free apps per day in August. This placed it third behind the [...]

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