The Mini Hompy at 10: A Potted History of Cyworld

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.

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

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.

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

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 Korea.

See here for the full text.

Graph: Bloter Reveals Most Used Korean Characters on Twitter

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 cheeky snigger (pronounced something like “ker-ker” with a bit of aspiration) appeared more than 52 million times in Korean Tweets between April 2009 and July 31, 2011. In doing so, it narrowly edged out the slightly more emphatic ㅋㅋㅋ, which had almost 36 million appearances.

Next up, at No. 4, was the first sign of gloom, with ㅠㅠ. Pronounced “yoo-yoo,” this symbol has no actual meaning, but is used to symbolise sadness because of its resemblance to tears falling from eyes. The mirth returned at No. 5 and No. 6, however, with ㅎㅎ (“her-her”) and ㅋ, which clocked up around 22 million and 21 million appearances, respectively.

After that were the Korean words for “me,” “today,” “ah!” “somewhat,” “well,” “too” and “more.” Snuck in among them were the still more emphatic ㅋㅋㅋㅋ and ^^, the latter of which is the equivalent of a Korean smiley face due to its resemblance to two cheerfully raised eyebrows.

An aggregation of the happy and sad symbols once again bore out the apparently cheery nature of Korea’s Twitter users:

But it wasn’t all fun and frivolity. According to Bloter’s research, of the 3 million users to have written more than 10 percent of their Tweets in Korean over the period, some 367,150, around 11 percent, ‘fessed up to having used some kind of profanity in their Tweets. Should you be of a mind to know what those sweary words were, Bloter has helpfully listed them in the article.

 

Bloter also noted, however, that of the more than 880 million Tweets covered in its study, just 3.2 million or so (0.3 percent) included bad language.

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

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 — said that as well as collecting the user’s phone number, third-party phone numbers stored on the phone, the device’s serial number and info on legal guardians of users aged 14 or under, the company would now require users to submit their email address, too. All this is in addition to users’ Kakao Talk name and ID, their photo, the times they used Kakao Talk and all the services they accessed when they did so.

According to the Daum story, Kakao Talk said that anyone declining the new terms would no longer be able to use the service. To make sure nobody missed the point, Kakao Talk went on to say that refuseniks would have all their data deleted from Kakao, and they would thenceforth be unable to chat with their friends on the service.

Unsurprisingly, Kakao Talk’s abrupt tone endeared them to no one. In a sentiment widely echoed on Twitter, 28-year-old Han Mo fumed:

SK Comms recently leaked personal information, so when Kakao Talk insists on gathering similar data against such a sensitive backdrop, it’s clearly a problem. Above all, just like the big drawback they’d suffer if they deleted my account, I’ve decided to respond to this appalling news by leaving Kakao Talk.

This is not the first time Kakao has attempted to gather user info in a rather peremptory fashion. Last October, according to the Daum piece, the company quietly changed its policy in order to collect real names, ID numbers and email addresses from members who agreed to disclose this information. Such was the outcry that Kakao boss Lee Jae-beom felt compelled to issue an official apology on the company’s blog.

However, writing on his blog Inside Social Web, the ever insightful Kim Taehyun questioned whether Kakao Talk’s sins were more of presentation than substance. (Full disclosure: Kim is a partner of TMN, of which Nanoomi.net is also a part. I’m a sometime contributor to Nanoomi.)

Citing previous Kakao Talk guidelines on data gathering (which you can see on his blog), Kim says that for all the bellyaching on Twitter, most of the “changes” have in fact been in place since at least last October. The one key alteration, he says, is the email requirement, which is intended as a means of verifying users’ identity. Kim says that Kakao Talk is pushing ahead with new services aimed at competing with top players in the industry, and email addresses are apparently an essential part of this.

In the worldview of developers, Kim continues, email addresses are a very basic element of online services, and so Kakao Talk’s staff no doubt believed their “request” would cause scarcely a ripple of protest. This is especially true given that Naver and Daum — Korea’s portal giants and operators of key Kakao competitors Naver Talk and My People — require users to submit both their real names and their ID numbers.

In addition, according to Kim’s analysis, Kakao Talk’s data gathering and privacy policies are broadly similar to those of US messenger service What’s App?:

So, why did Kakao’s comparatively innocuous request cause such a firestorm?

To Kim, Kakao Talk were simply guilty of dreadful PR. Instances abound of cack-handed efforts by the likes of Facebook and Google to alter privacy rules without anticipating the response, with some mess-ups caused by a deeply held belief that the company was actually doing users a favour. In a podcast interview I heard recently, Douglas Edwards, Google’s “employee No. 59,” said that when the company was working on its ill-starred Buzz service, Google’s engineers really believed that they were helping users out by automatically connecting them with everyone from their email archive. How, they figured, could anyone possibly object to such a convenient, time-saving initiative?

Korea has seen its share of privacy blunders, so I could certainly believe that Kakao’s move was born of inexperience rather than more nefarious motives. If anyone disagrees, please feel free to leave your thoughts below.

Money Today Lists Top 4 Korean Apps for August

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 which you can only escape by tackling a series of puzzles. To do this, you must survey the various objects around the room, and use them individually or in specific combinations.

Originally available on Android, Room Escape was recently released on iOS too, with only minor tweaks to the original. The game operates via a cursor-hand that lets you pick up objects, a magnifying glass that lets you view objects more closely, and footprints that show you moving to the next room once you’ve completed the initial escape. You can view all the items in your possession on a separate menu page.

Room Escape is very easy to play, Money Today says, so users can get wrapped up in it pretty quickly. Because it requires constant focus on how best to use the objects you have, the game exercises both the imagination and lateral thinking. By having players piece all the clues together, the article adds, Room Escape also provides a real kick when they eventually figure out how to get out the series of rooms.

Room Escape is free or costs 99 cents for the premium version from the Apple App Store. It’s free or 2,000 won from T Store.

Name: Where Shall We Go?

 

OS: Android, iOS

 

Developer: 제이허브 (J Hub?)

 

To distinguish itself from the slew of travel-related apps already available, Where Shall We Go? provides a stack of real-time information on regional festivals, performances and exhibitions, that lets users just head out and find something to do without laborious planning beforehand.

After finding a festival that interests them, users can access comments from people who’ve already visited, or post questions/comments of their own. The app also links up with Kakao Talk and T Map to provide more real-time info and make it easy to share with friends. Where Shall We Go? also plans to hook up with Daum’s My People mVoiP service soon.

Where Shall We Go? uses T Map to provide info on traffic conditions and predict how long it will take you to arrive at your destination. A “Hot Recommendations” sidebar offers up ideas of where to go, and a search function lets users easily connect with other online communities or blog posts related to the event they’re headed to.

Where Shall We Go? is free.

Name: AV Player

 

OS: iOS

 

Developer: ePLAYWORKs

 
AV Player is a video player app that makes it easy to watch all major video formats on iPhones and iPads. This user-friendly, highly versatile app allows users to wirelessly flick videos over from their PC and watch them direct on an iPhone or iPad without the need to convert them first. Friendly to numerous formats, the app is particularly useful in Korea because it supports SMI files.

AV Player lets users move the timeline backwards or forwards by dragging the screen to the left or right, and also has a function to adjust the onscreen ratio. It also supports subtitles, including in Korea, making it ideal for watching foreign movies. For a more detailed review of AV Player, check out this post on tech2.

AV Player is $2.99.

Name: 인맥관리의 힘 (Power for Managing Groups)

 

OS: Android

 

Developer: JHP Solution

 

In these demanding days of online networks, blizzards of phone numbers and endless meetings, it’s all most of us can do to keep track of contact details and appointments. Power for Managing Groups, however, aims to make life easier by helping you remember how you know these various people, and what exactly it was they wanted with you (or you with them).

Besides just phone numbers and records of incoming calls, Power for Managing Groups lets users leave a short memo reminding them of what the call was about. As soon as the call is done, the app prompts you to leave a note about its contents, which you can later retrieve simply by entering the person’s name or phone number.

The app also offers stats on who you are contacting most, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, so you’ll know who you should be calling more (or less).

Power for Managing Groups is free.

Infographic: How Koreans Use Twitter

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 of their Tweets in Korean. It is, Bloter says, the first study in Korea to draw on Tweet information over such a long period.

 

  • There are more than 3 million people now Tweeting in Korean, for a total of 880 million Tweets.
  • 17,441 of those people have been Tweeting for more than 20 months, 863,290 for more than five months, and 2,166,452 for fewer than five months.
  • Some 445,339 people Tweet at least once a month, and 1,179 “Twitter mania” types Tweet more than once per day.
  • The average Korean Tweeter has 126 followers, and follows 119 people.
  • He/she has posted 453 Tweets.
  • He/she has sent 182 Tweets that mentioned another user, and has been mentioned 413 times in other people’s Tweets.
  • He/she has been retweeted nine times and RT’ed someone else three times.
  • He/she was the last person to RT a Tweet 23 times.**
  • He/she sent 79 Tweets that had no response or RTs at all.
Among people who have sent at least 10 messages:
  • They have an average of 195 followers, and are following 181 people.
  • They have posted 721 Tweets.
  • They have sent 284 Tweets that mention another user, and have been mentioned in 407 Tweets posted by other users.
  • They have been RT’ed 14 times, and have RT’ed other users’ Tweets four times.
  • They have been the last person to RT a Tweet 35 times.**
  • They have sent 12 Tweets that had no response or RTs at all.
  • Most Tweets are sent between 11pm and midnight.
  • The fewest are sent between 5am and 6am.
  • There is a temporary tail-off of Tweets mentioning other users between noon and 1pm.
  • Twitter conversations (in which users address one another directly) start increasing in number at 7.30pm before reaching a peak at 1am.
  • Most Tweets (15.25 percent) are sent on Tuesdays, with the least (12.7 percent) going out on Saturdays.
  • Most of Korea’s Tweets (45.4 percent) come from Seoul, with Gyeonggi Province in second with 21.57 percent and Incheon third with 4.84 percent.
  • Within Seoul, Gangnam is the most Tweet-friendly area, accounting for 7.33 percent of the capital’s Tweets. Next is Seocho with 3.44 percent, followed by Mapo with 3.31 percent.
  • The most popular subway station for Tweeters is City Hall, with 3.25 percent. Next is Gangnam with 2.4 percent, and third is Yeoksam with 2.16 percent.
** This seems like a very peculiar statistic to me, but I couldn’t work out what else it might mean (and nor could a couple of Korean friends I asked). If you know better, please feel free to share in the comments section.

 

 

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

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 is lucky enough to be in the top 10.

However, portals being what they are, and Naver being what it is, no concrete standard or algorithms have ever been revealed for how the real-time search comes up with its results. This has led to persistent accusations of manipulation and other shenanigans at the top portals, culminating in this exhaustive demolition by a local blogger. (See here for my post on this.)

On the second of this month, Naver added a small, upward-pointing arrow to the top-right of its “real-time soaring search terms” box, along with all the other real-time lists, including “hot topic keywords” and “popular terms with youths.”

Clicking on the arrow will conceal the list for a week, and users don’t need to log-in to Naver disable the function.

Talking to Bloter, a spokesperson from Naver parent NHN said:

The “real-time soaring search items” is the best platform in Korea for showing the different questions people have, and representing group sentiment, so it’s always received a lot of interest from our users. That said, we’ve had requests regarding the exposure of results on the service. So to accommodate these requests, we’ve decided to continue offering the service but with a choice on whether those results are shown or not.

Though this measure on its own is unlikely to silence Korea’s Naver discontents, it is surely an encouraging indication that, after long being somewhat tin-eared to public sentiment, Korea’s portal giants are being forced to adjust to an age with genuine competition.

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

The makers of the infamous Oppa Midji app — whose stalker-esque USP briefly landed its key developer in custodyare 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, That Girl, onto the Android Market on the 26th. Subscribers to the app are introduced to one new boy or girl every day, and if he/she takes their fancy, users can select them and then submit their “bids” for the chance to meet up. The app, the developers say, is intended as a parody of the blizzard of daily deals sites available in Korea.

ZDNet says the app is aimed at giving regular mortals the chance of a date with a true hunk/babe. One Piece’s boss, Kim Jeong-tae, said the idea came to him through his own misadventures in online dating.

I was single for a while, so I joined up with all the social dating services. But it almost never matched me up with beautiful women, and even if it did, they’d ignore me. That’s how this app came to be created.

The article says that the people on offer every day are carefully selected by Flask Mobile to try and minimise any potential problems. People wishing to put themselves forward as the “daily meat” can do so by submitting their profile and picture via the app itself.

Once all the bids are in, the daily selection takes his/her pick of what’s on offer and contacts them by email. Because of privacy concerns — on which Kim and his team have some form — the email address is not shown on the person’s profile, and is only revealed to the daily selection after he or she has selected who their lucky partner will be.

According to the article, this unorthodox approach is already proving popular with many users. One said:

In contrast with other dating sites, it’s all very above board and reveals only the minimum of my personal information. I like it!

While another chimed in:

Though you can get a bit of a feeling of rejection when you are turned down during the auction,  it’s easy to use and you can see the people other users choose, so it’s a lot of fun.

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

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 United States, at 4 million daily downloads, and China, at 1.5 million. It scarcely needs to be pointed out that in terms of population, Korea is a shrimp beneath those two whales.

This dizzying growth is indicative of just how fast Koreans have taken to iPhones, which, lest we forget, only arrived in the country in late 2009.

Making this achievement more remarkable still is that, rather than submit all its games to  being classified by Korea’s Game Rating Board, Apple earlier this year stopped selling games in the country. (However, with the government recently scrapping those requirements, that could be set to change soon.)

But before app developers get too excited, Borbala Bakonyi, writing on the Distimo blog, sounded a note of caution:

Although the overall number of downloads has been steadily increasing in Korea, this is mainly due to the free applications: the proportion of paid downloads is still much smaller than in Europe or the United States. This tendency seems to be true for all of Asia.

In good news for local developers, Bakonyi added that “local publishers reign in the Top 300, which leads us again to the conclusion that localization might be the key for becoming popular in this area.”