Koreans Learn to Love Twitter

A few months ago, something peculiar happened on my Twitter feed. Having only recently started using my long dormant account, I was slowly building up a list of contacts and news feeds when I got an e-mail saying that someone from my recent past in Korea was now “following” me. That, in itself, wasn’t odd, but his identity did give me a bit of a jolt: It was my 40-something ex-boss at Morning Calm, a man I’d never have pictured being into social networking sites, least of all a foreign and (to me at that point) relatively marginal one such as Twitter.

As a long-standing and very active Facebook user, I had noticed a gradual increase in Facebook use among my Korean friends. From virtually zero a couple of years ago, I had befriended perhaps 30 or 40 Koreans over the intervening months. With very few exceptions, however, those friends would conform to a certain pattern, namely, in their 30s or younger, more internationally oriented (due to their work or upbringing) and English speaking. As a result, Facebook’s progress, at least among Koreans I knew, was slow and steady, rather than all-conquering as it had been back home.

Doosan CEO Yongmaan Park
GNP politician Park Geun-hye

In the weeks that followed, I noticed all manner of Koreans – politicians, CEOs, celebrities and, of course, a fair few people I knew personally – popping up in the “who to follow” section. After chatting to a few Korean friends, who pretty much all confirmed that Twitter was indeed hot stuff in Korea, I decided to write a piece on the phenomenon, which was printed by Yonhap news here.

I won’t regurgitate everything in the article, but basically, the people I spoke to – a strikingly young CEO of a Korean social media startup called Cizion, a communications professor, a PR manager and a PhD student – agreed on several key causes of Twitter’s ascent: the arrival of the iPhone, the similarities between Facebook and a local site called Cyworld, and, in a related point, the dynamism and openness of Twitter in comparison with more closed systems, such as Facebook and especially Cyworld.

This last point was echoed in a fascinating recent blog in The Economist, which took a closer look at the challenges facing Naver, Korea’s biggest portal:

In response (to Twitter and Facebook), Naver has launched a Twitter-like service called “me2DAY,” a Facebook-like service called “NAVER Me,” and “NAVER Talk,” a text- and instant-messaging service. But Naver, as one Korean blogger puts it, runs a gingerbread house. Unlike Google, Naver almost never collaborates with smaller companies on new services, but builds everything itself. It is difficult to move personal data in or out of Naver. And it tacks new services onto a bright, cluttered homepage. The gingerbread house if full of treats. Why would anyone want to leave?

For much of the last 10 years or more, while Korea has grown into an IT powerhouse with some of the highest rates of broadband penetration in the world, practically all its online activity has been on sites that are either effectively closed to foreigners or have no appeal to them. Two major cases in point are Naver, whose search engine continues to dwarf Google in Korea (though the fast adoption of Google-friendly SNS poses a threat to this dominance), and Cyworld, whose much-hyped foray into the US market recently closed down.

I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but my own feeling is that the arrivals of the iPhone, Twitter and, to a lesser extent so far, Facebook, could be heralding big shifts not just in the social activity of Koreans, but also in the way they connect with the outside world. Though language remains a big barrier, Korea’s belated move to global internet platforms promises to open up its internet culture in much the same way as the iPhone upended its mobile market.

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