Evan Williams: Twitter is Going Korean

NOTE: This article was originally posted on Seoul Space, for whom I will now be contributing from time to time. Thanks to @richardmin for arranging the invite to the press conference!

As Richard posted earlier, Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, was in Seoul today giving a press conference about why “Twitter Loves Korea,” and how it plans to requite the phenomenal popularity it has enjoyed here over the last 12 months.

In what was a fairly brief speech — with even the “we love Korean food” PR schtick kept to a minimum — Williams said how delighted they’ve been with Twitter’s success in Korea, and how that success has pushed the country to the forefront of Twitter’s thoughts. Quoting a recent report from Daumsoft, Williams noted that Korea had seen a spectacular 3,400 percent jump in vernacular Tweets in the space of just one year.

Then, he said, he had some news to share.

  1. From yesterday (Jan. 19), Twitter.com will be available in Korean, thus becoming only the seventh language Twitter supports.
  2. Also from yesterday, LG Uplus, Korea’s No. 3 carrier, will be letting its users Tweet via SMS (using the number #1234), the first time this service has officially (though not unofficially) been available in Korea. As an added sweetener, SMS Tweets will be free for all LG Uplus users for the next six months.
  3. Twitter has also entered into a partnership with local portal Daum, the first time the American Goliath has officially partnered with a Korean internet company. The details are in this Korean press release, but basically, the deal sees Daum host “Daum Live,” a real-time list-up and search function for hot issues on Twitter in Korea.

So, a great big high five for one of Twitter’s most enthusiastic followers aside, what does all this really mean?

The opening of a Korean-language Twitter.com site is not likely to make a huge practical difference in the short term. After all, Twitter has done rather well in Korea so far without one and enterprising third-party app makers — most famously Twtkr.com — have been more than happy to take up the slack.

Its real meaning, perhaps, is as a sign of how important Twitter’s success in Korea is to the company. Though Korea isn’t a huge market, the way in which Twitter has grown here from non-entity to shaper of national debate must be almost as heartening to the company as its role in such events as the Iranian protests in 2009. Lest we forget, Korea’s internet market was almost totally isolated from foreign companies until as late as 2009. Since then, in the space of just over a year, Twitter (and increasingly Facebook) has shaken up the entire internet model here and altered the way people communicate and get their news. For Twitter, PR doesn’t get much better than that.

Of course, Twitter’s opening a Korean-language site also means the company is interested in doing business here, as its deals with LG UPlus and Daum demonstrate. Again, given the proliferation of hacks and third-party apps, neither of these developments is breathtakingly innovative. But as statements of intent, they are significant.

After his presentation, Williams stuck around for a brief Q&A session, during which the questions ranged from the personal (What type of character are you?) to the techie (Will you be making it possible to use hashtags in Korean without underbars? — a question that seemed to catch Williams a little unawares). However, a few more significant questions arose.

Asked why Twitter had chosen to work with Daum and LG Uplus, neither of whom are the true big boys in their respective fields, Williams said that the two companies were very open and innovative, so they seemed like a good match with Twitter.

Asked how he thought Korean social media companies are responding to the Twitter onslaught, Williams said only that he recognizes how innovative Korean SNS sites have been and he hoped that Twitter could complement the creativity here.

Finally, another attendee asked when Twitter was going to open an office in Korea. Unsurprisingly, Williams just said that Twitter has no plans to open an office here at present, but would be keeping its options open. Though the immediate assumption might be that Twitter has no stomach for facing down Korea’s Communications Commission or its real-name registration system, the more prosaic truth may well be that for all Twitter’s explosive success in Korea, the company simply doesn’t need an office here at present. But if its growth continues at even a fraction of its current rate, that could well change.

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