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.

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