Friday, January 17, 2014

The demise of Cyworld and the rise of Google in Korea

Two articles that appeared just days apart in the Joongang Daily this month illustrate the contradictory tendencies in South Korea's rapidly evolving information society and powerfully emphasize the manner in which culture and language shape information technology, not the other way around!  Ironically, the world's most digitally networked nation is also in some ways one of its most inwardly-focused countries, in Korean terms the proverbial "frog in a well."  In fact, this influence of culture and language is arguably the highest hurdle Korea faces in making the transition to a creative economy.
In 1995 Korea began building its information superhighways under the highly successful Korea Information Infrastructure (KII) project and the Korean social networking service Cyworld launched in 1999, a half decade before the invention of Facebook in the U.S.  It quickly became wildly popular with near universal use by younger Koreans.  However, efforts to export the business model to the U.S. and Europe failed.  This month, as reported by the Joongang Daily, Cyworld announced that it would end its global service on February 10.  The article attributed the failure mostly to Cyworld's slowness in moving onto mobile platforms. It might have also noted that Cyworld was originally designed in the Korean language with the intent to appeal to Korean cultural preferences, and it seemed somehow unable to break those bounds in the global market.
The fortunes of Google Korea are a different story entirely.  The title of a long article in the Joongang Daily, "Google Korea Searches for Answers," reveals its bias. (Note that this article contains some factual errors, such as suggesting that "Google operates in 50 countries..." The first half of the article documents Google's struggle to achieve market share in competition with local competitors Naver and Daum.  However, the concluding portion of the article actually documents Google's steadily increasing market share.   Unfortunately, it fails to even mention that Naver, Korea's leading web portal is almost exclusively a Korean language site, developed with local cultural preferences in mind, and does not even pretend to be a comprehensive internet "search" engine.
Readers of this blog will know that I've posted frequently on this topic over the years.  I do think that this interaction of language and culture with technology and the interplay of local with global networks deserves a great deal more scrutiny.

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