Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Facebook could have been Korean, but wasn't

I wrote here, and will talk endlessly, about the bizarre, segregated nature of Korean society and the Korean Internet. Part of it is language, for sure, and while it's generally safe to assume that everyone reading Naver is Korean, there's really no need to make that ironclad by presuming that everyone is a South Korean citizen (let's add the criterion land-owning male while we're at it).

And yet that's exactly how Korea does business. Western TV networks shoot themselves in the foot by requiring you to be in the country to watch programs on their site. Korean TV networks don't, but Korean websites make you feel like an idiot for your presence as anything other than a South Korean adult.

This is the most recent example: I signed up for an discount online bookstore. To do so, I had to lie and say that I was living overseas, even though books can only be shipped within South Korea. Someone living in the Amazon, working at the South Pole or typing away from a cushy prison somewhere is more than welcome to sign up, but not someone like me sitting 11 km from the company's headquarters.

Most of the time, these are the sort of petty disputes and annoyances that form the core curriculum of certain departments at universities, the sort that use words like 'post-colonial', but this article raises the question of whether Korea could have had Facebook before there ever was a Facebook.

Korea has had its own equivalent of Facebook (I don't use the term 'social networking' because it's a stupid buzzword) called Cyworld since 1999, five years before Facebook was even launched. I did make an account when I got here to see a friend's photos, but I was directed to the American version of the site, sort of like Facebook telling Korean users of the site to go fuck themselves rather than interact with their Australian friends.

Of course, Facebook would never do such a thing, but if you have to treat the Korean website as different from the American website conceptually, you have to realize just how strangely Korean companies operate online. Compartmentalizing users to various countries (America, Vietnam, Germany, etc.) actually passes for forward-thinking by Korean standards considering that the standard response would be to not allow those countries in the first place.

Cyworld was there before Facebook, Pandora was there before YouTube and Korean cell phones have long been ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet while the rest of the world treats the entire world as its market, Korea can't even treat all of Korea as its market, never mind all of East Asia or any significant part of the world.

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