Cultural tailoring of online tools: a look at Korea’s Cyworld

Cultural differences transfer directly online – the same digital idea may succeed greatly in one culture and simultaneously flop in another depending on how well it is designed to tap into the indigenous culture. Online tools being newly introduced to developing countries must be custom-tailored to fit.

It’s been over a year since Cyworld, Korea’s largest social networking service, launched in the States – and a relatively silent year at that. When Cyworld U.S. launched in August 2006, the technology media buzzed about its prospects of trumping MySpace and creating a new sensation in the online social networking business.

While it is a bit too early to tell, Cyworld surely has not made an impressive entrance. It is not that they didn’t do the research. Prior to launch, SK Telecom, the owner of Cyworld, created a special task force that consulted over eight months with American trend-spotting firms like LookLook in order to tap into the idiosyncrasies of the American user base.

Among the changes made was a cutting down of the “cutesy” factor. While this kind of design sells in Asia and particularly to women, it doesn’t cut it in the States. The range of ‘mini-me’s or personal avatars, had to be expanded to include users of various races and the overall features were scaled back from the cherubic look of the Korean version. In terms of market research, wary of the fact that the American social networking business is close to saturated with services like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and Xanga, Cyworld U.S. decided to target a slightly younger audience of girls in between grade school and high school. Yet despite such efforts, there has been little news of success.

Perhaps, Cyworld is missing the point in that changes to design and appeal are not enough. Sure, users of different countries have distinct cultures that dictate their preferences of look and feel. But maybe what is at issue here is that different cultures have different conceptions of social networking entirely.

Cyworld’s buddy system is based on the Korean concept of rating the distance of family members. Husband and wife are 0 chons – the metric for familial distance – apart. Parents and children are 1 chons, and on and on. This is where Cyworld gets the name for its buddy system, where friends are called 1 chons. The intricate friend rating system allows users to rate amongst their friends several tiers and designate privacy settings accordingly. The culture’s social network is not so much an insider/outsider system, but one of varying degrees of insiders. For American users, this kind of buddy system may just seem cumbersome and unnecessary.

Moreover, unlike the States, Korea is a homogeneous and relatively small country. Given that, the social circles are more close-knit: everyone knows, or at least knows about, almost everybody else with in a relevant social circle. There are a handful of high-class high schools across the nation whose alumni go to the top schools, creating a repetitive circle of people. “People news” about not celebrities, but about the pseudo-celebrities among everyday people is much celebrated.

In such a country and culture, Cyworld is a sensation. It allows for a peak into the private life of people that you sort of know, and hence, is interesting. There is even a separate jargon dedicated to the act going through people’s sites to find other people of acquaintance called “pado,” or literally, riding the wave. This – not the cutesy avatars and mini-homepages – is the main source of Cyworld’s success in Korea. It taps into the social dynamic of the culture and knows how to work it. In a country like the States – a heterogeneous, individualistic and large country – such a social networking model doesn’t hit an instant chord.

The case of Cyworld U.S. is indicative of a critical aspect digital pioneers must take note of when introducing new tools into developing societies. The model or infrastructure of the same concept need be varied to resonate with the culture. For instance, the same idea of an online social networking tool can simultaneously fail or succeed in different countries depending on how well it can resonated with the indigenous culture.

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One Response to “Cultural tailoring of online tools: a look at Korea’s Cyworld”

  1. marycjoyce Says:

    This was a really interesting analysis, Aram.