Cyworld, once a social networking phenomenon in South Korea before losing ground to Facebook and Twitter, vowed to make a comeback with its redesigned global service which could fill a niche rivals have yet to exploit: users’ desire for self-expression.
Earlier this month, Cyworld launched a test version of its revamped Cyworld social networking service for international users, making a second entry into the global market since shutting down its U.S. service two years ago.
Armed with lessons from its earlier flops, Cyworld believes there still is a need for a new social networking tool that cares less about information, and more about people and users, a high-ranking executive said.
“If you look at other social networking services, they are largely about sharing information,” Yun Jun-seon, who heads Cyworld’s global business at SK Communications Inc., said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “The current social networking services provide no self-expression tools for users.”
The Cyworld social networking site took the Korean Internet space by storm. When Cyworld rolled out its Minihompy feature in 2001, Minihompy became a go-to destination for young adults who religiously documented their daily lives on miniature-size personal homepages.
Before the dawn of blog and microblog services, Cyworld flourished in South Korea in part because Minihompy successfully played on narcissism and underlying desire to peep into others’ lives.
Korean Internet users likened their Minihompy to their room in the online space where they invited friends, referred to as “ilchon,” to share daily logs of pictures and journals. Users enjoyed presenting their online persona and revealing their closely-held private thoughts that were shared only with their “ilchons.”
“There has never been such a self-expression tool with personality and sensibility,” Yun said.
However, Cyworld failed to strike a chord with overseas users when it first tried to go global in 2005.
“We were overly focused on global localization, making services vary from country to country,” the executive said. “With Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., China and Vietnam all having different services, it became very difficult to introduce a new feature.”
Hence a key change in the 2011 version of Cyworld for global users is its adoption of the universal platform, available in six different languages.
At the same time, Cyworld stayed true to its original form to satisfy needs for self-expression, he added.
It retained features that allow users to project their personality into their Minihompy, by setting typefaces and easily designing their personal pages, picking virtual wallpaper or other virtual items for decoration and buying background music from online stores.
These features, along with privacy settings that allow users to control how much information they reveal, will set Cyworld apart from Facebook and others in this field, Yun argued.
In two weeks, Cyworld’s upgraded global service lured new users from 120 countries, according to the executive, who declined to disclose the exact number.
Cyworld has 26 million users in South Korea, compared with 4.48 million Korean users on Facebook.
As Twitter and Facebook gain ground among the growing number of local smartphone users, Cyworld began to face an uphill battle even on its home turf. In August, the number of unique visitors to Facebook overtook Minihompy in South Korea, according to Rankey.com.
Another big blow was a massive online security breach that hit its parent SK Communications in July, which compromised millions of users’ personal data and tainted the brand image. On top of that, Cyworld has to continue reinventing itself to fight the growing perception that its prime days are over.
Yun is unfazed.
“Cyworld is unique in that it targets people in their 10s and 20s,” he said. “They have a desire to express themselves.”