South Korea is often touted as one of the most technologically interconnected societies on the planet, with many IT innovations being developed in the country several years before they become the norm elsewhere. Social networking in Korea, for instance, was spearheaded by Cyworld, which at its peak could lay claim that nearly 90 percent of Koreans between the ages of 18 and 35 were members. Cyworld has come and gone, however, and most Koreans have abandoned it for Facebook and Twitter, ironically because of the restrictive nature of Korean Internet culture.
There is a rather well-guarded wall surrounding Korean websites. Most popular websites require potential members submit their Korean national ID number or foreign registration number in order to register. Another problem is the language barrier. These two factors ensure that most Korean websites only have members who can read Korean and legally reside in Korea.
“I wanted to buy something once from a Korean website,” explained Steven Ahn, 25, a Korean-American who was visiting his relatives in Seoul.
“Because the Korean website wouldn’t let me register, they basically said, ‘Sorry, you’re not a Korean citizen (or legally living in Korea), so we don’t want your money.’” It is because of this virtual wall that surrounds the Korean Internet that many Koreans have started to flock toward websites that are owned by foreign companies.
David Hwang is the founder of a blog called HwangC. He says while the Korean Internet can be light-years ahead of other countries, it is still light-years behind when it comes to how well it adapts to the global market.
David Hwang believes that all Korean bloggers will be using Wordpress in a couple of years from now. (Yonhap News)
Some bloggers use Wordpress to work around the limits of Korean websites. (Yonhap News)
“When Cyworld was at its peak, nobody had ever heard of Friendster, Myspace, Twitter, or Facebook,” he said. “That’s because they hadn’t been invented yet. When Facebook came along, Koreans used to describe it as the American Cyworld.” He argued that if Cyworld, established in 1999, hadn’t been so restrictive, it would be the dominant social networking site in the world, and nobody would have ever heard of “that Mark Zuckerberg guy.”
Hwang believes that a Korean Internet exodus is inevitable not only for social networking sites, but also for blogs.
“At the moment, most Korean bloggers use Naver,” he said. Naver is widely considered the “Korean Google,” as it is Korea’s leading search engine that also offers multilingual dictionaries, blog hosting, and other similar services.
“Naver is very restrictive. Users can’t really customize their blogs if they use Naver. What’s more, most Naver blogs will only appear in the Naver search engine, which sorely limits the number of hits they can get,” said Hwang.
Hwang was originally a software engineer who developed mobile phone applications for the Korean branch of Motorola. He says he was handsomely rewarded at Motorola, but he found the job unfulfilling. He decided to quit and start his own business.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do at first, but I always enjoyed writing, so I started with that,” he said. “Shortly after I decided to do that, I noticed how limited my blog would be with Naver, and because I can speak survival English, I was able to discover Wordpress.”
Wordpress is a free and open-source blogging tool and is the most popular content management system in the world. According to web technology survey site w3techs.com, 16.4 percent of all websites use Wordpress to manage their content. This is 54.2 percent of the market share for content management systems.
“That’s where I got my business idea,” Hwang explained. “I found that with Wordpress, it would be easy to customize my blog to my own specifications, and it was totally free, but with the Korean ones, I can’t really do that. The only problem was that you have to speak English in order to understand the Wordpress manuals out there. But I thought it would be a good business opportunity if I could market myself as a Wordpress expert in Korea.”
After this epiphany, the focus of Hwang’s blog was to advertise himself as a Korean authority on Wordpress. Several companies asked him to construct their websites using the popular blogging tool. A publishing company approached him, asking him to write a 300-page book about Wordpress. The book was originally scheduled to be published in June, but Hwang says that it will most likely come out at a later date. In addition, other bloggers have asked Hwang to teach them how to use the site. He has since started offering Wordpress classes to people who “no longer want to be shackled by Korean blogger software.”
Hwang thinks that in two years time, all Korean bloggers will be using Wordpress or other foreign blogging software.
Hwang also emphasized the importance of search engine optimization. He believes that while Korean blogging engines can be easily found by Korean search engines, they are very poor when it comes to global search engines. While there is no guarantee that Hwang’s envisioned exodus will indeed occur, Hwang believes that at the very least, the sophisticated Korean bloggers will make the jump to Wordpress.