Posts Tagged ‘socialnetworking’

Cytogether: Cyworld’s Social Action Network

Cyworld\'s social action website

Cyworld's social action website

Recently I decided to take a systematically look at online social action sites in Korea, and whenever possible trying to arrange an informal interview with the sites’ manager(s) to gain a little more insight into their operations and also get a better general sense of the landscape for online social action in Korea. How is the internet bettering the lives of the less privileged in Korea, and how is it achieving social impact?

A couple of weeks ago, I netted my first site, when I had a chance to sit down and talk with Ms. Park Jie-hyun who is one of the manager’s of Cyworld’s Cytogether service.

Cyworld, for those who don’t know, pretty much dominates the online social networking space in Korea. Having launched in 1999 it boasts 22 million or over to a third of the Korean population as its members.

All things that go up must come down and Cyworld is no exception. Lately it has seen a noticeable decline in traffic, as it struggles to find the next generation of services that will appeal to the hyper internet-savvy Korean users. To add insult to injury, it has seen a string of failed launches abroad, due in no small part to its over-confidence in its platform and hence a failure to recognize and pay due-diligence to cultural difference in the way that users in different cultures use the internet socially. It has all but abandoned many of the markets it has entered abroad, and the US may soon be its latest casualty.

Despite its many ailments, one of the bright spots in Cyworld’s traffic is its online social action site, Cytogether or in Korean, ??????, which literally translates to: "a world of good relationships" or more meaningfully, "a world where we get along".

Cytogether uses the Cyworld platform of socially networking its members to achieve 3 main functions: online donations, online petitions and matching volunteers with non-profit organizations. It was launched in 2005, and has currently over 800 registered non-profits and NGO’s in its network. Users can choose to donate to these vetted organization by giving "dotori", Cyworld’s online currency, or by changing to their mobile phone service, which allows for monthly planned donations. Current stats show about USD 20,000-30,000 in online donations (monthly average of about USD 0.90 per donor), about 5,000-10,000 petition signups daily and about 20-30 volunteer matches per day. The most active issues on the site are children (abuse, education, poverty etc.) and, surprisingly, animal rights.

Ms. Park mentioned some of the challenges facing Cytogether:

  • All the duties of promoting, managing, vetting, organizing and improving the site fall on the shoulders of 3 full-time and 1 part-time staff hance the site is extremely resource-strapped;
  • Balancing the promotion of its 800+ member organization on its homepage is no small feat. Organization are always approaching them with "emergency" situations and demand that they be highlighted. Cytogether, to its credit does provide training sessions for its member organizations, organized on a quarterly basis;
  • Better storytelling of member organization causes, activities, and success stories. It hasn’t been doing an effective job communicating the human stories in a more personable voice.

Despite its challenges, Cytogether plans to perform a major update of the site, and focus its offering towards the end of 2008, and partner with a recruiting service to offer job matching services to the unemployed and senior citizens.

The current value of Cytogether lies in its ability to provide exposure to charity organization that would otherwise won’t have the budget or the wherewithal to promote themselves. Traffic is showing steady growth over the past 3 years, where at launch, the site was encouraging its members to give a couple of "dotori" (each is worth about USD 0.10), to now there are regular donations of USD 10.00. The ratio of one-time donors to monthly donors is also on the rise, now standing at around 7 to 3 members.

To me the issue with Cytogether seems to be one of focus. It’s currently everything to everyone. The argument is that it’s a "platform". But I don’t think that relieves them of the tough responsibility of championing key causes. Cyworld is currently too influential not to be using its influence it bring to light tough social issues. Does it want to be IKEA or Herman Miller?

It is also apparent that there is a possibility that Cytogether may outlive its relationship with its parent Cyworld. Just as Cyworld, Cytogether is a platform for activity, there really is no reason why Cytogether cannot be an independent service. If the current downward trend of traffic and popularity in Cyworld continues, it may be in everyone’s best interest for the two to part ways.

Walking away from the interview, my head was full of ideas for improving Cytoether’s service:

  • Donor’s wall: If you go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to the right of the entrance there is a wall of all the top donors to the museum. Recognize that some people (organizations) like to be recognized. A page could list large donations;
  • API: Go viral. Allow bloggers to promote Cytogether on their site through a widget or a badge. A widget can show causes/organizatios that they support;
  • Better member profiling: After a member donates, send a follow-up email with a link to a survey that identify what issues and causes the member is interested in. It can also ask members to opt-in for alerts. Building a database benefits both the users and Cytogether to provide more relevant content;
  • Targeted alerts: Based on database mentioned above, Cytoether can send targeted action alerts to those members who have opted in;
  • Matching donations: Corporations and workplaces can sign up to provide matching donations for employee donations;
  • Corporate badges: Cytogether can provide corporations supporting Cytogether "official" badges to indicate that they support Cytogether;
  • Stronger member networking: Members of Cyworld should have tools to alert each other to causes they support;
  • Better "minihomepy" integration: Member "minihomey" (which is Cyworld’s member profile page) should indicate that the member supports an organization or cause on Cytogether and encourage visitors to do the same.

I have no means looked at online social action in Korea in any depth, but from initial research, it seems, like many other things in Korea, to be dominated by large corporations and their services or foundations. Naver, the online behemoth, has a service called Happy Bean, where users register to accrue a "bean" every time they use Naver’s service, such as their email. Each bean is a matching donation from Naver of about USD 0.10 and users can donate these beans to a cause of their choice. This seems awfully self-serving and borders on being unethical to me. CJ Foundation (CJ is a member of Samsung extended "family") has Donors Camp modeled on Donors Choose (Charles Best of Donors Choose actually consulted on the project).

Despite this sad state of affairs, Korea does still have one of the most participatory online cultures in the world. And by all indications it seems like the online donations and participation is on the rise. My hope is that all that participation blossoms into social awareness and responsibility, and flows into growth of grassroots online social action and services.

Twittering and the Future of Social Networking in Korea

Twitter: What are you doing?

Twitter: What are you doing?

Ever since I moved to Seoul last year, I’ve begun to post to Twitter more regularly. It started as a means to stay in touch and update friends I left behind in the US. I expected people I know to follow my feed, however I really didn’t expect people I didn’t know to become followers. Who would be interested in my mindless ramblings?

When I received notifications that total strangers were following me, at first I was a little distressed… then intrigued… then somewhat comforted in a strange way. They started to respond to my updates. Here were people who discovered me through search, or through other followers, with whom I share a passing interest which may be that we are English-speakers living in Korea, or interested in technology, music, or even Firefox3 etc., who track my comments and with whom I could hold casual conversations.

Jason Kottke made a really interesting observation that there is a trend towards making private conversation channels public and permanent. Blogging is thus a the public form of emailing, Flickr is public photo sharing, YouTube is public home videos and Twitter is public form of instant messaging (IM).

I always thought that with Twitter, I was just broadcasting my thoughts into the wind but when I started to get comments and followers, it did indeed feel more like public instant messaging.

The barrier for someone to respond to a Twitter post is really low. You don’t have to know the person, and they don’t have to approve you for you to follow their feed. This makes for looser more casual relationships, but no less interesting ones. The potential of services such as Twitter seems to be in its "discoverability" – the ability to find others who share you thoughts and start casual conversation, just by the fact that you broadcasting your thoughts publicly. One of my favorite Twitter spin off services is Twistori which simply track Twitters that begin with "I love…", "I hate…", "I think…", "I believe…", "I feel…" or "I wish…". It’s addictive to watch people random yet actual thoughts scroll by.

The dominant social networking site in Korea is Cyworld, and from stats, most of the traffic on Cyworld is between "Il-chon" or "approved friends/family". This reinforced the notion that Koreans are very closed in their relationships, and prefer closed social networking sites like Cyworld to more open ones such as MySpace. The Korean version of Twitter, Me2Day challenges that notion to a certain degree. Here is a site, much like my experience with Twitter, where users form loose relationships with other users they "discovered" leading me to think that the internet is a greater enabler of social relationships than I thought.

Now that Cyworld’s popularity is on the decline, they are fishing for new ideas. They had a terrible launch of Cy2.0 which was supposed to Cyworld’s next generation but after a lukewarm reception, they hastily demoted to being a lowly "blog" application tab. They are also in beta version of a 3D service not unlike Second Life. I’ve contended for a while that it would have been in Cyworld’s best interest to move more agressively towards mobile, because that’s where all the action is occurring, by acquire a service like Me2Day and moving towards shorter, more casual sharing of thought and comments to complement its more established social networking system. Instead they created a service called Tossi which is similar but doomed to fail, lacking strong integration with Cyworld and more so because it’s a paid service (you have pay for data usage). This is due in no small part due to a rift between SK Communications who operates Cyworld and SK Telecom which is its parent mobile operator. Sad.

I never thought that a service like Second Life would ever have much of a chance in Korea, but I am seriously having second thoughts (no pun intended). Cyworld is showing strong signs it’s losing steam and If my original assumption about Korean being adverse to open, casual social relationships can be overturned by services like Me2Day, maybe it’s an market just waiting to be tapped. We’ll have to see.

Just for laughs, I stumbled upon a hilarious role-playing conversation in Twitter between Starwars Characters (see screenshot below).

Luke Skywalker\'s twitter feed

Luke Skywalker's twitter feed