It is a little-known fact that Cyworld actually invented Facebook before Facebook. A favorite story for company officials is how they showed the ropes to a younger Mark Zuckerberg when he visited SK Communications' Seoul office earlier in the decade, obviously before Facebook became the global epidemic that it is today, although they are unable to present proof of the Facebook founder's visit.
Cyworld originally tried to attract foreigners to its service several years ago, but the global roll-out failed despite the many obvious advantages of building social networks with Koreans. Showing the depth of their ignorance on the subject, some foreigners said it was Cyworld's insistence on providing a Korean online cultural experience - right down to the name used for users' pages, "minihompy", which prevented it from succeeding. Eventually, Cyworld was forced to compromise by offering an English-language version, and reduce the amount of flashing graphics and interactive content on its pages – which while only taking twenty seconds to load in the land of ubiquitous 100Mb Internet connections, took around two hours in bandwidth-challenged third-world Internet countries like America.
As Facebook grew exponentially but cultural prejudice prevented Cyworld's rise, it adopted a multiple language strategy with a single platform supporting Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese, German and Spanish, so that people could make global friends, but this failed when it transpired that for the most part people from these countries didn't want to be friends with each other.
Cyworld is now under brutal attack in Korea by the foreign invader Facebook, with the so called Cyworld Perimeter being pushed back last year, resulting in the loss of over one million people. At the same time, Facebook saw the size of its army of followers in Korea rise by 63 percent. Meanwhile the sharing of 35 million Cyworld users' personal information with Chinese hackers last year failed to generate an increase in Chinese friends for minihompy owners.
But Cyworld has advantages, according to Cyworld. A spokesman for Cyworld said that the service is "regarded as cute and more emotionally satisfying", because it allows users to build their own room in cyberspace - a "minihompy" - which can be decorated with pixelated furniture at very reasonable prices in 'dotori', the minihompy currency. The cuteness and emotional nature of the experience has maintained Cyworld's popularity among teenage girls and women in their early 20s, and the online virtual world also allows them to escape from their abusive parents and husbands. Oddly, unlike Facebook, Cyworld has struggled to attract other demographics, although activity by men in their 50s on the site is said to be increasing.
Now Cyworld has developed a radical solution to its previous failures, announcing a plan to build a version of Cyworld in which Cyworld is hugely popular. In the updated version of its virtual world, the user's avatar will occupy their room and go about their business as normal, but when they switch on their computer or cellphone screen within the room, all their friends will be using Cyworld to talk to each other, and Facebook will never have been invented. The beauty of the plan lies in the fact that because it is a programmed world, friends who aren't actually using Cyworld will just be simulated with a small database of stock phrases centering around K-pop and interchangeable stars' names. The avatar will not be able to escape from their confined social environment, adding to the realism.
59 year-old Professor Kim from Korea International University's Department of Psychology, agreed that Cyworld's plan was likely to succeed and people would not notice that their friends were simulated. "Growing scientific evidence suggests that we are all living in a much larger 'Earth-simulation', possibly created by people we would think of as our distant descendants for research purposes, but nobody really cares about that either."
Cyworld's stock price rose 25% on the news, in Cyworld.
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