With technological edge, social media gets 'Koreanized'
If you spot a dangerously rattling manhole cover on a street, think English translations should be extended to subway announcements, or need some tips on important life decisions, where would you turn for help?
For Seoulites, the quickest help may come from the city mayor via Twitter.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who took office in October with strong support from younger generations, checks and replies to his Twitter posts past midnight and throughout the weekend. Some issues are as practical and personal as repairing a manhole or lending an ear to the pressures of teen life, while others are politically complex, such as whether to terminate free police protection for the luxurious residence of former general-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan. Trivial or not, the city's ongoing issues often seem to start with a single tweet.
"Citizens send a lot of proposals and ideas to the mayor on Twitter, and the mayor directly answers to them," said You Seong-su, an official in charge of social networking communication at the city government's New Media division.
Social media is becoming an increasingly essential vehicle for the political, corporate and social dynamics in Korea. Social commerce is the latest buzz in marketing. Politicians often measure their popularity by the number of their Twitter followers. Social media is certain to become a powerful campaign tool in the December presidential election.
Its effects are not always positive, and older demographics are still largely beyond its reach, but the role of social media continues to grow in the world's most wired nation, with the steep increase of smartphone users and a social atmosphere where sentiments sizzle fast.
Korea's technological edge seems to be a major factor in the phenomenon. In particular, the "Koreanization" of global social services lures people with designs and content better suited to local tastes, says Kim Jung-gon, co-author of "Korean Social Media Marketing," published in April and noted for its localized insight.
As a "Koreanized" success model, he cites the rapid growth of Kakao Talk, a multi-platform mobile messenger application launched in 2010 by Seoul-based Kakao Corp. The app allows iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry users to send and receive messages for free and is now used by almost all smartphone users in the country. With its global membership of 44 million, Kakao Talk recently expanded its boundaries to social networking service with the launch of KaKao Story, a photo-based profile service akin to Facebook.
"When there are successful items off the shores, Koreans do not hesitate to bring them to their country and re-create them with the addition of new and unique features," Kim said.
Localized models have traditionally prevailed in the information technology arena. According to January data by the online statistics service Internet Trend, 90 percent of the country's web search traffic occurred in the two major local portal services, Naver.com and Daum.net, while Google commanded a mere 5.4 percent.
Social commerce, a form of electronic commerce where buying and selling of products and services involves social media, thrives, with the monthly turnout by the nation's four major social commerce companies -- Ticketmonster, Coupang, Groupon and Wemakeprice -- surpassing 100 billion won ($88.5 million) in March.
"It would be safe to say most of the economically active population is using smartphones," Kim says. The number of smartphone subscribers surpassed 25.7 million last year in the country with a total population of about 50 million.
"The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the gifts we receive: people like to talk about those things, and they spread quickly by word of mouth on social sites."
The quick, unfiltered dissemination of information in social media, however, is a double-edged sword. False stories freely float on social networks, inflame emotions and rally people around erroneous causes. In February, a pregnant woman wrote on Twitter page that she was pushed onto the floor and kicked in the stomach by a waitress at a franchise restaurant. The claimed cruelty prompted waves of angry retweets and led the restaurant, Chaesundang, to apologize publicly while sales at other chain stores also plummeted. But the restaurant later asked for a police investigation, which found there was no kicking of the stomach and the story was largely fabricated.
Controversy also arises on privacy. In April, a small publishing company canceled its hiring of an applicant after going through her tweets, deciding that her personality was unsuitable for the firm. The applicant wrote an angry post on her Twitter, and the incident was quickly disseminated and denounced as an "online surveillance." The company apologized and paid her a 1.5 million won compensation for psychological harm done in the reversal of its decision.
"When there is an incident that is sensationally ugly, it tends to be retweeted zealously even though no one is sure if it's a fact," said Bae Woon-chul, chief of Social Media Strategy Lab, a private research and consulting center.
"Social media is a personal space, but not a private one," he also noted. "Employers are entitled to make online reputation checks because social posts are an open arena."
Bae said his institute is developing a filtering system, called LODI, or Like or Dislike, that works on social networking sites. When users report suspicious accounts to LODI, it will determine whether they are auto reply accounts, called bots, or intended to frame political opinion, and disseminate its findings.
"It isn't right to think social communication mirrors the entire public opinion," Bae said, citing the surprise results of the parliamentary elections in April. Support for progressive opposition parties swept social networking dialogue, but the polls gave a majority win to the ruling conservative Saenuri Party. "Its user demographics are slanted towards people in their 20s to 40s, who tend to be politically progressive."
Apart from its complex ramifications, the rise of social media has brought epochal changes in the way individuals interact. Kim Ji-han, a freelance publicist, reaches for his smartphone first in the morning to check his Facebook.
"It's a great way to stay connected with my foreign friends," said Kim, 32, who traveled South America last year. "For the great beer or food I had, I post pictures and my friends give comments. They can't be reached by mobile texts, and emails are inconvenient." (Yonhap)