This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 8, 2006
In late August, the Associated Press moved a wire report that a Korean company was out to challenge MySpace's dominance as the pre-eminent and most popular online hangout for teens and young adults.
Forgetting for a moment that older folk have now discovered MySpace as well and are likely pushing much of its continuing growth, there is the question of whether Cyworld.com can make any kind of dent in the American market anyway.
While reportedly wildly popular in Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan, that doesn't necessarily translate into success stateside. Karoake has never caught on here the way it has in Japan, for instance. Nor do we drink our beer warm the way the British do. And despite its international pre-eminence, soccer is probably less popular than even hockey here.
Each nation has its own likes and dislikes, it's own quirks as to what will fly. Let's be honest: Only in France could Jerry Lewis still be considered a comic genius.
Which brings us back to Cyworld.com, which its Korean publisher is touting as the MySpace killer.
Only here's the thing: A couple days of using our new (free) Cyworld.com account leads to the inescapable conclusion that Cyworld.com is a lot closer to "The Sims" than it is to MySpace.
The Cyworld experience
As with MySpace, Cyworld offers free accounts. However, Cyworld doesn't seem to be advertising supported at least, the only ads I saw were house ads for Cyworld and public service announcements from the non-profit Ad Council.
Rather, Cyworld is structured in such a way that while you can do a few simple things with your free account, you're likely to be willing to pay a small price to upgrade your account.
Unlike in MySpace where you can trick up your profile page with one of the countless services that provides you code for free, Cyworld is as mentioned more like popular role-playing game "The Sims." In Cyworld, your home world is a cartoon-like virtual apartment. You can use the free 50 acorns that come with your new account to purchase a few pieces of furniture for your "Minihome" or clothing for your avatar but once those are gone, you won't be able to further customize your Cyworld presence without forking over real-world money for more acorns. Acorns run 10 for a buck (or 10 cents apiece) and there doesn't seem to be any volume discounting. (On the other hand, you purchase acorns through PayPal which at least offers security to the end user.)
And even if you buy more acorns, there really isn't all that much to spend them on. There are only a couple dozen to a couple hundred of each different item you might want from hair styles to book cases.
Fortunately, you can store items you're not using/wearing, so you don't lose anything every time you change/redecorate.
Making the comparison
What has driven the phenomenal growth of MySpace has been, to a large extent, the ability to search for bands and for said bands to post their music online (up to four songs for free listening and /or downloading, anyway), along with their schedule of upcoming gigs. In addition, MySpace is geared for meeting new people online every bit as much as it is for hooking up with existing real-world friends.
With its build-in blog and bulletin features, and the ability for users to add "friends" (mutual relationship) and "favorites" (simply add them to your list without their permission), MySpace is a near-perfect online networking service. (And the fact that you can set your profile to private so only those you allow can see your information offers peace of mind.)
Cyworld seems geared more toward hanging out with already-existing friends and family an observation confirmed by Cyworld's management in the A.P. story. It seems that millions of Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Taiwan Chinese (you can't interact with users from other countries every nation seems to have its own domain) stay in touch with family and friends via Cyworld.
But the American online experience has been different; end-users' expectations are likely to be different here.
The whole concept of a "virtual community," unbound by geography or tradition, has always been a driving force in the growth of online usage in this country going back 20 years to the boom in popularity of the dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs, before the Internet was made public.
Creating a little avatar to represent yourself and a little virtual cartoon house to live in?
We can already do that in "The Sims" and millions do.
Why they would want to have "The Sims" without the gameplay is a question the Cyworld folks are going to have to answer if they really want to make a dent in MySpace's popularity.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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