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.