S. Korea: A Social Network Reshapes Politics

Miri Leung does all the usual teenage things online: she chats, e-mails, decorates her cyber home and buys the latest fashions for her avatar. But lately she’s also venturing into an area that most political candidates still dream about. The 18-year-old is going online to learn about political issues with her country’s real-life presidential hopefuls. “It’s cool,” says Leung. “It kind of makes me feel like [the candidates] are just like all of my other friends.”

Leung lives in South Korea, where candidates are making new efforts to jump on the cyber bandwagon and woo the country’s youngest voters. Their vehicle: a network called Cyworld, South Korea’s equivalent to American online social sensations like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster. Launched in 1999, the site recently catapulted to the No. 1 spot among Asian networking sites, hosting an estimated 20 million users daily and drawing in an estimated $146 million in revenue. (MySpace, by contrast, brought in nearly $200 million in 2006; Facebook a little over $100 million.)

Cyworld, says its creators at SK Communications—South Korea's top Internet provider—was designed to appeal to Koreans with its two-dimensional bubbly cartoon characters and bold graphics. Users exchange real money for the Cyworld currency of dotori, which translates as “acorns.” With it they can accessorize their own pages or buy gifts for others. The virtual currency has become so popular that it spills over into real life, too. Jung-Eun Lee, a 33-year-old Seoul-based reporter, for example, says her birthday gifts included dotori from her husband and Cyworld gifts from friends.

According to company officials, about a third of Cyworld users are between the ages of 30 and 50. But it’s among younger users that the site has hit the mother lode: corporate spokesmen say that a whopping 90 percent of South Koreans in their 20s are registered users of Cyworld. That’s especially important given that the government lowered the country’s voting age to 19 last year, making an additional 4.2 million South Koreans eligible to vote since the last presidential election in 2002.

Not surprisingly, the politicians' Cyworld homepages—known as “minihompys”—blend right in with those of their young constituents. The candidates design their characters—complete with virtual wardrobe; fix up their Cyworld homes; they even have Cyworld buddies who generally consist of their supporters. The candidates reach out to their buddies via messages, articles or save-the-date memos for campaign-related events. Another key feature: in order to register, Cyworld users must have a Korean national ID number, so candidates can be sure they’re connecting with genuine voters.

More than 90 percent of South Korean households have high-speed broadband at home, making it one of the world’s most connected countries. During the 2002 election, South Korea’s current President Roh Moo Hyun’s core supporters consisted of the younger, Internet-savvy generation, as opposed to the conservatives who backed his opponent, Lee Hoi Chang. On the morning of the election, Roh supporters launched a massive campaign, sending e-mails and text messages to more than 800,000 people, urging them to vote. The use of both technologies is attributed by many as one of the main reasons Roh came out on top.

The power of the Web is certainly understood by South Korean politicians. Asked whether he is a registered Cyworld user, opposition lawmaker Park Jin says, “Of course! You have to be if you want to be heard and understood by the younger people.”

Cyworld’s reach can only be envied by politicians elsewhere. In Web-savvy Japan, a few candidates do have personal profiles on Mixi, the nation’s most popular networking site. But national election laws prohibit political candidates from using the Internet during campaigns, saying it allows unlawful "distribution of unauthorized documents and pictures.” The law also sets penalties for slandering candidates on the Web. Several politicians, particularly those with the Japanese Democratic Party, have pushed to lift the ban. Meanwhile, political restrictions in China—which has the second-highest number of Internet users after the United States—make it unlikely that Chinese politicians will be able to exploit the Web as a campaign tool anytime soon.

In the United States, the challenge for candidates is to make their voices heard. In addition to ubiquitous mass e-mails and conventional campaign sites, most of the main White House contenders also have set up profiles on Facebook and MySpace. (Hillary Clinton confides on her site that she’s a bad cook and that her closets need organizing; Mitt Romney discloses that he enjoys The Beatles and Mark Twain.) Some, like Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama have also used text messaging to reach out to supporters. Their efforts haven’t always met with universal approval. The personal “walls” of candidates on Facebook are filled with uncomplimentary virtual graffiti and the number of hate pages for nearly every candidate almost rivals the number of their support sites. But for White House aspirants who have yet to achieve the Cyworld penetration level, even negative attention may be better than being ignored online.