Virtual fame, real success

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Virtual fame, real success

In Korea’s dot-com world, Kang Hee-jae is something of a legend.
Less than a year ago, Ms. Kang, a 30-year-old jewelry designer, was like any other affluent young professional in Seoul, dining at trendy restaurants, browsing through new stores and test-driving expensive new cars.
But then she started a personal Web site under the Internet ID Heejaeholic, where she uploads stylishly edited snapshots from her daily life ― pictures of friends, restaurants she visits, clothes, toys and even bars of soap she buys.
Since then, her life has changed. Everywhere she went, she said, she could sense young girls staring at her. The boutiques she visited, the items she bought and the restaurants she went to with her friends started showing up in girls’ magazines, quickly becoming fashionable among her peers.
“It was really bizarre,” she said. “When I went to a department store one day, I could hear people talking in whispers about me. Then some of my friends started complaining, saying they didn’t want their pictures used in my blogs, because people recognized their faces.”
Her site has attracted more than 1.7 million visitors, and currently averages 6,000 visitors a day. It’s on Cyworld, one of the popular Internet sites in Korea that allow users to set up a “mini-hompy,” or mini-home page. More than 6,500 people have added her site to their “favorites” list, and more than 100,000 of her photos have been “scrapped,” the Cyworld term for a feature that allows users to copy one another’s photos and text.
She is linked to about 3,000 “first cousins,” a feature by which some users can access more private information about the site’s owner. “First cousins” are usually close friends or at least acquaintances, but most of Ms. Kang’s are strangers who simply want more information about her.
“I’ve decided there is no secret about what I post on my site,” she said. “For me, the notion of distinguishing ‘first cousins’ from other random visitors to my site is meaningless. If I can’t reveal it to my random visitors, I simply wouldn’t post it to begin with.”
Last summer, she turned her burgeoning online fame into a business: an online shopping mall called Uptown Girl that sells women’s clothes and fashion accessories. One of the fastest-growing of Korea’s many online malls, since its launch it’s gotten partnership offers from fashion conglomerates. She admits she owes the business’s success to her online fame.
“I wouldn’t have become a celebrity,” she chirps. “There was no way. I don’t have the guts to do so. Even now, I get terrified doing public speaking.”

Ms. Kang is one of a number of Koreans who have achieved some degree of fame through personal Web sites. And some, like her, have turned their fame into businesses.
Chae Gyeong-wan, a 25-year-old underground rapper, hasn’t become famous through the Internet, but he has used his site at Naver, another Korean personal-homepage hosting site, to promote his career.
“There was no other way for me to promote my music,” he said. “A blog was the only way. I didn’t have money; I wasn’t born to a wealthy family; I just didn’t have a chance.” He’s far from a household name, but his site did help him get an album made.
Kim Hyeong-gon is better known. A year ago, he was a fresh college graduate with a degree in Korean literature. He says he was tinkering with his digital camera one day when he was struck by the idea of compiling his bachelor recipes online.
His angle was “easy cooking,” using cheap ingredients to produce something that was fast and filling. He had plenty of personal experience to draw on. “I’d lived alone since I was in college,” said Mr. Kang, a 25-year old marketing consultant. “It was the area I knew. And I knew it would work for young singles living apart from their parents.”
His Cyworld site really started taking off a year ago, when the local success of the British chef Jamie Oliver’s TV show made the idea of a young, male chef a fashionable one in Korea.
More than half the visitors to his site are women, which doesn’t hurt him, publicity-wise. Soon after he was featured in a number of women’s magazines, he started getting calls from TV shows and publishers. In December he published a cookbook with Bookhaus, “Recipes for Singles by a Young Male Chef.”
“If you are putting out a blog on certain themes, it shouldn’t be difficult to read,” Mr. Kim said. “The measurements should be simple. The recipes should be easily explained with good photos. If we are talking about an onion, we should go by the piece. Measuring by teaspoons and cups should be as complex as it gets. No grams, no liters, no jargon.”

How do you make yourself seen on the Web? Ask the pros.
Ms. Kang says the trick was “thorough reporting.” Her site ―which often reads like a kind of shopping diary ―is full of information about where she bought something, how to find the restaurant she liked, and so on. She’s even described, in detail, the cameras she’s used to take pictures for her site. Indeed, some of the most “scrapped” items from her blog have been blurbs and contact information about shops and restaurants she found while traveling abroad.
For a travel guidebook to Hong Kong that she recently wrote for a local publisher, she relied heavily on a long list of responses she got when she asked visitors to her blog what they’d most want to do in Hong Kong.
She has a devoted fan base, but she’s also had nasty personal attacks, on various community Web sites, from people who don’t like hearing about her luxurious lifestyle. “The gossips get out of control sometimes,” she said. “I’ve gotten really uncomfortable a few times.” But she hasn’t considered closing down the site. It’s led to business success for her, of course, but she also says it’s become “an intimate part of my life.”
“I think the visitors feel the same way too,” she says. “It feels as if I’ve known my site’s visitors for years, when I haven’t even met them.”

by Park Soo-mee
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