Cyworld reopening excites some, but leaves others worried about what will resurface
Cyworld, once Korea’s most popular social media platform, will reopen its services next month — although the launch date has already been postponed three times.
Expectations are rising that the resumption of the platform will open a treasure trove of memories, as well as concerns that it may shed light on times gone by that some would rather remain in the past.
Cyworld, which operated from 1999 to 2019, dominated the Korean online space throughout the 2000s, similar to how American social networking service MySpace was all the rage in the West during the same era.
From 2001, Cyworld offered personal home pages dubbed “minihompy” which were used as blogs to share the user’s daily life and thoughts with their Cyworld friends. Minihompys gained popularity because they were a means of getting a personal website without the hassle of actually making one.
At its peak in 2009, Cyworld had around 32 million users. Korea’s population at the time was 48.75 million. Minihompys were once considered to be the nation’s collective diary and photo album.
Cyworld even operated its own cyber currency called "dotori," the Korean word for acorns, which was used to purchase decorations or music for one’s minihompy.
Shin Hyun-seo, a 34-year-old office worker, shared her fond memories of the platform with the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“I used Cyworld from 2005 to 2009 during my college years because everyone around me was using it,” she said. “Changing my minihompy’s background music using dotori was a small moment of happiness. Good old times!”
However, the PC-based platform fell out of favor as Koreans moved on from flip phones to smartphones in the dawn of the 2010s. Other foreign social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, which were easy to use on smartphones, became trendy, and Cyworld eventually shut down its services in 2019.
Cyworld still had 11 million users at the time of its closing, but nonetheless disappeared with all their online memories.
Like Shin, Koreans who are now in their 30s and early 40s, who were teenagers or in their early 20s in the 2000s, were Cyworld’s main userbase. They are the ones most likely to have cherished memories uploaded on their former minihompys, and thus most eager to log back in when it reopens.
Thirty-one-year-old orthopedic surgeon Lee Wonseok said the first thing he will do when Cyworld reopens is recover photos and videos from his college days.
“I was in various school clubs, and records of all those activities were uploaded on Cyworld,” he said. “I’m going to start by looking for videos of my band performances.”
The nostalgia Cyworld offers combined with the retro fad currently popular among millennials and Gen Z brought the platform back to the spotlight and in January, Cyworld Z, a consortium of five Korean entertainment companies, acquired Cyworld and announced its impending reopening.
“As the online space grows more vast, having a personalized online space of one’s own can be a very attractive concept even to younger people who did not experience the Cyworld era,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun.
The front page of a minihompy was called the “miniroom,” inhabited by the user’s personalized avatar dubbed “minime.” Users could decorate their minirooms to suit their personal tastes.
“When a user logged onto their minihompy, it looked and felt like a room of one’s own,” Jung continued. “People used to invite other users’ minime to their minihompys, like inviting people over in real life. People don’t get that feeling of being home on their Instagram accounts. That’s the distinctive trait of Cyworld, which can be its competitive edge when it reopens.”
But for some, especially celebrities and their fans, the reopening of Cyworld raises concerns about what content will resurface.
During the bullying scandal that swept the Korean entertainment industry earlier this year, many accusers presented past photos of the accused celebrity displaying inappropriate behavior such as underage drinking or smoking to back up their claims. Considering that Cyworld was the most popular social media platform during many stars’ adolescent years, some even go as far as to say that its reopening will open a “Pandora’s box” of celebrities’ less-than-ideal pasts.
Even if a user deleted their account, their posts saved by other users still remain and are accessible, based on Cyworld’s terms and conditions. Cyworld Z could not be contacted to confirm if this clause still remains.
“Today’s popular celebrities are mostly from the Cyworld generation,” reads a post on a popular online community. “Pray that your favorite singer or actor has a clean past.”
So far, Cyworld Z revealed it will transform the miniroom and minime from their original 2-D forms to 3-D, while maintaining the overall design. It plans to add new functions such as sending gifts between users and product placement advertising in minirooms.
Cyworld will also apply augmented reality technology on minime; another step closer to it becoming a metaverse platform.
Perhaps what will excite users the most is an image quality improvement service for those who want to convert their old photos to higher resolution, since most photos on the platform are grainy images from the 2000s. Until now, Cyworld has restored 18 billion photos and 150 million videos.
Nonetheless, Cyworld Z’s ambitions have been delayed three times; from March to May for more time to prepare both web and mobile versions, and from May to July citing delays in recovering its vast data. Then just hours before Cyworld’s scheduled reopening on July 5, its servers were attacked by hackers, mostly coming from China according to Cyworld Z.
As of now, the beta version reopening, which will offer an ID and password recovery service so that users can access their old accounts, has been postponed to Aug. 2. The official reopening on Aug. 4 will allow new uploads and messaging. Fortunately, the refunding of remaining dotori has been going smoothly since May.
But some former users are skeptical about whether they can fall back in love with the nostalgic platform.
Thirty-six-year-old Kim, who wished to disclose only her last name, questioned if the new Cyworld can offer something better than currently popular social media platforms.
“I still have my Cyworld account that I used between 2005 and 2008,” she said. “But even if Cyworld has improved, I doubt it will be more convenient than Instagram in terms of uploading or have more entertaining content. I don’t think people will actually start using Cyworld again, unless to look at old pictures for fun.”
In the days of Cyworld, posting somewhat pretentious selfies with cheesy captions was the trend. Such sentiment has gained popularity for comic value over the years; the prime example being singer Chaeyeon’s now cult-classic “tears selfie” in which she photographed herself crying and posted it with a cryptically philosophical caption. People well-meaningly poke fun at such photos which are referred to as “dark history.”
But the aforementioned permanent nature of content uploaded on Cyworld raises the question: What if some of the photos dormant on Cyworld are not simply unflattering, but potentially controversial?
“Celebrity or not, if it’s your face and information, you have the right to ask both the platform and the user who saved your post to delete it,” said Kim Ho-jin, CEO of SantaCruise, an “online reputation management” company that helps clients erase their unwanted traces on the internet. “Korea’s personal information protection laws are above Cyworld’s terms and conditions."
Kim expects that the reopening of Cyworld will lead to an influx of inquiries at his firm.
“How many people are the same person they were over 10 years ago?" he continued. "People have certain parts of their past that they don't want to keep on record. A photo taken with an ex-boyfriend can be a memory to some, but if someone doesn't want it to be online, it should be taken down; although I'm not sure how easy the process will be."
Whenever or whether the reopening happens, only time will tell if Cyworld will lose traction after people recover their old photos, or see a second heyday as a new and improved metaverse platform.
“In a way, Cyworld was ahead of its time because it already had ample potential to become a metaverse,” said critic Jeong. “People were emulating real-life socializing in their minirooms with minime, but imagine if more advanced technologies are added. For example, if you purchased an item on Cyworld with dotori in the past, it was just a virtual item. Now with ecommerce technology, shopping on Cyworld can actually have products delivered to you in real life. It’s a retro platform, but can also be futuristic."
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]