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'I Was a Cyholic, a Cyworld Addict'
Citizen reporter Jennifer Park recounts her plunge into a realm of alter egos and big business
Jennifer Park (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-07-26 15:41 (KST)   
©2004
I was a cyholic, a Cyworld addict.

Each morning I woke up with blood shot eyes and a headache. That was nothing compared to more serious symptoms I eventually developed after being "on" Cyworld. I found myself turning into a serious exhibitionist and a stalker, a common symptom for cyholics. I will share my experience after "overdose" of Cyworld and what I have learned through the process of rehabilitation.

I used Cyworld to visit my friends' mini home pages provided to all members. Having witnessed how addictive Cyworld was, I kept away from my own home page. When my friends tried to lure me into becoming a cyholic, I thought I could resist. I was wrong.

When I saw that the rise in number of visitors to my home page, I needed to do something to keep them coming. That number gave me an incentive to "open" my home.

My new home had a personal profile, diary, mini room, photo album, bulletin board and message board options. I didn't need to pay "rent" but could simply "move in." The mini room came with an empty room and a character figure called "mini me" representing the user. I could change its facial expression, body position, hair and its clothing. I used to spend hours playing with Barbie dolls during my childhood, and one would have thought I grew out of it. Wrong! Mini me was my new best friend.

I wasn't the only one lost in this "Barbie business." Through a unique system of "forming kinship," which can be accomplished with two users' consent, I met many members of the cyholic gang. The list of my kin kept expanding and the hidden pressure started to reveal itself. I felt obligated to visit my kin often to maintain "kinship." Many of my so-called kin were people I barely knew.

This sort of phenomenon is common in online social networks. People tend to label those they do not know well as friends, perhaps for political reasons or to meet more friends through their so-called friends. I felt compelled to prolong the phony relationship because each user can find out whom out of your kin list did not visit you in the past month. Though this is intended to help people get along, it quickly becomes an unwelcome duty.

An example mini home page
©2004
Thus my addiction. For people living or studying abroad like myself, Cyworld is an alternative to international phone calls. With Cyworld, I did not miss out on life in Korea. It showed no clear-cut line between countries. Cyworld was just another living space and all Cyworld users had that common identity. I thought it was a cheap way to stay in touch with my friends.

Most of my friends had entered Cyworld before me and their mini rooms showed just that. They had tons of digital items such as fancy wallpapers, furniture, pets and more. Their number of visitors exceeded mine by far, triggering my ambition and jealousy.

As a cyholic, I unconsciously associated popularity with the number of visitors and believed that the number corresponded to how nice the mini room appeared. Decorating is a necessity in running Cyworld. My mini room only had a free wallpaper and mini me. I craved "acorns."

All digital items are purchased with cyber money called acorns, the main source of Cyworld's profit. One acorn, equivalent to 100 won (about 9 cents), can be paid via several methods, such as a credit card or cell phone account. Cyholics also go through the phase of being a shopaholic. I no longer daydreamed about a guy, but acorns and things to buy with them. Because Cyworld was clever enough to substitute money with a harmless object like an acorn, I rarely felt like I was being a spendthrift.

I was convinced that I was doing some good when giving someone a gift. In an interview with Chosun.com, the head of Cyworld division at SK Communications Lee Dong Hyeong stated, "The art of living is giving as much as you receive."

This seems like an ideal way of maintaining kinship, but don't forget that acorns are needed to make this possible. Cyworld displays the number of gifts received on each users' front page to motivate them to exchange gifts. This relationship appears healthy and necessary, but it boils down to helping Cyworld's bottom line.

A Cyworld "success" graph
©2004
Cyworld displays your popularity on your front page, fueling the addiction. The bar graph compels you to seek acorns night and day. Each bar is labeled "sexiness," "fame," "friendliness," "karma" and "kindness." Cyworld knows that Koreans tend to be ambitious and ostentatious. They use this knowledge to display the front page with a measurement of "success."

Your "fame" increases each time you accumulate ten visitors. "Sexiness," "friendliness," "karma" and "kindness" go up when you give or receive gifts. Cyworld accumulates more visitors and acorns in this way.

Cyworld wasn't always this successful. The reason it was able to beat other home page services was because Freechal, once the most popular home page company, took the bold step of deciding to charge their services. Cyworld used this chance and pledged to operate free of charge for life, prompting Freechal users like myself to jump ship.

When Cyworld introduced its mini home page service in 2001 it had one million members. Its members skyrocketed in late 2003 when Freechal started its fee-based system. Cyworld has 7 million users as of July 2004.

Ironically, people like myself who abandoned Freechal because of its fee unknowingly invest great sum of money in Cyworld. When I buy a frame cover said to last for 30 days at the cost of 20 acorns, I am investing 2,000 won ($1.72) and feel compelled to buy a new one when it expires. Recently Cyworld's daily income ranged from 70 million won to 103 million won ($60,280-$88,780). This means that cyholics buy around one million acorns a day.

Cyworld's main page
©2004
Cyworld's success is recognized by all ".com" industries in Korea. Founder Lee Dong Hyeong sold his company to SK Communications because he lacked the necessary funds to operate his ballooning enterprise. SK Communications has since made a lot of money after incorporating Cyworld with Nate.com.

Nate.com was ranked third after SK merged the two corporations. Cyworld's profit then increased by 60 percent and "Cyworld fever" is everywhere. Instead of asking for a phone number or e-mail address, people ask, "do you Cy?" SK Communications even made it possible to check mini home pages through cell phones, so people can take Cyworld with them everywhere they go.

Cyworld expanded its sphere of influence with a function called "people search," allowing a user to find any Cyworld user by typing in their name, year of birth and gender or by entering an e-mail address. This allows people to contact someone they have lost touch with. According to one 29-year-old housewife in Seoul, this has been a useful tool to find friends she lost touch with after she married.

On the other hand, some people use this tool for stalking or to send unsolicited messages encouraging people to visit their page. And some employers take an advantage of this system to keep an eye on their employees. Many online network users should keep in mind that they may have to pay consequences for their freedom of expression.

Cyworld makes it easy to get addicted. A single click on the name of any Cyworld user will hook you into Cyworld for hours.

A diagram of "kinships"
©2004
I kept on committing the sin of saying "just one more" which turned out to be all night. It only takes a second to load someone else's page, but the time consumed in posting and reading the message board and checking out the album is substantial. When you see someone familiar or attractive in that home page, you simply click and skip over to that other person's home page and repeat the process.

After I became a true cyholic, I often visited my ex-boyfriend's mini home. It started as mere curiosity and ended almost like stalking. Cyworld makes what is impossible in real life possible in cyber world. I live far from my ex-boyfriend and can't invest the money and time required to hunt him down. So I simply "hired" Cyworld to do the spying for me. Peeking at his mood indicator, message, board, and album, I knew exactly what was going on in his life. The only thing that stopped me from stalking him was the messages that his friends left on his board congratulating him on finding a new girlfriend.

I found out how serious the Cyworld phenomenon was when I discovered it was taking over reality. A person my friend introduced to me was the owner of a page I recalled from my friend's message board. Scary as it may sound, I knew exactly where the person was going to school and who he was friends with.

I felt like a stalker but couldn't help but to ask, "You are friends with xxx, right?" What shocked me even more was his response. "You just graduated from xyz school in abc, right? I saw you in my friend yyy's Cyworld." We knew personal details about each other -- though we'd never met.

There is no embarrassment in confessing to be a stalker because, ironically, people enjoy being stalked. According to one 29-year-old man, knowing that a woman he was interested in was visiting his home page, he shaped his image through Cyworld and won her love.

Cyworld was for me another realm, perhaps more real than the real world. What I got in return for making others happy were red eyes and a headache. I came to find that there is so much to enjoy in life when you say "no" to Cyworld.

I no longer rely on others to judge me by how I appear in the cyber world, because many of that's not the "real me." I still visit Cyworld and some friends still visit my Cyworld. I guess I am not fully rehabilitated, but I no longer depend on some corporation to run my life for me.
Jennifer Park is an OhmyNews intern and will begin her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University this fall.
©2004 OhmyNews

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