The internet is used by many to stay connected and share information freely, but much of what's found on the Korean internet is antithetical to this. Though Korea has become "the most wired country on earth," it has historically cut itself off electronically from the rest of the world through policies like the real-name verification law and the software it chooses to use.
The obstacles recently gained some attention when a website designed to help expats access Korean websites was, ironically, about as unhelpful as possible. There are some lessons to be learned from the strong reaction from both Korean and foreign users, lessons that can help Korean websites and companies reach their intended audience.
I don't want to be a dick, and it's not my intentio to merely belittle bad English used by Koreans, though I'm not as patient when it's found on a page geared toward English speakers. In the article I do say that they fixed the website a few days after the wretched first edition launched, though of course the page should have never been that bad to begin with.
[T]he debacle was helpful in engaging a large number of internet users about the shortcomings of Korean websites. Whether because of ridiculous English, because of software obstacles, or designs unsuitable for international users (the overuse of pop-ups, for example) attempts to reach a global audience often fail. And when they fail so hard as ifriendly did last week, one asks if the designers are actually interested in reaching foreigners at all.
The working title I had was "Lessons learned from ifriendly.kr," and wasn't intended to be a broad overview on the perceived shortcomings on the Korean internet. I'm not a tech guy, and couldn't eloquently fit in all the incompatability issues under the word limit while touching on the other things that needed addressing. Google will be your friend if you'd like to find more information about the state of the Korean internet, a topic written about my people much more knowledgable on the subject than I. You might also like this post last month from Gusts of Popular Feeling, which quotes from this Chosun Ilbo column; an excerpt of the latter:
For one thing, accessing many Korean websites requires jumping through hoops not found anywhere else in the world. This may mean installing unfamiliar software programs, one to ensure secure access, another to protect against keystroke tracking, another for personal firewall protection, and on top of that, an antivirus program, all to be able to do some banking online. Nowhere else are websites so complicated and inconvenient.
It is also a uniquely Korean peculiarity that the programs needed for access to secure websites are compatible only with Microsoft Internet Explorer. Many are based on the ActiveX framework from Microsoft. And while there exist other technologies that perform the same function, none are in use in Korea. As a result, web browsers such as Firefox used by over 20 percent of users worldwide have no presence here.
The average computer user may not care whether it is ActiveX or something else that allows convenient and secure access. But that is misguided. In the event of worldwide Internet chaos, as was the case in January 2003 or during the DDoS attacks in July, Korea gets hit the hardest. Its online environment has become one where users habitually hit "yes" for every dialog box that pops up and install programs without a second thought.
For more information and comments regarding ifriendly.kr, see the previous posts on Brian in Jeollanam-do:
* November 20: "Korea Times looks at ifriendly.kr screw-up, this site."
* November 19: "What was wrong with ifriendly.kr?"
* November 17: "ifriendly.kr another major English fail by the Korean government."
You might also look at the post a few places down on Google Korea for some links and comments on Korea's portals and the relative failure of Google here.