By Niels Footman
SEOUL, Oct. 20 (Yonhap) -- When superstar South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na ended her three-year partnership with her Canadian coach, Brian Orser, in August, she had a few choice words for him on Twitter.
With Orser making public claims that he had been treated disrespectfully and that Kim herself had been kept in the dark about letting him go, she responded tersely, "Stop lying, B. I know exactly what's going on. This was my decision."
As shocking as the message was to Koreans, many of whom had idolized the pair, it was just another example of the short-message social network's growing might in South Korea.
Though Kim uses her own Twitter account sparingly, she is one of an exploding number of Koreans to have embraced the social platform over the course of the last year.
According to the Twitter Korea Index, the number of Korean Twitter users jumped from 127,000 in January to more than 1.8 million today. Twitter has even surpassed Facebook in Korea, where it has 1.58 million users. Worldwide, Twitter claims around 150 million users to Facebook's 500 million-plus.
The turning point for Twitter, as it has been for much else in Korea, was the arrival of Apple's iPhone late last year.
"The iPhone really changed things," said Benjamin Kim, CEO of the social media start-up Cizion. "As iPhone sales took off, Twitter use jumped and Twitter users quickly found themselves becoming opinion leaders."
Another thing that propelled Twitter's adoption, Kim said, was Korea's enthusiastic adoption of Wi-Fi, a wireless Internet connection system for laptops. Today, Seoul alone has more than 3,000 Wi-Fi zones spread around the city.
But these same conditions were also present for Facebook, which after healthy growth from around 700,000 users in May to more than 1.6 million in September, dropped back to 1.47 million at the beginning of October before recovering to its current level.
So why the disparity?
"I guess Koreans are tired of closed social network sites such as Cyworld," Ph.D. student and devout "tweeter" Ryu Dong-hyup said, referring to a hugely popular Korean social network site with many similarities to Facebook. "Twitter allows us to connect easily with other people who might share the same interests. But Facebook is just the same old network of friends exchanging trivial personal happenings."
Many others agree.
"Facebook seems somewhat static and conservative in comparison with Twitter," said Won Yong-jin, a professor of communication studies at Sogang University in Seoul. "Early adopters consist of younger users in Korea, and they enjoy the more dynamic aspects of online culture."
Twitter's freewheeling image in Korea has another source: The service is not subject to Korea's "real-name system," which compels netizens to provide their names and resident registration numbers if they want to leave comments or upload content onto Web sites. As a result, in common with much of the rest of the world, Koreans need only to create a user name, add an e-mail address, and they're ready to tweet.
But in a country where netizens have an often fearsome reputation, and with many Koreans joining Twitter to escape the watchful eye of the government, Twitter's easy-going enrollment might seem the perfect enticement for angry or loose-lipped commenters to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.
Not so, said Cizion's Kim.
"Koreans see famous people using their real pictures and names, and feel they should do it, too," said Kim. "They want to build up a social reputation through Twitter, and using your real picture and name is the best way to do that. As a result, the tone of comments tends to be more polite than on traditional message boards, and politicians and leaders feel more comfortable using it."
In addition, Kim said, though purported access to the rich and famous is a big pull for Twitter users everywhere, the notion of more open communication is particularly enticing to Koreans.
"Korea remains a very hierarchical society, and that can make communication difficult, especially for junior staff," he said. "Twitter has really opened things up in that regard, and as a result, it is widely used as a source of news or information by junior staff as well as CEOs and politicians."
Examples abound in Korea of captains of industry and top politicians airing their supposedly personal thoughts or comings and goings on Twitter.
Progressive-leaning politicians, who enjoy higher rates of support among the young, tend to have many followers; Rhyu Si-min (@u_simin), a top leader of the minor opposition People's Participation Party, claims more than 114,000.
And belying their often stuffy image, corporate bosses sometimes adopt much more approachable personas on Twitter. Doosan Corporation CEO Park Yong-maan (@Solarplant) frequently regales his almost 80,000 followers with personal anecdotes, jokes or words of encouragement.
Professor Won, however, is skeptical.
"I don't think Twitter breaks down real barriers," he said. "Instead, it makes us recognize once again that communication between those with power and those without rarely happens. Whenever politicians appear online, most Twitter people ask them if they tweet for themselves (or if their staff does it). People just don't believe those with power."
Earlier this year, an account by a user calling himself "President Lee," complete with pictures of Korean President Lee Myung-bak and links to the official Web site of the presidential residence, gained several hundred followers before being exposed as a fake.
Though no real harm was done, numerous other fake accounts have popped up in Korea. And this problem, says Cizion's Kim, is certain to grow worse as Twitter gains ever more followers.
Also, in a country where sometimes far-fetched online chatter has fueled major controversies, some have serious concerns about Twitter's negative impact, such as the spread of malicious, unsubstantiated rumors.
So far, however, many controversies have arisen from things stars actually did say on Twitter. In one such case, comedienne Kim Mi-hwa caused a major stir in July when she claimed that she had been blacklisted by Korea's main broadcaster KBS because of her left-wing political views.
More recently, a long-running dispute surrounding Korean-Canadian rapper Tablo (@blobyblo), whose claims to being a Stanford University graduate are hotly disputed by many netizens, shifted to Twitter, with his account being bombarded by messages of support and, sometimes, criticism.
But for Lee Mee-na, a public relations manager and social media expert, brushes like this are just further proof that Twitter's upward trajectory has a long way to run yet.
"I think that as more and more celebrities get involved and as companies urge their employees to use Twitter, people will end up using it whether they really care about it or not," she said. "In truth, Twitter's progress in Korea has only just begun."
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