11-12-2010 18:55
Founder of largest English K-pop site Soompi

Main page of the ultimate K-pop site ¡°Soompi¡±

Korean-American web developer creates first global online community devoted to K-pop, Asian entertainment

By Cathy Rose A. Garcia

If you¡¯re looking for news about a SuperJunior concert, reviews for a 2NE1 album, recaps of Korean drama ``Sungkyunkwan Scandal¡¯¡¯ or simply anything about Korean entertainment, chances are you¡¯ll find it on Soompi.com.

Soompi.com is the oldest and currently the largest English-language online community devoted to Korean and Asian entertainment, with a million unique visitors every month.

Soompi has come a long way from its early days as a personal online shrine devoted to K-pop started by Korean-American Susan Kang in 1998.

``I had recently graduated from college with nothing much to do. As a recent fan of both
K-pop and the Internet (AOL was all the rage), I noticed that there weren't any English-language sites devoted to Korean pop music or TV dramas, so I purchased a book called `Make Your Own Website with Microsoft Word '97¡¯, and the rest, as they say, is history,¡¯¡¯ Kang said, now a 35-year-old mother living in Irvine, Calif., in an email interview with The Korea Times.

Kang¡¯s original site, Soompitown, was fairly simple. She would just upload photos of her favorite K-pop acts like H.O.T., S.E.S., Shinhwa and FinKL and English translations of Korean magazine articles, as well as post CD audio samples and her own album reviews. Basically, Kang ran the website out of ``love¡¯¡¯ for K-pop.

(If you¡¯re wondering about the meaning of Soompi, it simply refers to a nickname that a roommate¡¯s family gave Kang in college.)

In the early 2000s, hallyu or the Korean wave began spreading around Asia and international fans discovered Soompi, the first website that actually provided English-language information about their favorite Korean stars.

Soon Soompi became more and more popular, requiring more servers and more technical expertise. A team of volunteers helped moderate the forums and post content on the website, but Kang, who also worked full-time as a web developer, was running the website on her own as a hobby and it was starting to feel burdensome.

For one, it was getting expensive to pay for the server fees out of her own pocket, although it was partially funded by member donations and small ad buys.

Then came the fateful day, Oct. 5, 2005, when the entire Soompi website crashed. Its entire database of 80,000 members and millions of forum posts was gone.

``I seriously thought of just making that the end of Soompi, as I'd been running the site as a hobby for seven years at that point, and was paying for the servers completely out of my own pocket,¡¯¡¯ she said.

``The turning point was when we re-opened an empty forum with 0 members and 0 posts, and within 5 days, we already had 40,000 members. That's when I knew that Soompi was bigger and more important than just one person's hobby.¡¯¡¯

Soon, it became apparent that a more serious, business-oriented approach to Soompi was needed.

In 2006, Joyce Lan Kim, a lawyer then working for technology firms in Silicon Valley, joined Soompi to handle the business side, albeit on a part-time basis.

``I joined the company, working on advertising and thinking of ways the company can break even. Susan never started this with business in mind. It was always just about fun. It was about bringing K-pop to the people. But how we make this sustainable is our job,¡¯¡¯ Kim told The Korea Times at a coffee shop in downtown Seoul, last week.

Last year, Kang and Kim both decided to leave their full-time jobs and focus on Soompi.

The 33 year old Kim, who studied at Cornell and Harvard universities and received a law degree from Columbia University, had no second thoughts giving up a law career. She sees Soompi as a good business opportunity with K-pop¡¯s potential to expand around the world.

Soompi is may not yet be profitable, but there is no doubt it is an Internet success with 500,000 registered members, and attracts over one million unique visitors every month (``That's like a small city,'' Kim quipped.) Revenues are currently generated from ads, premium membership and affiliate programs, but not enough for the company to break even.

There may be other K-pop websites that attract more hits, but Soompi has the most activity among community members, such as posting content and comments on the site. .

``Our success comes from covering such a wide variety of topics - not only the latest K-pop news, but Korean dramas and variety shows, original fan fiction, our own member-run shops, beauty & fashion, among so much more,¡¯¡¯ Kang said.

Aside from sections on entertainment news, fan clubs and beauty & fashion, Soompi also has its own weekly music chart and annual contests, such as Soompi Idol, Soompi Dance Idol, Soompi Ulzzang, fan fiction writing and graphics contests.

All contests were originally started by Soompi members themselves. This year, Soompi Ulzzang Contest, a modeling competition for Soompi members, has become an official event and sponsored by Korean entertainment company Sidus HQ.

Member feedback is invaluable to keeping Soompi relevant. Whenever new features are launched, Soompi looks at the comments from members and makes the appropriate tweaks. Members can also vote for which Soompi fan clubs should be created next, as well as recommend new forums and sub-forums.

Soompi is working to make the site more user-friendly. ``It's not a hobby anymore. We have to do it for real. Functionality is very important for us. We are definitely working on making it easier to use, and on getting great content,¡¯¡¯ Kim said.

In terms of technical innovations, the Soompi Street Teams Twitter application is being launched. This will make it easier for fans to get their favorite K-pop idols on Twitter¡¯s top trending topics.

``We wanted to make it easier for everybody to join together and tweet in support of their celebs. Twitter is not just for K-pop, because it's for everyone... Each time a K-pop celebrity ends up as a Twitter topic, people go, `who is this guy?¡¯ Like when (SuperJunior member) Kim Hee-chul was trending on Twitter, everyone was talking about him... We can expose more people to the world of K-pop,¡¯¡¯ Kim said.

An Asian website

Soompi is no longer just devoted to Korean pop music, but Asian pop and entertainment in general. It is also very much a global community, with most members from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia.

The majority or 81 percent of Soompi members are Asian, while 8 percent are white, 5 percent are multi-ethnic and the rest are African-American, Hispanic and other ethnicities. The most surprising fact was 60 to 80 percent of the non-Asian groups said they ``know some Korean.¡¯¡¯

``It¡¯s mostly non-Koreans, as opposed to 7 or 8 years ago when majority were Korean-Americans. Now Korean Americans are a minority on the site. We have ever growing number of people who are not even Asian. We have Caucasians, African-Americans, Middle East, Latin American, South East Asians,¡¯¡¯ Kim said.

Soompi stands out because of its tight-knit community and its members. ``Soompi is very community-focused, not just information or gossip-focused. It feels like home to many, and there are many members who have literally grown up on the site ¡ª from Junior High to High School to College to getting married and having children,¡¯¡¯ Kang said.

Noticeably, the Soompi forums are relatively free from the anti-fans and trolls who frequent K-pop websites to post vitriolic comments that rile up fans.

``I think our biggest defining feature is our members. Our members are the ones who do the subtitles, episode recaps and organize fan meetings,¡¯¡¯ Kim said. ¡°We have good members.¡±

Future of Kpop & Soompi

Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that Soompi has helped give a boost to K-pop and Korean entertainment¡¯s popularity among English speakers.

But while K-pop is undeniably big in Asia, there is yet to be a real K-pop breakthrough in the U.S., despite attempts by Rain, Wonder Girls and Se7en.

``Honestly, I'm not sure if the U.S. is ready to accept Asians as idols, as Asians are still widely portrayed as awkward geeks or kung fu masters on TV and film, but I do believe it's just a matter of 'when', not 'if'. I hope it's sooner than later,¡¯¡¯ Kang said.

Looking back, Kang admitted being constantly amazed and inspired by the level of commitment and amount of time people will willingly volunteer to support their favorite idols. ``Passion will drive people to do crazy and wonderful things,¡¯¡¯ she said.

In the future, Soompi hopes to leverage its brand value as the oldest K-pop online resource, and to continue fanning the flames of K-pop and Asian pop fever around the world.

``In 10 years, I'll be 45 years old. I hope by then, the Soompi community will still be going strong, with the love for Korean and Asian pop being passed to a much wider audience. We'll still be providing the best place for people to express their fandom and meet others who share their passion,¡¯¡¯ Kang said.