Does the Future of K-pop Lie in the Metaverse?

3 min read
Enrique Dans· 3 min read

South Korea can only be defined with one word: different. If you visit it and see it properly, whether you like it or not, and you may find it overwhelming or even dystopian at times… but from a Western perspective, there’s no denying that it’s a place unlike any other.

A unique society, characterized by the absence of incomers, extremely competitive, with one of the highest education levels in the world, and facing some very specific demographic challenges: the lowest birth rate and population renewal in the world and very low unemployment (3.6%).

Thanks in part to the international success of K-pop bands like BTS or Blackpink, the country’s young people are obsessed with a type of music that has roots in pop or hip hop, and that they consider a sign of identity of the country and its culture: turn on a television and flip through the local channels, and you’ll find some kind of K-pop contest, reflecting a highly competitive society in the pursuit of fame.

Given the levels of technology in the country, it has come as no surprise that K-pop now dominates the virtual world, as explained in a good article in The New York Times, “Will the metaverse be entertaining? Ask South Korea”, which explains how virtual platforms such as Zepeto, owned by the online giant Naver, or Weverse, provide a platform where K-pop band members use avatars, and fans can attend concerts and galas, purchase merchandise, or vote in contests.

Weverse, known simply as W, is awash with K-pop groups of all kinds: all-boys, all-girls, mixed or even virtual, continually competing with each other and where fans can talk to them (the community dedicated to BTS on W has almost 20 million members who receive frequent updates). Strictly speaking, these are not metaverses, and are instead proprietary platforms users have to log in to, accepting terms of service and with no sign of any cryptographic features, but their counterpart in the physical world is truly unique: contestants who take part in talent shows that consist of individual cubicles that have their own sound equipment and viewfinder, where participants they can sing, interact with their avatars, undergo interviews, and so on. If the judges like them, they move on to the next phase. If not, they are eliminated, sometimes being plunged into a pool filled with hot lava where they disappear.

All this hugely popular content is consumed on screen or through a viewfinder. From a Western perspective, it can seem strange: the groups all look pretty similar (the manga-style avatars have huge eyes and heart-shaped faces), and area deeply rooted in the cultural codes of the country’s youth. Young Koreans follow their favorite bands, attend concerts, and celebrate their bands’ rise to popularity as a reflection of their competitive society, where they must gain access to certain schools and universities if they want to find a good job.

This is the context in which virtual worlds — not metaverses as such, but immersive three-dimensional environments — seem to be attracting consumers, who for the moment are not showing much interest in joining others. That said, the appearance of other virtual communities focused on a specific area such as K-pop is surely only a matter of time.

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