The fandom world got quite the shock on January 19th when news broke that South Korean company Naver acquired Canadian company Wattpad for over $750 million in stocks and cash. Naver owns the popular digital webcomic platform WEBTOON.

What is Wattpad?

Wattpad is a popular storytelling app company located in Toronto, Canada. What started as a place for aspiring writers to post their fanfiction swiftly evolved into a lucrative haven for published books, brand partnerships and even screen projects, as is the case with such user-generated properties as After and The Kissing Booth.

What is WEBTOON?

WEBTOON is a South Korean platform known for its user-generated webcomics, known as manhwa.

Why Did Naver Acquire Wattpad?

On paper, the union makes sense. Wattpad delves into the written word, while WEBTOON’s domain is staunchly in the visual realm; by owning both, Naver has a monopoly on creative expression for online aspiring artists and writers alike. Additionally, with Wattpad’s resources in film and television, Naver stands to benefit from the acquisition by elevating its pre-existing content to small and large screens.

As a self-proclaimed “retired fanfiction writer” who frequents Wattpad (refer to my post on the secret Frozen 2 fanfiction I wrote for the platform during the COVID-19 pandemic), I have some conflicting thoughts about the acquisition, though I’m genuinely excited for the Toronto-based tech company to make such a big international move.

At this point in time, Wattpad insists there will be no major changes, and CEO Allen Lau and co-founder Ivan Yuen will remain on as the leaders of the company. But now that Naver / WEBTOON have literal stock in the company, it stands to reason that their influence will spread to their newly acquired asset, and vice versa.

Personally? I know very little about WEBTOON. I perused the first page and saw a site ladened with free comics of varying degrees of quality (there is also a pro section that allows readers advance access to stories). Not my cup of tea, but apparently webcomics are a huge commodity across the pond in Asia. In addition to the English site, WEBTOON has alternative sites in French, Spanish, Indonesian and Japanese which would explain the ads I saw for the site in a different language. 

To date, there are only two webcomic series that I’m aware of from the platform—The Little Trashmaid and a My Hero Academia doujinshi with fan-made characters—but I discovered them on Instagram and not WEBTOON. 

I think the Asian-based users of both platforms stand to benefit more from this acquisition than the North American users. If Youtube videos are any indication, there is a very robust Filipino presence on Wattpad, and I could see an international branch of operations opening up either there, Japan or South Korea to better cater to WEBTOON’S over 70 million strong user base.

Wattpad’s Film/TV presence

I think many people were blindsided by the acquisition because it looked as though Wattpad was expanding into more screen-based territory. Combining with a web-based company may initially seem counterintuitive, but consider the audience that frequents WEBTOON.

In 2020, Crunchyroll optioned 2 anime co-productions based on WEBTOON properties; with Wattpad’s resources and reputation, it would be easy for WEBTOON to pivot their focus from Hollywood to studios located in South Korea.

Financially, the move is sound. Many blockbuster films were made with the intent to cash in on the international box office in China, now the world’s most financially lucrative market.

What about Wattpad’s Fanfiction?

Now for the elephant in the room.

What concerns me the most about Naver’s purchase of Wattpad is that it may irrevocably shift Wattpad away from its initial focus as a writing platform. Wattpad was already making moves in that direction; the company had invested in Wattpad Books and Wattpad Brand Partnerships, their priorities creeping more into the visual entertainment space. Who could blame them? The sequel to After, After We Collided, posted some impressive numbers (in large part due to COVID-19) which resulted in the film outperforming Fox’s The New Mutants in Europe.

If Naver’s intent is to elevate WEBTOON’s properties, it may do so at the expense of Wattpad’s growth. I’ve seen fanart on Wattpad, but the current layout of the platform does not lend itself well for the consumption of a visual medium. I predict the user interface of Wattpad will change to be better suited for looking at comics and fanart on mobile-friendly devices, but I doubt WEBTOON will change to accommodate a more streamlined experience for fanfiction.

Of course, this is all merely speculation; what’s certain is Wattpad’s commitment to making its mark globally, not just in the U.S. in Canada. A risky venture? Perhaps, but a venture nonetheless combining two massive communities into a 160-million strong user base. Regardless of the outcome, I am excited to witness the results.