The popularity of Facebook is growing to such proportions that it has some people worried that it’s “killing local social networks around the world.” Indeed, as you can see from the map above, the number of users is staggering. And this map is over a year old, so it does not take into account the publicity that came after the release of “The Social Network” in 2011. In fact, that film was a big factor in what made the website more popular in Japan. But now that Facebook’s popularity is increasing, the question many people are asking is: What is the future of social networking in Japan?
While MySpace – which was founded in 2003 – began to take off in the West, Mixi took off in Japan in 2004, modelled primarily after the 2002 social network Friendster. Mixi was so dominant that it would take six years – a long time in the digital age – before it was dethroned by Twitter as the top social network, in November of 2010. And now, as we know from all the records, Japan is the “Twitter nation.”
There are many reasons for Twitter’s rise in popularity, but one contributing factor was the fact that it was one of the only reliable modes of communication after the March 11 earthquake. Mobile phones could simply not be trusted then. I remember on that day, emails were being received many hours after they were sent, often in the middle of the night, well after the quake screwed up the phone signals. As it turns out, Facebook was also used popular at that time, but obviously not to the same extent as Twitter.
This graphic shows that there are more Twitter users in Japan, but people stay on Facebook for longer than Twitter. As BusinessInsider said, Japan is “the only place in the world where Twitter is bigger than Facebook.” By December 2010, Twitter had 14.6 million unique visitors, Mixi had 13.5, and Facebook had 6.1. Since then, Twitter and Facebook have continued to grow while Mixi is staying relatively stable. As for Google+, there are 40 million accounts worldwide, but only two million in Japan. So we can say, at least as it stands now, Google has lost the social network war in Japan; it seems too late for them.
But it’s not always easy to measure the direction of technological trends in Japan. Last month, comScore said that Japan is lagging in social network usage, which paints quite a different picture from what I have gathered so far. For example, it was the overload of New Year’s tweets in Japan’s timezone that actually crashed Twitter’s server, as opposed to every other celecration. It should also be noted that comScore apparently does not take into account online activity from mobile devices, so perhaps that makes a big difference. After all, Japan is connected by 3G network, which allows internet access virtually anywhere, making the cellphone often the most important (and in many case the only) computer Japanese people own.
Other sources also mention Japanese people’s reluctance to embrace Facebook, for reasons such as its lack of anonymity, and other cultural pressures. Regarding anonymity, a study of over 2000 Japanese mobile web users found that 89% were reluctant to divulge their real names online. However, I’m not sure why that makes a difference – I have a Facebook account under “Skeptikai” as well. It’s not like anonymity is impossible or even difficult on it.
Reports of comScore’s monthly numbers have been claiming that Japan boasts 15 million unique monthly Facebook users compared to 25 million for Twitter. Essentially, that makes Mixi rank 3rd now. Nielsen NetRatings have confirmed this ranking, though their projected number of users was much lower for each. FlamingoTokyo wonders if Facebook is just “a fad or a force to be reckoned with.” But as CanadianBusiness reports, Japan and Facebook have “friended each other.”
A Japanese website called “Facebook navi” (“navi” comes from “navigation”) was likely responsible for at least some of the recent increase in Facebook users. The site launched in the summer of 2011, and it was essentially an introduction to Facebook for Japanese people who didn’t really understand how it worked.
Noticing Facebook’s success online, Mixi and Twitter decided to partner up in a mutually beneficial pact, having crossover functions and connecting services to compete with Facebook. The two complement each other quite well, but Facebook is still dominant practically everywhere else. And Japanese people understand fairly well the value of being on the same platform. For example, one of the three major Japanese mobile phone companies, Softbank, allows users to call at a much cheaper rate if it is to another Softbank user. The more people use them, the more valuable it is. The same is true for social networking – no matter how cool a social network is, it’s useless unless other users are there to connect with.
[March 25 Update: WhatJapanThinks has just published an interesting two-part series on Facebook in Japan in 2012. Among other things, in Part 1 they mention that 56% of a random sample of 500 Facebook users registered in 2011 – much higher than in other years. There is likely a connection with the March 11 disaster.]
In fact, Facebook pages have become more popular in the public sector as well. As CanadianBusiness reports:
Keisuke Hiwatashi, the mayor of Takeo City, replaced the city’s website with a Facebook page in November. “When people give their opinions or ask questions, they should take responsibility for this as adults, and this should be done using their real names,” said Hiwatashi at an August press conference. Years earlier, when he worked at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Hiwatashi started threads on an anonymous board and found them wholly unconstructive, leading to his preference for a real-name system with accountability.
The social benefits of Facebook are also echoed by Yuki Yasuda, a Kansai University professor who specializes in social network analysis. Speaking with the Daily Yomiuri, she said it is “time to rethink excessive protection of personal information.”
“By disclosing personal information, it will be easier for people to obtain the trust of others, which enables them to moderately connect with each other. After the March 11 disaster, it has become a trend for people to attach more emphasis on such bonds,” said Yasuda, referring to last year’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed thousands.
I expect that Mixi and Twitter will have to work very hard to keep Facebook from gaining ground, though I think Facebook will come out on top. One of the most pronounced aspects of Japanese culture is conformity, and I think after passing the point of no return, Facebook will be adopted into the mainstream, just like other countries have done in the last few years. We can only speculate, but I don’t expect Mixi to survive this after a few years, unless they change what they have to offer. Mixi is going head-to-head against Facebook, essentially trying to compete by copying Facebook’s features, whereas Twitter is an entirely different beast all together. The two may just be able to perpetuate alongside one another, leaving Mixi in the dust.
What this whole social network war really demonstrates more than anything is that you can’t confidently predict what trends will catch on in Japan. You can speculate, like I have done, but no one ever really knows what will happen here when new technology is involved.