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Sunday, July 16, 2006

WEEK 3

CYBERSPACE NETWORKS

Up close . . . and virtually personal


Staff writer

When the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan characters fell in love via the virtual world of Web chat in the 1998 movie "You've Got Mail," it seemed a classic case of something that could only happen in the movies, not in the real world.

News photo
Kazuhide Harada got so involved with the SNS scene that he now makes his living as an SNS consultant. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

But maybe not.

Certainly, for MottyDiscJack, 34, and Yuriya, 39, who started a relationship via an online Social Networking Service (SNS) that eventually led to marriage.

And by allowing members to communicate with each other by revealing their own profiles and diaries, as well as writing comments on bulletin boards that other SNS members can read, the Internet service has surely brought many others together in real life, too.

Messages back and forth

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which compiles data reported by 21 SNSs operating nationwide, including mixi, Inc., home to Japan's biggest SNS site, the number of registered users of such services was 7.16 million at the end of March.

"It was me who first wrote comments to his diary about his room that he was showing on the site," said Yuriya, a name she uses in mixi.jp. "We were instantly sending messages back and forth."

A month later, the pair arranged to meet at Chichibu Station in Saitama Prefecture -- the first time they made contact in person.

Then, after a year of "dating" through the SNS and e-mails, and visiting each other's hometowns in Saitama and Nagano prefectures, they got married in June last year.

"If it weren't for mixi, we wouldn't have met," Yuriya said.

Industry watchers point out that more people are less shy about meeting people they know only in the virtual space, citing the increasing popularity of offline events such as restaurant parties in recent years.

And the SNS, whose membership is expanding rapidly, is starting to work as a communication tool in ways that allow users to place greater confidence in their cyber-friends.

MottyDiscJack and Yuriya agree, saying that almost all mixi members used to reveal their real name and a real image of themselves when they first started using the service. The couple added that although many members are now anonymous online, they can still judge the virtual people to a certain extent from their profiles and diaries.

"We met in the same way we would have met others in a workplace or on a street," Yuriya said. "But those people don't have personal information hanging from their necks. It's the SNS that made it easier for me to approach him."

Kensuke Suzuki, a visiting research fellow at the Center for Global Communications at the International University of Japan in Tokyo, noted that many SNS users want to become a character different from how they are in the real world. This, he says, makes it easier for many people to speak frankly about themselves.

News photo
Hokkaido monthly newspaper editor Naomichi Sato (left) and his publisher friend whose SNS name is Kobee (far left) launched a community devoted to a famous local politician. It eventually led to the publication of a book titled "Muneo Magazine" in November 2005.

"That is why many of them do not want co-worker friends to know their identities on the SNS," said Suzuki, an expert on such services. "In Japan, the SNS is not a tool to create a deeper relationship with those that people know in the real world. People use it to make friends with others they hardly know."

Although its members generally use the SNS to expand their personal networks, some also find out that it is useful for business purposes as well.

In 2005, when Naomichi Sato, editor of a monthly community paper in Obihiro, Hokkaido, and his publisher friend first thought of doing a book on Lower House lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, who at that time was standing for re-election after being on trial for bribery, he immediately thought of the mixi service.

Online conference

The publisher, whose mixi name is Kobee, launched a new community in August 2005 called "Muneo Suzuki's college of life" -- a network that did not include Suzuki among its participants.

"I thought we could lure people close to Suzuki," said Sato. "It was also meant to find out what the general public found interesting about him."

Soon, a local newspaper reporter who was writing about the Internet coverage of Suzuki joined the community. Then along came Kosuke Maruo, an editor at the publishing company East Press Co. who used to work with Kobee.

Since they were separately located in Tokyo, Obihiro and Sapporo, the three used a mixi bulletin board that only those with a password could enter to exchange ideas for the book.

Suzuki's daughter Takako also joined the online editorial conference from Canada, where she was studying. The anecdotes of Suzuki she offered on the virtual bulletin board were later compiled for a book titled "Muneo Magazine," published in November 2005.

News photo
Yuriya and MottyDiscJack (right), whose relationship began via a Social Networking Service, spent just over a year doing online "dating," with just a few meets in person, before they took the plunge and got married.

"The SNS is useful when you want to create something with a large number of people," Maruo said, citing the bulletin board service.

Mixi members, who represent the majority of SNS users in Japan, claim that the main reason that service became popular was because young entrepreneurs, journalists and other interesting professionals signed up.

"If I became linked to one witty guy, I would be automatically linked to other witty guys," said Kazuhide Harada, who joined mixi soon after it launched the service in March 2004. "People could easily become friends even if they had never met before."

Harada, 25, was so into mixi when he was at college that he used to sit in front of his computer from morning to night writing diaries, creating communities, commenting on others' diaries and chatting online with mixi users via another service.

Harada finally realized he was overdoing it when he flunked a test to join a college seminar.

After that, Harada's interest in mixi shifted from the users' side to that of the administrators. That was because he got to know some of the founding fathers of SNS in Japan, including mixi, Inc. President Kenji Kasahara and Yoshikazu Tanaka, president of GREE, Inc., another popular SNS.

He and other mixi users planned an event to gather ideas on how to turn the sites into profitable business concerns.

"I looked up about 100 or 200 SNS businesses overseas to see how they were generating revenue," Harada said. "Then I decided to disclose the information on socialnetworking.jp," he said, referring to a site he launched to serve as an information hub on SNSs.

That is when he started becoming an SNS consultant, giving advice to those who want to launch their own SNS or write books about the system.

Negatives to networking

"The SNS is a network which has potential," he said. "It will be like the Internet and will spread whether people like it or not."

However, there are negatives to social networking.

Stalking and defamation via the Internet that has at times led to real and violent assaults are some of the downsides for Net users, including those using social networking services.

As well, a great unresolved issue is where to draw the line between public and private information that is revealed in diaries and profiles posted on the Internet, including through the medium of SNS, Kensuke Suzuki pointed out.

For instance, when a 15-year-old boy killed a girl of 13 in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture, in April 2006, media organizations made public extracts from the diary about their relationship that she had been updating on an Internet blog.

Suzuki, though, was not comfortable reading such articles.

"I wondered if reporters should be allowed to make public a diary that was meant only for her friends," he said, adding that the media may be taking advantage of the situation that the girl who wrote the diary could not object.

In a world where an increasing number of people are disclosing private details about themselves, and filing diaries on the Internet -- including with social networking services -- Suzuki believes the time has come for guidelines to be drawn up regulating which personal information on the Internet a media organization can report on if the writer has died.

But he added that younger users should be better educated about Internet literacy.

Japan's major SNS sites

mixi.jp: Japan's biggest SNS, with about 5 million members. Requires an invitation from an existing member to join the service.

gree.jp: A popular SNS launched in February 2004, which had about 300,000 users as of January 2006. It also requires a member's invitation to join.

360.yahoo.co.jp: Yahoo! 360 degrees is an SNS that has been operated by Yahoo Japan Corp. since February 2006.

frepa.livedoor.com: Operated by Livedoor Co., this is Japan's second-biggest SNS, with some 700,000 users. Those who have a Livedoor ID can join the service. No other invitation is needed.

my.plaza.rakuten.co.jp/sns/: Rakuten Hiroba Rinkusu, or Rakuten Plaza Links, is operated by Rakuten, Inc. Those who want to join need to get a Rakuten ID and an invitation from an SNS member.

www.worldfriends.tv/public/home.jhtml: Worldfriends, operated by Meta4 Group Ltd., is aimed at meeting friends online from different countries and backgrounds. It offers the service in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

jp.cyworld.com: A Japanese version of South Korea's biggest SNS, which launched in December 2005.

soccersns.jp: An SNS for soccer fans and players. Soccer fans can write reviews of games, while players can contact teams so that they can arrange games.

shokobe.com: Shokobe is an SNS aimed at exchanging information on the restaurants and tourist spots of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture.



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