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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

TECH_JAPAN

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Will Japan invite Google+ into its growing circle of social networks?


Despite only being in closed beta testing at the moment, Google's new social-network service, Google+, is rapidly proving to be huge, with more than 10 million users joining since it was announced on June 28. And thanks to their international connections, Net-savvy Japanese too were soon getting invitations to join "circles," which is how the service organizes members.

Within a day or two of invitations being sent out, I observed a lot of Japanese users joining — with a speed much faster than when social-networking services like Orkut, Mixi, Gree, Twitter and Facebook launched. Many Japanese social-media experts tried out the features of Google+ and numerous blog posts have popped-up explaining how to use the service, which has created quite a buzz among tech readers.

When Paul Allen of the online family resource Ancestry.com estimated on July 12 that the number of Google+ users worldwide would pass 10 million on the 13th, his prediction was based on a search of surnames of registered Google+ users (using U.S. census data to determine what names to search for). I did a similar estimation for Japan, though with a smaller amount of Japanese surname data, and calculated that as of July 14 there were between 500,000 and 1 million Japanese Google+ users.

The speed with which Japanese have been joining probably has something to do with that fact that Google+ had Japanese menus and help pages from the beginning (as well as for other major languages). Promotion movies even come with subtitles. This is in stark contrast to how Twitter and Facebook handled their move into Japan — Japanese had to wait enviously for years to get onto those social networks (though some Twitter users didn't care that Twitter had English menus).

So will Google+ become a major social network alternative to Mixi (the most popular Japanese social network)?

Like users elsewhere, Japanese users are saying they feel the Google+ interface is somewhat similar to Facebook, and in Japan, that could mean "it's not as easy to use as Mixi." It does not matter if the Facebook-type design really is worse than Mixi or not, people tend to feel more comfortable with what they are used to. However, Mixi's heavy users may have not yet joined Google+. Instead, I am seeing the same kind of early-adopters who were quick to jump on Twitter and Facebook on Google+ now.

In countries where Facebook is dominant — that is, most of the world — being familiar with the Facebook-type interface makes it easy to migrate to Google+, but it also reduces the need to migrate. In Japan, however, only around 3 percent of the population are using Facebook, so it is possible that Google+ could overtake Facebook's position as leader here.

Some Western tech bloggers are saying that Google+ is a more of a threat to Twitter than it is to Facebook because if you set your posts to "Public," Google+ resembles a better version of Twitter. That is, images and movies are well-integrated and there is no 140-letter limit to what you can write. The risk to Twitter may be an issue where users are used to the Facebook-style interface and would like to see Twitter-style steams expanded. But in Japan's case, Twitter is already in a better position than Facebook.

Twitter has gradually been improving its Japanese-language support (probably after seeing how successful it has been here). Recently it has become possible to search Twitter for more than one Japanese word at a time, which was not the case before (e.g., "humid" or "summer" but not "humid summer"). Trending Topics for Japan was also added in April, and since last week hashtags (or keywords for easy tracking of similar messages) can now be written in Japanese text. So Google+ faces stiff competition here as Japanese people may dither over which service they use.

Google is also not the most popular Web service here, with more people instead using Yahoo! for searches and Yahoo! Mail rather than Gmail. (Though, ironically, Yahoo! Japan uses a Google backend for its search engine.)

After the introduction of Google+, the topic of using your "real name" in a social network also heated up again. When Japanese people with a Google Profile (created when joining Gmail, Google Docs or other service), signed up with Google+ they found that the name they chose in setting up their profile was now their user name, even if they wanted to use something else for the social network. If they then tried to change their name, for example, from the roman alphabet to kanji (so they can be found by potential friends), an obvious pseudonym or an odd name combination, they were reportedly locked out. As was mentioned on blogs and on Twitter, being banned from Facebook only shuts you out of Facebook but being banned from a Google account may affect your work if you use Gmail and Google's other services.

The "Google+ User Content and Conduct Policy" gives the example that using "Naka" in katakana script is OK if someone by the name of "Tanaka" is really called so by their friends and colleagues. This seems to show that Google wants users to use real names, but is more relaxed than Facebook, which asks for a copy of an official ID if there is doubt over your name. How Google will really operate with regards to names in the future is still unknown, but personally I know some Japanese friends who were locked out of Facebook, so I prefer Google+ for now.

Because it has only been operating for three weeks, it is not easy to predict whether Google+ will be as big as Mixi and Twitter are in Japan. But it's definitely a better start than Google Wave, the company's last and failed social networking attempt. Another advantage Google has is that unlike in America and Europe, Facebook is an easy target. Facebook Japan may not be feeling so safe right now.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English blog on the Japanese Web scene. A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.


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