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Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2011

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Interviewed like a star: Anonymous question and answer site is proving popular in Japan


Over the last month or so, a new social service has risen out of the blue in the Japanese Web.

The Interviews, as the service is called, was launched on July 31 by Tokyo-based Internet company Paperboy & Co. Inc., which said the service was produced during a two-day in-house development contest.

In short, The Interviews is a social interview service. What this means is that the site allows you to ask other people, famous or not, questions that they will then answer in a post on their page on the site. When you register, you get a personal page where your answers to given questions are listed publicly. You can then invite friends to "follow" you in a similar way to other social networking services such as Twitter, Mixi or Facebook.

After answering a few initial questions, you may want to answer more. In order to do this you need to publicize your page on other social media and call on people for questions. You will then be notified when you are asked more questions.

The interesting part of all this is that the identities of the people asking the questions are not disclosed. So the questions could be from anyone, whether they are close friends or people you've never met who happen to stumble across your page. When you have answered a question, you can then let your friends and followers on other social networking services know.

The type of questions people ask vary wildly from person to person. For example, "Tell me the first time you expressed your love for someone?" or "What is work? Why do we all work?"

Thanks to the viral aspect of social media, many URLs of answers on the service are now seen on Twitter, Facebook and so on. Although the service is still only in the beta-testing stage, it apparently needed to enhance its servers due to a sudden rush of new users.

According to Web-traffic research service Alexa, the 2-month-old service is now the 270th most popular Web service in Japan.

While The Interviews is obviously proving popular, it is not an original idea. Formspring.me, for example, which began in November 2009, is also a question-and-answer-based service. Formspring, however, allows both named and anonymous questions — The Interviews is anonymous only.

Prior to making The Interviews, Paperboy & Co. created, in 2007, another interview-style website called 2manji (meaning 20,000 text characters), which is still popular. On this site, users can write magazine-like interviews up to 20,000-characters long by choosing and answering set questions.

There is also the popular "blog baton" meme. Since the early days of the blogosphere, many bloggers have circulated a templated list of questions. These so-called 100 no Shitsumon (100 Questions) listed questions around a specific topic. Bloggers would post their 100 answers and then resend the questions to friends who had blogs and so on, like a relay.

On the mobile Web too there is the Purofu (profile) service from Zenryaku Profile that has been popular since 2004. Using this service users can make a self-introduction page by answering questions from the system. Many teenage students used their Purofu page as their personal namecard, exchanging the address by cellphone email. Zenryaku Profile is now operated by Rakuten, and has around 6 million users.

There are critics that say this kind of service makes people feel like they are celebrities by inflating their egos. But it may simply be that Japanese like to be interviewed more than others. Whatever the case, it is definitely true that a lot of people here are enjoying this type of format, with The Interviews service getting more than 1 million page-hits per day.

Simply updating your status on Facebook or sending a tweet may be enough to satisfy the needs of people in other countries, but it seems Japanese want to know more about the people around them. Mixi has even become boring for many people, since profile pages are not as active and, despite being a Japanese favorite, Twitter too does not have such detailed profile pages.

Asking questions anonymously may be the key point for Japanese, I guess. Being anonymous means you can ask questions you would never dare to in person, and that makes questions — and the answers — more interesting.

Since the launch of The Interviews, not a small number of people have reported pranks by people posting on Twitter that The Interviews will change its policy and display the questioner's account name. Many people panicked at this and propagated the false info. However, The Interview's official Twitter and Facebook accounts had posts denying it was planning to do this. The reaction to the hoaxes showed just how comfortable people feel asking anonymous questions, and how embarrassed they would be if it was revealed that they had asked a question — especially if it was a particularly shocking one.

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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