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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012
2012 has been a big year on the Japanese social-media scene
By AKKY AKIMOTO
Twitter continues to ride high. Facebook has grown a lot, but newcomer Line seems set to overtake it. Social game companies Gree and Mobage have shifted their overseas expansion into high gear. And Mixi finally admits that it needs to try harder to understand what its members want. In this month's column, we look back at the big battles fought in the Japanese social-media scene over the past year.
Twitter's new "Lifeline" feature was launched in September in Japan — the first region in the world to receive the service that suggests which official government Twitter accounts should be followed if disaster hits. Seeing how the popularity of Twitter surged in Japan immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year, it is no surprise the service was developed here.
Along with positioning itself as an essential service in times of trouble, Twitter has been localizing new features from its global version into Japanese, with no dramas.
Facebook has shown strong growth in Japan, with active users increasing to 16.7 million, 300 percent up from last year. (Though these numbers are derived from Facebook's internal advertising tool so should be taken with a grain of salt.)
In Japan, Facebook has made progress recently as a business network among Japanese — rather than LinkedIn, which is popular overseas. The formally paranoid, pseudonym-using Japanese are even using real names to drum up business on Facebook. And along the same lines, Facebook has seized a position as the social network of preference among job-hunting university graduates. In this employment ice age, desperate university students are sharing tips such as it is best to have a Facebook account, get many friends and followers, and display a positive profile online in case recruiters check them out.
The only anxiety is that over the past two months, the increase in Facebook users was only 3 percent. I don't know if this stagnation is temporary or not, but the media, which focused on Twitter in 2009-10 and Facebook in 2011-12, now seems to be shifting to other newcomers.
Line is a messaging service popular with smartphone users, which started in June 2011 by Naver Japan. In just 1½ years, the service has gained 80 million users worldwide, 36.4 million of them in Japan — making Line one of Japan's largest social-media services with a membership that matches or eclipses the numbers its rivals took four to eight years to reach.
Line has become popular thanks to its free messages and calls for mobile users. Just as Facebook was spread virally by using users' e-mail-contact lists, Line utilizes a user's phone-number list — though some people concerned with privacy are not comfortable with this function.
On top of the free messaging, Line has made its name by creating its own "Stamp" cartoon form of "emotional communication," which has been always popular among Japanese mobile users who are long-time users of emoji (text-base emoticons) and decome (e-mail decoration images).
Yahoo! Japan / Kakao Talk
Yahoo! Japan itself has never been strong in the social-media arena, but some recent clever moves could change that. In October, the Japanese Internet colossus shook hands in a deal with Kakao Talk, another free messaging app popular in South Korea, and announced a business alliance with Gree on Nov. 8. It also announced an enhancement of its alliance with DeNA (Mobage) on the very next day. I guess DeNA were pretty upset by news of the Yahoo/Gree alliance news, so it looks like Yahoo! Japan is hedging its bets against the other major players.
DeNA, which owns mobile-gaming company Mobage, threw its own hat into the test-messaging ring with its new Comm service in October. Comm is basically the same as Line — a free message/call application with lots of TV ads, photo-sharing and stamps. The biggest difference is that it forces people to use their real name and date of birth when registering, which means that DeNA does not intend to recycle the nickname Mobage users use. From that aspect, Comm is kind of like a rival of Facebook.
On Dec. 12, Comm declared that it is making all its stamps free. Selling paid stamps is how Line makes money on the service, which is basically free otherwise. It is not known how Comm is thinking to monetize its service, but the move is definitely targeting Line users.
Gree and Mobage
As I worried in January in this column, the sale of virtual gambling-like items in social games attracted the government's attention and self-regulations in May. However, that only affected a single gaming system and overall the two game-oriented social-network giants, Gree and DeNA's Mobage, are adding more and more games and users. Gree reached 30 million users, Mobage got 45 million (though that includes the PC version in co-operation with Yahoo! Japan).
More news on them was heard from overseas this year, too, including aggressive buyouts of foreign game-developers and the release of global versions of their games. Some games went well on the foreign charts, though it is not certain yet whether that success can pay off their huge investments.
Mixi is now on the back foot against its direct rival Facebook. For years, Mixi did not make any big moves against Facebook, but this year it reorganized its development system and announced it would tentatively resume its popular "footprint" feature, which had been removed in 2011. In November, it held the first "User First Week" and promised to hear more users' opinions.
However, the service — which still boasts 14 million active users — could not stop being seen as an underdog by the media. On Dec. 11, the Asahi newspaper mistakenly reported that Mixi's university-student users had decreased from 97 percent to 2 percent this year, though the correct drop is down to 70 percent, which is bad enough. To make a comeback, Mixi not only needs better features but to also change the way that people think about it.
Unlike Western countries, no one social-media service is dominating the Japanese Web, and I think that may continue. Users here are using many services in parallel and switching between social-networks all the time.
Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japanese web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.