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This article was published on February 2, 2011

Why Twitter outguns Facebook in Japan

Why Twitter outguns Facebook in Japan

TwitterJapanMark Zuckerberg may want more positive news from Japan, but it’s not likely to arrive any time soon.

With a mere two million registered Facebook users out of an online population of almost one hundred million, this represents a penetration of just 2% – meaning it’s among Facebook’s lowest performing markets.

Japan may be ahead of countries such as Cambodia and Togo, but it’s still lagging behind Facebook “heavyweights” such as Namibia and Nicaragua, where penetration has hit the giddy heights of 5%.

It isn’t that Japan is averse to networking online, far from it. It’s just that as one of the world’s most ‘wired-up’ countries, Japan has always set its own agenda. And crucially, culture has a big say in which networks take-off…and which don’t. Social networking sites are big business in Japan. Mixi is top dog amongst the Facebook-esque networks with over 20 million users, whilst sites that combine social networking with the country’s love of gaming receive similar levels of traffic, with Gree and Mobage-Town proving particularly popular.

And it’s not all about preferring home-grown networks either. Twitter has proven to be an immensely popular tool in Japan, in fact the Californian company can count Japan among its top tweeting territories, with an estimated 10 million Japanese people actively using Twitter – five times more than Facebook. In fact, Japan broke the world record for the number of tweets sent in a single second, during the 2010 soccer World Cup. The country then broke its own record at New Year. Almost 7,000 tweets per second were sent at the stroke of midnight on the 31st December/1st January.

So, we probably have to dig a little deeper to see why Twitter is soaring…and Facebook, well, isn’t…

Timing is everything

If you snooze, you lose. If you’re not fast, you’re last…you get the picture. Mixi was making inroads into the Japanese social networking scene around the same time Facebook was starting out at Harvard.

Mixi was initially seen as the Japanese answer to Friendster which was pretty big in the US at the time. But with Facebook taking time to usurp the likes of Friendster, MySpace and Bebo as the preeminent social media platform in the west, Mixi has gone from strength to strength in Japan, and so have other platforms such as Gree and Mobage-Town.

So Facebook was already facing an uphill battle before it had even started to look at Japan. But of course, Facebook has come out trumps in other countries that once resisted its charms…so why not Japan? And why has Twitter managed to thrive?

Cultural considerations

The one thing all the popular Japanese social media platforms have in common is anonymity.

Whilst Facebook is all about the people behind the profile, the Japanese web population typically like their privacy, with nicknames, pseudonyms and other monikers used to disguise their true identity. And this is what the likes of Mixi and Gree offer. Twitter offers this too, with users able to shield their true identity behind whatever username they choose.

Mixi Inc. President, Kenji Kasahara, was even quoted by Bloomberg as saying: “Our users value a social space that is like a living room — private, comfortable and personal.”

Of course, you can hide your identity on Facebook by setting up false accounts…but then what’s the point if none of your friends are able to connect with you? Mixi is less about interacting with friends than it is about interacting on hugely popular community pages where personal identity isn’t quite so important. And it offers greater control not only on what personal information is revealed, but which friends get to see it.

Facebook could perhaps learn a lot from this – imagine, you could be friends with your parents on Facebook without worrying about their prying eyes seeing those photos of you on your stag-do. Furthermore, when Twitter arrived on the Japanese scene it offered something different to other platforms. And Japan bought into this hook, line and sinker. In fact, we’re now seeing the native Japanese networks adapt their platforms thanks to Twitter. Since 2009, Mixi has enabled users to send short messages consisting of 150 characters. Sound familiar?

For the love of language

Many Asian languages require fewer characters to convey a message, so 140 characters in Japanese will get users a lot more bang for their tweets than in English. The word ‘information’, for example, requires a mere two characters in Japanese.

It also seems as though Twitter has been Japan-centric from quite early on. Japanese was added to Twitter in April 2008, making it the first foreign language available on the platform. But a sizeable following had already built up prior to this, a clear indication that Twitter is intrinsically more appealing to the Japanese way of doing things than Facebook. So whilst Twitter is now available in multiple languages, at one point it was only available in English and Japanese.

Facebook has started to think ‘local’ with its Japanese site, in more ways than language. Did you know that blood-type is a big talking point in Japan? No? Well, it is. Facebook has factored this into its Japanese interface, so people can let other users know whether they’re A, B, O or AB – apparently it can convey a lot of information about ‘personality’.

If Mark Zuckerberg wants to get a firmer foothold in Japan, however, it may have to change its game-plan altogether. It may need to build Facebook’s reputation as a social gaming platform, in the same way as Gree and Mobage-Town have done. And in the same way as Mixi is currently doing, to ensure it doesn’t lose any more ground in the local social sphere.

Ultimately, Facebook has to give users a very good reason to switch social networks. And so far, it hasn’t managed to dig too deep into the Japanese consciousness, irrespective of age, gender or, indeed, blood-type. And this isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

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