A breakthrough year for Facebook, 2011 saw the social networking titan advance from the fringe of Japan’s social networking world.
The Facebook user base in Japan grew by 254% in 2011 and reached 6,266,440 in December 2011. This is a tremendous growth, considering that Japan has been a hostile territory for Facebook due to the presence of entrenched rivals and the online culture built on anonymity and escapism.
Facebook’s struggle to establish foothold in Japan is well-documented. Japanese social networking space is crowded with indigenous sites such as Mixi, GREE, and Mobage-town, each of which boasts users numbering more than 20 million.
Mixi, founded in 2004, has become a hub of personal blogs and communities of members sharing common interests. GRE and Mobage-town, on the other hand, focus primarily on mobile games.
Moreover, Facebook’s real-name policy and transparency collide with the preference for anonymity. Japanese people typically eschew real name in favor of pseudonyms. By doing so, they are able to free themselves from the cultural qualms toward forthright interaction and express themselves with aplomb.
Mixi has seen enormous success by catering to the cocooning tendency of Japanese users. The site requires an invitation from a current user and a Japanese mobile mail address to register. Also, the ashi ato (footprint) function tracks every visitor on profile pages, improving the feeling of personal security.
Furthermore, Facebook’s user interface is poorly localized and many Japanese people have found it confusing.
Given the odds stacked against Facebook in Japan, what’s to account for the dramatic growth in user base?
In the wake of the March 11 disaster, Facebook came under radar, along with Twitter and Mixi, as indispensable mediums of communication when mobile and landline networks came to standstill.
Also, the film, “The Social Network,” became a surprise box office hit and catalyst for the increase in new Facebook users. In response to the growing interest, a website called Facebook navi, which helps Japanese users navigate through the basic features of the social networking site, launched in the summer.
While the surge in the interest is visible, the user base is no indication of the viability of Facebook in the Japanese social networking world.
Several studies, including one by comScore, indicate that while Facebook and Twitter have seen a spike in traffic, Mixi’s traffic has stagnated. This data could point to a paradigm shift in Japanese online behavior from emphasis on anonymity to transparency. There is growing interest in the increased accountability and open communication enabled by Facebook. As a case in point, the mayor of a city in Kyushu in Southern Japan replaced the city’s website with a Facebook in order to encourage people to come forward with real names and take responsibility for their opinions.
On the other hand, people could just be flocking to the “next big thing” for the time being. According to a report by Forrester, the number of active users – those who are creating content – is rather small and many Japanese users are mostly there to watch.
At this point, it is too early to tell if Facebook is a temporary fad in Japan or its popularity is sustainable in the long run. Will Japanese users fully embrace the transparency and personal connection… or will Japanese users find a way to somehow manage to reconcile Facebook with the unique social networking world that they are part of? In 2012 and the years ahead, we can keep our eyes on what will become of Facebook in the Japan.