Japanese Twitter users are second only to the Dutch in activity on Twitter, and Japanese is the most tweeted language after English.
Now this: news that the most tweeted moment in history is not a sporting event, nor a celebrity pregnancy, nor a political election—no, the most tweeted moment ever correlates to the explosion of a cartoon castle on Japanese TV.
"Japan is weird," is how Slate's Will Oremus reacted. To Western eyes, Japanese tweeting behavior looks bizarre (surely the otaku tweeters would be glad to know we think so). But the story raises deeper questions about why Twitter suits the Japanese—and why, based on Western Facebook narcissism, many Japanese might say the same thing about us.
Japan friended Twitter as soon as they met in 2008. But Facebook has fought an often losing battle against local social media sites in Japan since it arrived. The social juggernaut finally caught up with Japan's homegrown Mixi a year ago, but it since shows signs of losing ground. Why? What's different about what the Japanese want from their social media?
Twitter lets users self-efface, some have suggested, while Facebook is about the humblebrag—a major offense in traditional Japanese culture. When Japanese social networkers can enthuse about things that interest them—anime, games, music—without drawing attention to themselves, they seem glad to engage the broader world. But they are often uncomfortable being forced to broadcast their name and face. Homegrown Asian cyber social spaces have known this for years; Western ones might do well to understand.
This month, Twitter announced the latest record set by Japan: During the August 2 airing of the 1986 film Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki on Japanese TV, the movie's climax became the most tweeted moment of all time.
The 143,199 tweets posted in sync with the (spoiler alert) magic word "barusu" (バルス) as it destroyed the flying castle, also exploded the previous Twitter record of 33,388 tweets per second. The old Twitter record had been set at the moment of New Year's Eve, 2013—not in Times Square, but in Tokyo. The trend of spamming the word "barusu" in sync with Castle in the Sky's finale began in March 2003, on Japan's message board service 2channel, during the annual broadcast of the anime classic. The events are called "barusu matsuri" (バルス祭り), or "destruction festivals."
Japan has set at least four tweet-per-second records—in the 2010 World Cup game against Cameroon (2,940), the 2010 victory over Denmark (3,283), the 2011 Women's World Cup Final against the U.S. (7,196); and during the 2011 airing of Castle (8,868), a few moments after Beyonce announced her pregnancy at the MTV Music Awards. When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, Twitter servers crashed, overwhelmed by 100,000 tweets per hour, and Twitter was forced to show users the "fail whale"; That's nothing compared to what Japanese tweeters did in one second this month—143,199 tweets—and yet Twitter held up this time under the onslaught. Apparently the Twitter bird is stronger than the Castle in the Sky. But Miyazaki's Twitter power remains impressive.
You can say a lot more in 140 Japanese characters than you could with roman letters. The word "kokusai," meaning "international" in Japanese, for example, takes just two characters: 国際. This is likely also the reason Twitter has caught on in China—despite being one of more than 2,600 sites blocked by the Chinese governnment. Japan's kanji writing system, made up of 1,945 ideographic characters, is derived from the ancestors of modern Chinese characters. Many symbols are exactly the same as the Chinese.
The tweeter with the highest number of posts on Earth is a 23-year-old Japanese man who calls himself Yougakudan_00, an anime fan, gamer, and programmer who has posted 37,281,273 tweets. If Yougakudan's tweets were strung together, they'd fill roughly 1,887,778 pages. That's 3,000 plus copies of Moby Dick in Japanese, 1,749.5 copies of Infinite Jest, or over 2,000 copies of Haruki Murakami's magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. A hell of a lot of tweeting. What’s all the tweeting about?
Japanese Twitter users tweet more to socialize than to broadcast news. As Dutch researchers showed in a 2011 paper, only 4% of Japanese tweets use hashtags, versus 25% in German and 14% in English. Similarly, whereas hyperlinks are included in half of all German tweets, 37% of French, and 30% of English, only 11% of Japanese tweets link. On the other hand, nearly half of all Japanese tweets—and a whopping 77% of Indonesian ones (led by Jakarta, the tweet capital of the world)—include @mentions of other people, versus 28% in German, 24% in Spanish, and 50% in English. Similarly, a quarter of Japanese tweets are replies to others' tweets, similar to the rate in English, versus just 14% in German.
As the authors argue, Twitter behavior shows at least two patterns—degree of structure (tags and links) and communication paradigm—as a "broadcasting channel" or personal messaging. Germans are broadcasters of structured announcements, the archetypical Westerners. Japanese are personal messengers—representative of a broader Asian trend to privacy.
Twitter was discovered for the Japanese audience by a few Tokyo developers and MIT MediaLab director Joi Ito, an early Twitter investor, at the new microblogging platform's SXSW unveiling in March 2007. It was popular since it required minimal English to use, and you could send messages in Japanese by simply skipping a space and adding a period. Another crucial factor: Like Mixi, Japan's homegrown social network platform released in 2004, Twitter let users use fake names and cartoon pictures instead of their real names and photos.
Social sites in Asia, not just Japan, tend to have a focus on gaming, like The Sims and other multiplayer Internet games, or sharing of music and drawings, like Myspace.
CyWorld, the Korean social network site created in 1998, five years before Facebook, incorporated many features, like "mini-homepi" (mini homepage) similar to the Facebook Wall or Timeline familiar to Westerners. But the site works more like a game: Users have avatars who can interact, and buy decorations for their page with coins called dotori (acorns); virtual acorns sell for real money, and are used to pay for background music, pixelated furniture, and virtual appliances for their page. MikuBook, the social media site for the "vocal android" software Hatsune Miku, is likewise oriented around users sharing samples of music, lyrics, animated music videos, and clothing drawings based on Miku, the "virtual diva." Much like the Super Mario Brothers cast—Yoshi, Kupa, Princess Peach, etc.—this social network revolves around playing with a family of cartoon avatars, collaborating on content. IDs are cartoonish, with aliases. The point isn’t extending real-life social lives, but creating virtual ones.
"Our users value a social space that is like a living room," Mixi founder and former president Kenji Kasahara told Bloomberg in 2011. "Private, comfortable, and personal."
Twitter fits that bill. Facebook doesn’t.
Facebook worked hard to win over Japanese netizens. After opening the Facebook office in Tokyo in January 2011, Mark Zuckerberg made a stab at cultural understanding. Facebook let Japanese users post their blood type—commonly thought of as a personality marker, like a Zodiac sign, in Japan. This effort was pretty useless, though: Japanese still preferred their anime avatars on Mixi and Twitter to the personal exposure of Facebook.
In February 2011, Facebook had just 2 million registered Japanese users, out of 100 million online. That's 2% penetration, as opposed to 5% in Namibia and Nicaragua. Mixi had 20 million users then (20% penetration), as did the social gaming sites Mobage Town and Gree—another sign of how social networks in Japan are more gaming oriented. Twitter had 10 million users— five times as many as Facebook. But the tipping point was coming.
The Social Network, David Fincher's movie about Facebook's founding, came out in Japan the same month Facebook set up shop in Tokyo, and grossed more than in any other country but the U.S.
Fast-forward to February 2013, and goo research reported Facebook had more Japanese users than Twitter—39% versus 36% penetration, with Mixi trailing in third place.
Another key tipping point in Japan's social media shift was the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in April 2011. When telecommunications networks were disrupted, the Internet proved the best way to spread emergency information fast, but online identities needed to be not cartoon characters with monikers but people's real names. Hence a surge to Facebook from Mixi.
Twitter also saw a surge in the wake of the tragedy, as did a new messaging app called LINE. Launched in June 2011 by programmers at NHN Japan, a unit of the Korean NHN Corporation, LINE started when the company's business was hampered by the quake. In just over a year, LINE had reached 50 million users. On July 3, 2012, its CEO Akira Morikawa announced new features "Home" and "Timeline"— allowing users to share recent personal developments with friends and family. Most uniquely, the app also lets users buy and share "stickers"—cute images of cartoon animals, like emoji, tailored to the local audience's nationality. Ramadan-themed characters are available in Indonesia, and in Korea, locally produced designs are unique to the military experience, a mandatory part of growing up there. As the Wall Street Journal reports this week, LINE now claims an 80% overseas user base, including 18 million in Thailand, 17 million in Taiwan, and 15 million in Spain, plus 47 million Japanese users.
Facebook, meanwhile, is proud of the 21 million users it claims in Japan. Despite alarming reports in June—derived from Facebook's own self-service ad tool—that Facebook in Japan had declined by 19.5 percent in half a year, Facebook Japan's new director told the daily Nikkei on August 14 that its numbers are fine: 86% of the 21 million Japanese are using the mobile service (versus the global average 71%), and 72% of mobile Facebook users in Japan use it daily, much higher than the global average, 57%.
Still, when Facebook says it plans to increase its Japan ad presence by 100% in the next year, and launch TV ads there, it's clear they've got LINE on their mind.
No independent data are available for Facebook's latest performance in Japan, but The Guardian, among other media, have reported recent declines in Japan and other markets, especially on Facebook's desktop use. Japanese media have suggested this reflects not just the move to mobile, but a growing disenchanment with what's perceived as Western self-centeredness on social media.
The Japan Times recently reported a study suggesting that using Facebook makes people feel more connected, but less happy. The Tokyo Times in June quoted local users with lackluster attitudes toward Facebook, and enthusiasm for LINE.
"Recently, timelines are just full of the same people boasting about their lives," one Tokyo Facebooker said. "I have got no interest in looking at that anymore."
"LINE is so easy to use, I am tired of Facebook, it is too much of a pain," another said.
Japanese social network users—and perhaps those in other East Asian countries, like CyWorld—seem to want something else from a social media platform: less self-promotion, more content sharing. Silicon Valley startups like Apple, Google, and Facebook—created by Harvard whiz kids or pioneering individualists like Steve Jobs—have something distinctly American about their voice and style, which I believe explains a lot of what has alienated Japanese from Facebook in the past, and may continue to bug them.
I once gushed to a Japanese friend about Jobs's famous Stanford graduation speech—"stay hungry, stay foolish"—about dropping out of school, traveling abroad, taking acid, pursuing his dreams. I won’t soon forget her reaction: To my surprise, she wasn’t impressed, but disgusted. "What about his family?" she wanted to know. "Does he ever think of anything but himself?"
Facebook may have won some recent battles in Japan, but how it will fare in the war remains to be seen. If it wants to succeed, it would do well to pay attention to its Asian neighbors like LINE, Mixi, and CyWorld, to see how people unlike us might want to connect. Narcissism is not cool there.
The rest of us Facebook and Instagram narcissists might do well, too, to look up from our navels. If we think more about who we’re talking to than about ourselves, we may notice how differently people are using communication tools around the world. And may even want to join in.
[Image: Flickr user Naitokz]