Nearly 50% of the U.S. population keeps a Facebook account. Comparatively speaking, there are far fewer Japanese users, with Facebook recording just 3.6% penetration here.
Even so, the number of Japanese Facebook users has spiked by over 76% in the last six months, accounting for over 2 million new users, according to the SocialBakers social media tracking website.
Like a lot of 20-something Americans, I’ve been using Facebook since registration required a college ID, and I witnessed its enormous expansion not through breathless news stories proclaiming its meteoric rise, but through rapid changes in the virtual environment of Facebook itself. My first indication that Facebook was evolving was when my mother sent me a friend request. Followed by grandma, mom’s boyfriend and my young cousin. After that, I half expected the family dog to send me a friend request.
But the first time I realized Facebook’s plans for world domination was when I received an invitation from the development team to help translate the software into Japanese. A few months later, a language tab appeared. Suddenly, what was once the domain of Westerners and a few clued-in Japanese seemed like an increasingly global phenomenon.
Social networking isn’t new to Japan. Mixi, Japan’s native social networking system (SNS), enjoys great popularity to this day, despite Facebook looming on the horizon. What’s interesting is how strikingly different the two systems function.
Mixi seems specifically tailored to Japanese tastes. Privacy is key - many users elect an abstract representation for their profile photo, rather than an actual likeness, most create a handle rather than use their real name, and, perhaps most significantly, one can see everyone that has visited their profile with the “ashi ato” (footprints) feature. Additionally, elements of your profile can be password protected or restricted to “friends only.”
These features allow a user to keep their actual persona much less visible to those outside of their social circle – perhaps resembling a virtual incarnation of the classic “uchi/soto” social dynamic in Japan.
By contrast, Facebook’s security features are notoriously difficult to navigate. And Facebook until recently required users to register with something resembling a given name – names that sounded like jokes or obvious aliases were weeded out by the software. As a result, most in the Facebook community use their real name on their profile pages. Users also tend to set their profile photo to an actual likeness, which may be a carry-over from Facebook’s original purpose as a kind of “friend finder” that let you hook up with classmates, friends of friends, etc.
Although the rules are not so cut-and-dry anymore, most new users seem to follow the lead of the more established ones, creating an environment where your on-screen avatar is more or less indistinguishable from the real you – a major difference over Mixi and something of a paradox in privacy-obsessed Japan.
Facebook is a massive and influential creature. In the U.S., it’s almost treated as a political entity by the media, and much has been made concerning Facebook’s role in the gradual merging of our online and real-life personas.
So, the question is, as more and more Japanese jump into the Facebook fray, how will it influence social interaction?
Facebook is such a big presence in many American’s lives that one is all but obligated to accept friend requests from anyone they see with any frequency in the real world. As a result, many Facebook users end up “friending” co-workers, bosses, family members, clients and others, and these people are then invariably able to peer into aspects of one’s life they were previously unable to see or get involved in. This mixing of social circles inevitably causes problems for some Facebook users, as a Japanese friend related to me recently:
“I’ve had a [Facebook] profile since I lived abroad years ago,” she said. “But I got a friend request from a co-worker in Japan recently. After seeing all the foreign friends on my profile, she started talking around the office about my foreign acquaintances. When my boss, who is older and very conservative, heard of this, he was very disapproving.”
I’ve always found the Japanese to be shy about mixing social groups. I’ve met the families, bosses and co-workers of only a very few Japanese friends, and bringing an uninvited guest to, say, a drinking party is a faux pax on a much different level than it is in the West, where it is sometimes even encouraged.
So, as Facebook attracts more and more Japanese users, will we see a wearing down of Japan’s more rigid social culture?
Only time will tell, but as I looked around and saw a surprising number of co-workers surfing the telltale blue and white Facebook homepage the other day, it occurred to me that maybe it’s a question worth asking.© Japan Today