A few months ago, several articles (like this one) pin-pointed the slow and deceptive growth of Facebook and Myscpace in Japan, compared to the overwhelming popularity of a local social netork: Mixi, explaining it by a so-called Japanese shyness in social media, or a lack of mobile-enabled services.
As a long-time Japan lover, what stroke me was that these articles, written by anglo-saxon journalists, somehow missed the point. Japanese are among the most social people on earth, mostly due to a demanding geography. They are also heavily socialized and present online, Mixi counting more than 15 millions members. Despite focusing on cultural differences, the articles fall short in explaining why services like Facebook or Myspace do not take off while Twitter got so popular in Japan in a very short time.
The 3 circles of relationship
We often refer to our relatives and close friends as our “inner circle” of relationships, while our professional contacts and loose relations reside in an outer circle, the frontier between both being quite fuzzy and lightly defined. For a Japanese, instead, the concepts of inside and outside are preponderant, and relationships vastly differ from a circle to another.
The inner circle is dominated by the concept of amae, which is proper to the Japanese mind, and which reflect an informal, albeit very empathic attitude toward each other. This is the place where strong relationships take place.
In contrast, the second circle is the place where all formal relationships occur, wether with professional contacts, or more distant friend, or even with the Japanese society as a whole. A strongly networked world made of reciprocal constraints and obligations, where trust is given as a collateral of social conformance. This is the place for giri.
On the far outside, where neither amae nor giri take place, is the rest of the world, dominated by indifference toward the other. Depending on the kind of relationships in play, the second circle can expand to the whole Japanese society vs the rest of the world, or contract to only encompass someone’s company or district.
Networking in a constrained world
One can easily see what values or behaviors are engaged when a Japanese deals with online networking. Protecting his inner circle is a fundamental need, and that’s why so many people are protecting their profile on Mixi, keeping the conversation private.
On the other side, publishing a profile on Facebook or Myspace involve claiming your identity while exposing it to the rest of the world diving deeply into a world dominated by giri. What would your boss think about you if he sees your profile ? How could you bear to manage relationships which engage giri and amae in the same place ? This is quite unconceivable for Japanese people. Anonymity is, in this case, a solution, but keeping a coherent false identity for a long time on Facebook is quite a challenge, wether for a Japanese or for a Westerner.
Twitter is quite a different and interesting case. If, on Facebook, you have to be somebody, on Twitter, you can be anything, a person, a brand, a rugby team or whatever you want, coherence is given by the context (or lack of), and you can tweet anonymously while maintaining close relationships with those you really care about. For the Japanese mind, Twitter is an open bridge between his inner circle and the far outside, where you don’t have to care about the image you give.
As different they might be, we can learn a lot from Japanese behaviors in our use of social media. More on that soon…. stay tuned! In the meantime, I would love to read about you remarks about how cultural habits condition our online behaviors.