December 26th, 2007
[ This article has also been published in the Japan Times ]
As we wind down on 2007, it’s a good time to look back and see how much the Internet landscape has changed in the last year.
Internationally there have been some big shakeups, led by the dramatic effects of the meteoric rise of Facebook to prominence, both good and bad. On these shores, too, there has been plenty of online action, so we’ve rounded up some of the events that have reshaped the Japanese Internet landscape this year.
The big hit
Any discussion about the top Internet stories of 2007 starts and finishes with Nico Nico Douga. This video-sharing site is uniquely Japanese, blending online video-sharing with user-created, short chat-like text comments that are synced to the movies, allowing whole conversations to flow across the frame. The type of content has ranged from the crude to the incredibly insightful and inventive, and some users have even subtitled music videos with the song’s lyrics. The videos themselves are a geek’s paradise, consisting mainly of anime, video-game footage and videos of young ladies. The unique format and addictive nature of the Web site has millions tuned in, giving it one of the most dramatic growth surges ever as it went from a January launch to become the seventh-most visited Web site in Japan as of December, according to global site-ranking service Alexa.com.
[ NB: I wrote a follow up article about how to register so you can see Nico Nico Douga content ]
Mobile gaming gets the big company treatment
Following in the footsteps of the innovative 2006 avatar-based mobile-gaming platform MobaGe-Town, this April Disney threw in its hat with a big press push and its own avatar-based game and social-interaction platform. Disney Wonder Days capitalized on the brand popularity and makes its money from monthly subscriptions. The range of games is pretty slick and offers Disney fans a healthy selection of characters. What it represented mostly was media giant Disney jumping into the mobile social media space to capture the hugely lucrative children’s market. You know the scene is changing when the big names get involved.
Japan’s most successful online ad campaign this year was arguably the “Uniqlo Clock.” The campaign consisted of a Flash-based clock, a rhythmic beat and ballet dancers moving to the clock’s rhythm. A simple idea got nationwide attention, joining television and Web seamlessly. Part of the success was due to the engaging execution and the blog widgets Uniqlo provided, so that any blogger could implement the ad on their own blog — something that thousands chose to do freely, greatly expanding the exposure of the campaign into the “blogosphere.”
This great use of new Flash technology let users draw their own character and then watch it dance on a stage in the middle of the screen in 3-D. When you visit the Web site you get to see characters that other people have created earlier, too — a great example of consumer-generated media blending with advertising, and a banner-bearer for advertisers the nation over.
The Nike Cosplay campaign was one of the most joyful virals of the year. Picture a bunch of skintight body-suited ninja chasing a lone salary man down the street through the middle of Tokyo’s electronics district, Akihabara. The campaign managed to blend a bit of Nike cool with some fun and an infectious video on YouTube. That this viral wasn’t shown on other media (such as television) says a lot for the quick uptake of YouTube in Japan.
The foreigners invade
YouTube, the biggest user-generated video site on the planet, finally made an official entrance into the Japanese market this year. After a troublesome 2006, when Japanese TV networks ganged up on YouTube with a huge takedown order on television programs that Japanese users had been uploading en-masse to the English-language version of the site, the move into Japanese language could be considered incredibly successful. There is still a lot of TV content on YouTube, but the relationship with the networks seems to be improving and it looks like the site has created a good base in Japan.
Why do people feel the need to post micro messages about what they do at every single moment of the day? Answer that and you will understand Twitter’s success. Initially launched in 2006 in the United States, Twitter found that after launching a mobile interface in early 2007, it experienced a strange user-base shift. While the interface was still entirely in English, the posts on Twitter started to become very quickly dominated by Japanese-language posts. The simplicity and accessibility of the Twitter interface and the mobile Internet-friendly Japanese market seemed to overcome the usual extreme reluctance of the Japanese to go into foreign-language territory, and put Twitter and microblogging on the map for Japanese users.
The dinosaurs wane
Mixi has dominated the SNS (social network services) market for a while now in Japan, but with upstart networks and blogging platforms such as Gree making some new moves, and a lot of investors to please after it went public in late 2006, Mixi made some changes to its aging platform in 2007. These cosmetic tweaks were minimal and didn’t include the changes that many were waiting for, but it was a good first step. It tidied up the interface and improved several usability issues. Are the changes enough, and are they happening fast enough? Probably not, but, in fairness, they haven’t had time to really have an impact yet. For now the waning traffic on Mixi in 2007 (down almost 40 percent since January, according to Alexa.com), can be seen as symptomatic of its inability to keep fresh.
2Channel has long been the place to vent frustrations online in Japan. Its forums have always had a steady stream of anonymous complaints or gossip pouring in to spill the dirt, mostly on posters’ companies or pet hates. That early Web popularity has now started to become one of the downfalls of “Ni Chan,” as many large corporations have begun to block the site on their local network. The other thing fighting against 2Channel is the antiquated and hard-to-use interface. It really is a dinosaur of the early 2000s, when it grew to prominence, and is in dire need of a face lift. Since January the site has been shedding users, and it’s likely that 2008 will bring a bigger downslide if some things don’t change.
Of course, Yahoo Japan still dominates the Japanese online market with the search, auctions, mail and other features driven from its portal. It is by far the No. 1 site in Japan, handling more traffic than the No. 2 and 3 sites combined (FC2 and Google Japan respectively). But in 2007, Yahoo Japan’s fortunes dropped to the tune of almost 20 percent, continuing a trend from 2006.
Yahoo Japan is not part of the global Yahoo brand and as such has missed a lot of the new innovation coming from outside Japan. The site is certainly geared toward the Japanese style of having lots of little text links everywhere on a page. To Western eyes this looks cluttered, although it generally gets a positive response from the Japanese public. But do the falling traffic numbers over 2007 represent the beginning of a backlash against this style and a focus on usability in Japan?
2007 has seen the beginning of exciting changes in the Japanese Internet industry, with the rise of new faces and the old faces coming back down to reality — if only just a little.
There will doubtless be new steps taken gingerly or boldly in 2008. Likely growth areas for the industry are in interaction between Web services and Web applications, such as sharing weather information and the like; more focus on taking Japanese ideas international; and, with a new range of mobile handsets recently released and more on the way that are increasingly capable of Web trickery, perhaps the mobile Internet will come a step closer to performing seamlessly with the regular Internet.
Either way, it’ll be fun finding out.