A couple of weeks back, an article Facebook Wins Relatively Few Friends in Japan made its rounds. As usual, Facebook is compared to the big three Japanese SNS: mixi, Gree, and Mobage-town. However, Gree and Mobage-town market themselves more as social gaming platforms, where the focus is the games themselves. On the other hand, mixi promotes itself as a way of sharing photos, status updates, on so on.
While mixi is similar to Facebook from a feature perspective, the nature of its social graph make it a fundamentally different beast. Unlike Facebook, it provides facilities to search based on profile criteria such as sex, age, and location, in combination with keywords. Mixi users can also join Communities like お風呂ダイエット (bath diet) and 水樹奈々 (Nana Mizuki), and participate in BBS style discussions. These features make it easy for users to form virtual friendships. At the same time, other users restrict their mixi friends to only the closest of real world friends.
mixi's appeal stems from it offering control over who your friends are. When mixi introduced a new feature allowing users to find each other by email address, there was a strong backlash, resulting in mixi abandoning the feature. The ability to have anonymous profiles is key to this.
Facebook requires users to use their real name. This takes away control over friendships from users. Though the system doesn't explicitly force people to accept friendship requests, rejecting a boss or co-worker's unwanted request is not something that is easy for a Japanese person to do (or perhaps anyone for that manner). This lack of control means Japanese users won't use Facebook in the same personal way as they use mixi.
Instead of overtaking mixi in the friendship space, I think Facebook is poised to become the leader in the professional space. Because Japanese users don't view Facebook as being intimate, they don't use it in a highly personal manner. Most Japanese I see using it don't share anymore than they with casual acquaintances. As such, the overall atmosphere of Japanese Facebook is already more professional than the English Facebook.
Last night I attended a networking event with many of Tokyo's connected web developers and designers. As is typical of such events, I received many business cards. Being a digital person, I don't like the idea of needing to hold onto business cards. There are a number of services for digitizing business cards, but then I have a digital business card that is as dead as the paper one. I usually try and find people on LinkedIn after such an event, but not so many Japanese people use it. This time I decided to try Facebook instead. I found seventeen out eighteen people. Now given the nature of the crowd, perhaps that's not so surprising, but it caused me to dig a bit more.
I went back and tried to find everyone I found on Facebook on LinkedIn. Of the eighteen, eight also had a LinkedIn account. However, the number of LinkedIn connections tended to be much lower than Facebook friends. Below is a graph of the Facebook friends and connections of the people I met (excluding one outlier who had 2,097 Facebook friends but only 1 LinkedIn connection).
The sheer volume of Facebook friends these people have stand in stark contrast to a report last year that indicated Japanese, at an average of 29 friends on social networks, have the least in the world. Furthermore, in addition to their name, half of them listed a university they studied at, and two thirds listed their current employer.
Facebook itself tried to push the professional SNS aspect in Japan last year when it teamed up with Recruit to promote Facebook as a way to find jobs. There is already at least one Japanese book on using Facebook for business.
Facebook has yet to be a runaway success in Japan, but I think we are on the tipping point for it to become the professional SNS.