Japanese Social Networking: Can mixi survive Line, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.? [REISSUE]

Japanese Social Networking: Can mixi survive Line, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.? [REISSUE]

Long under siege from Facebook, Twitter, and more recently, the semi-social Line, and confronted by a shift toward more open and international social networking options, Japan’s native mixi has signaled what looks a lot like retreat: it’s been announced that they will effectively merge with istyle, an online marketing company best known for its cosmetics sales site, @cosme.

It’s not entirely clear how things will roll-out, however news of the deal indicates that the two will share mixi’s proprietary online advertising and data exchange platform, Vantage. Stated otherwise, istyle will absorb Vantage, mixi’s wholly owned marketing division, staff and all.

On one hand, it looks like two related yet distinct internet business models joining forces, but on the other, it looks like yet another increasingly irrelevant digital artifact hoping for salvation through merciful merger & acquisition. To get a handle on our pessimistic outlook, a bit of background and contemporary context is in order.

mixi: Japan Digitized
Those who’ve lived here long enough probably remember the meteoric mixi phenomenon. Launched in 2004, the service quickly defined and dominated Japanese social media. Unquestionably, as Facebook is today, and as MySpace was in the US 6 or 7 years ago, mixi was the social networking tool for the Japanese.

In many ways, mixi was and remains a reflection of Japan’s distinct culture and traditions:

  • Contrary to the company’s talking points, mixi was built on anonymity - accounts used pseudonyms and profile pictures were usually not that of the account holder, but instead a landscape photo, anime character, cute animal, etc. In stark contrast to the much more open and personal overseas social networks, publicly sharing personal information was frowned upon. This anonymity also lent itself to certain.. adult behaviors.

  • Signup was by invitation only, and available only to those with an email address assigned to a Japanese mobile phone (internet-capable mobile phones were widely adopted here years before the rest of the world; each was assigned a dedicated email address). Mobile-only email confirmation was an attempt both at security and at limiting duplicate or fake accounts, but again, contrary to talking points, it was widely regarded as an exclusionary tactic that effectively locked out the rest of the world (workaround apps are now available, but interest appears marginal at best).

  • As with Facebook today, at it’s height there were no options for customizing mixi profiles, setting it far apart from other social media platforms such as MySpace (though this has now changed). Save for photos and certain special features, every profile was structured the same.

  • Storage space was limited, thus limiting members’ ability to post photos. Video posts and additional photo storage were only allowed for premium members with monthly subscriptions. In this way, it could be argued that, while services like MySpace encouraged flamboyant digital narcissism, mixi’s paywall encouraged a measure of humility.

mixi also pioneered and continues to offer unique features that either haven't made it onto other platforms or have only recently been implemented:

  • Mobile access: mixi was available on Japan’s supertech feature phones several years before Facebook’s 2010, text-only mobile offering.

  • Premium Member status grants additional rights: coupons for online shopping sites, more customization options, enhanced access to groups within the site, and the ability to modify posts (dates, etc.).

  • User reviews and "social commerce" - mixi users could easily rate and review books, music, electronics, and other products and link to retail sites. While Facebook’s efforts toward aggressive monetization are just now getting off the ground, along with the premium paywall, it was built into mixi almost from the beginning.

  • Mixi Station: users could track and share music; think pre-smartphone GrooveShark meets manual Shazam.

  • Newsfeeds: detailed categories including Domestic, International, Politics, Economics, Regional, Sports, Entertainment, IT/Technology, Game/Anime, and various topical columns. Targeted newsfeeds, “Pickup,” for example, use pop-culture entertainment news to attract young users.

  • Communities: from the beginning, mixi offered a communities or groups feature, and they would often branch into very specific topics, for example: “People often tell me that I am different from the first impression,” “I am so in love with Sailor Moon,” or “Brag about your Bento.”

  • Lastly, and it’s a big one: mixi is built using open-source software architecture.

That’s all great, but from top to bottom, even traditionally insular Japan is globalizing, and just as giants Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, NEC, and every mobile carrier save for SoftBank have so painfully learned, great in Japan alone is no longer great enough.

Boom then Decline
As with so many Japan-only products and services, mixi was protected from the outside world by linguistic, cultural, and international borders. And, prior to social networking’s rise into truly global political and pop-cultural prominence, there wasn’t a whole lot of demand for cross-cultural, multilingual platforms. As we know, it’s quickly become a brave new world, and while mixi remains a Japanese-only service, platforms like Facebook shine in hundreds of languages.

On international social platforms, toggling between languages is a nothing more than click on a pull-down menu. Exposure to new ideas, witnessing social developments and upheavals, and simple updates from friends and family around the world have become instantly reportable and accessible on a global scale. But not on mixi.

To illustrate how self-defeating mixi’s isolationism can be, consider the population block of Japanese students who’ve studied abroad in the past 15-20 years: they can use Facebook to not only to keep in touch with friends made abroad, but also keep up with an ever-increasing number of friends here at home - all in their language of choice, and all in the same app.

Over time, people grow weary of checking multiple social media platforms, and since one is comprehensive and open, and the other is exclusionary by design, it’s easy to decide who’s getting cut.

And it goes beyond students and those with actual international travel experience. Parallel to mixi’s apparent decline, a new generation of Japanese, along with previous generations awakened, aided in no small part by ubiquitous, always-on connections to the world outside of Japan, seem to be embracing a globally interconnected worldview.

mixi, being fundamentally anti-internationational, seems the steadfast architect of its own demise. In coming years, even mixi refugees could become a thing of the past - because younger generations will have never lived there.

Hope for the Future
Some believe that because it’s homegrown and, relative to international platforms, better reflects the massively homogenous culture of Japan, mixi can more effectively cater to its current user base and leverage its ‘Japaneseness’ for future growth. This is not a new line of reasoning. Nor has it proven meaningful in the realm of consumer electronics and other digital products.

mixi could also leverage unique shopping features and sharing options that Facebook, Twitter, and Line don’t, can’t, or won’t. It’s not inconceivable that mixi’s early experience with monetization will allow them to succeed where others continue fumbling. Integrated with istyle’s online sales and marketing platform, mixi might find both survival and success in some form of ‘social commerce.’ We shall see.

And We’ll be Watching
Over the past 5-6 years, we witnessed Japanese mobile carriers’ stubborn refusal to embrace and develop native smartphone hardware and software; a company from California was happy to step into the void. Now, we’re watching in realtime the somewhat congruent saga of mixi, and we’ll continue tracking and reporting on the issue.

Perhaps we’ll be bringing you news on the reinvigoration of a pioneering service, or perhaps we’ll further flesh out the demise of a hopelessly myopic relic.

In the meantime, they could probably use it, so...
Anyone have any ideas or advice for mixi?!

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This article was originally published in January of 2014. Additional reporting by Yoriko Takahashi, Darshaun Nadeau, and Reno J. Tibke