When I first started studying Japanese, everyone used a social network called Mixi. It was hard to become a member, because one had to have a Japanese phone number and phone email address. My Japanese friend eventually gave me his “ghost account” and I could start exploring. But by then the popularity of Mixi had already started to decline. Maybe because it was so hard to become a member.
Instead, Facebook and Twitter started to take over. I don’t mind Twitter, but it was sad to see Facebook gaining popularity so quickly. By the end of 2012, Facebook had 17.12 million users in Japan, after having launched their Japanese site in 2008. However, only five months later – that should be May 2013 – Japanese Facebook users had dropped to 13.78 million. (Source: Rocketnews 24 “Facebook users in Japan losing interest and heading for the exits”, June 2013.)
What had happened to cause this sudden exodus, except for Facebook being boring in general? Line had happened. At the same time as Facebook’s users had dropped to 13.78 million, Line had reached 41.51 million Japanese users.
Line was launched on June 23, 2011, by NHN Japan, owned by South Korean NHN Corp. Just 19 months after its launch, Line had reached 100 million users worldwide. By comparison, this took 49 and 54 months respectively for Twitter and Facebook to achieve. Now it has 230 million users. (Source: New York Times, September 2013.)
Line is focused on one-to-one chatting instead of watching pictures of your distant friends’ relatives feeding their babies. It’s a smartphone based service; you can use it from a computer but you have to register from a smartphone.
Having watched my Japanese friends struggle with the formal language that is standard in emails here, I wonder if the allure of Line in Japan isn’t the chat focus; in Line it’s ok to express oneself informally with the same people that you must address in full keigo if writing an email. Just speculating.
Personally I like Line very much. As soon as I had started using it, my communication with my Japanese friends was taken to a new level, and not only because of the funny stickers you can paste into the chats (if you wondered why Facebook suddenly offered huge icons, this is why), but because of the simplicity of it. Yesterday my coworkers asked me to join them for a drink by greeting me with the photo in the right screenshot above. And I’m finally getting the hang of Japanese input on a smartphone, since being forced is the best way to learn. I used to have the writing pace of a retard, but now I think I’m advancing to kindergarten level.
Note: I have never used What’s App, which I think is a similar service. I’ve also never used the Facebook app.