The story of Mixi in Japan: the rise, the fall and the Facebook takeover
Far East Asia (especially South Korea and Japan) have had a long tradition in social networking.
Since the beginning of the new Millenium, Cyworld (in South Korea) and Mixi (in Japan) have been fiercely representing two of the most important and peculiar local social networks in the world, with a huge user-base and a series of characteristics deeply tied to their respective countires’ culture.
Yet in recent years (more precisely in 2011/12) the biggest social networking machine of our age has been able to overcome SNS giants Cyworld and Mixi in their homelands; it surely didn’t kill them, but still, what happened represents a big switch in the two local digital scenarios.
Of course we’re talking about Facebook, and we’re about to see how – and why – it has been able to change the rules of the game.
Today we are talking about the rise and fall of one of the oldest social network ever launched: Tokyo-based Mixi.
The king of Japan’s social networking
As we all know, Japan has a very mature digital market, where local players have been playing a key role in several field: from millions-users-strong social gaming giants such as GREE and DeNa – which by the way recently launched a brand-new logo & identity – to the more recent and globally-expanding mobile IM app LINE.
But among them, Mixi is the most important one. After its birth almost a decade ago, it quickly became the leading social networking platform in Japan, with features similar to classic social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (Mixi’s coetaneous, since both were launched in 2004).
The mission of the website – created by Japanese Internet tycoon Kenji Kasahara – was to give users the possibility of fully expressing themselves, through the integration of blogs inside personal profiles – with the option to add extra space for a small fee – and by enabling users to review CDs, movies and video games, with a section called Mixi Music where to share their favorite songs.
Mixi has a number of very characteristic feature, quite useful in order to really understand the “digital culture” in the country:
- The site have been mainly used anonymously, especially in its first years. Many users signed up via username, therefore not disclosing their real identities publicly, using celebrities or fictional characters as profile pictures.
- Mixi is accessible only to Japanese citizens, or to those who have lived for a long time in the country, since a Japanese phone number is required to verify the account – until 2010 new users could sign-up by invitation only.
- Users have a limit of one thousand maimiku (friends), unless the account is recognized as tarento (a celebrity or a relevant public personality).
- Mixi has been among the first social networks to integrate a feature called ashiato (which literally means footprint), allowing users to see who has visited their profile – similar to the feature LinkedIn introduced a few years ago.
- Another interesting thing: in the Japanese culture there’s a specific expression – Mixi tsukare – to mean the feeling of being tired of using Mixi.
Numbers and brands’ presence
The platform exploded in 2005, reaching 5 million users in 2006, then living a phase of strong growth, exceeding 10M users in 2007 and recording more than 20M accesses between 2010 and 2011. But in the last period Mixi started showing a slight decrease rate, together with an increase of the number of users accessing via mobile.
Today Mixi is mostly used by young people (44.6% between 15-24 years old), and 40% of the user base resides in Kantō (the over 30M-people-strong urban area of Tokyo-Yokohama). Cool insight: you can constantly keep an eye on Mixi stats on this page.
Still pretty strong figures, actually; that’s why a number of local and international brands are very active on the platform. Especially those Japanese brands with strong tie-ins with the local culture, like fashion producer Uniqlo:
And minimalist household/consumer goods seller Muji:
But also global giants like Disney:
The Facebook & Twitter era
The most popular social network in the world has always seen in Japan a very difficult area to penetrate. The well-established presence of “indigenous” platforms, and the traditional shyness of Japanese netizens – very careful in protecting their privacy – have been giving Facebook some really hard time, for years.
On a side note, ironically that’s also why Twitter encountered a relatively early success in the country, due to its less invasive nature, and the possibility to be active on it with a fantasy profile. In fact, back in early 2012 Japan was the third country on Twitter after the US and Brazil, with 30M accounts (source: Tech In Asia).
But Twitter never really represented a strong threat against Mixi. On the other hand, over the course of 2012 Facebook has been capable of exceeding Mixi in terms of active users, due both to the growth of Zuckerberg’s creature in the country and – most importantly – to the decline of Mixi’s popularity, and the subsequent loss of daily active users.
In Japan, Facebook has now about 15 million active users, somewhere around 15% of total internet users in the country.
Despite the relatively modest overall Internet users penetration – especially if compared with other Asia-Pacific countries like the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia – the Facebook adoption by a substantial user base can be considered a dramatic cultural change, especially for what concerns the younger segments of population.
Mixi, between tradition and globalization
But why did this happen? How has Facebook been able to become the strongest SNS in Japan – and therefore the most important social media channel for brands? And what happened to the Mixi craze?
The phenomenon has several explanations: many observers think that the switch has been strongly influenced by the remarkable success in the country of David Fincher’s movie The Social Network (2010), and by the huge international attention – with an unprecedented amount of interactions on SNS – during and after the Tōhoku earthquake and the Fukushima disaster (March 2011).
But if we go a little bit deeper, there’s an interesting study from early 2011 – back when Facebook was still figuring out a way to establish a concrete presence in Japan – showing that most of Facebook early adopters were attracted by the possibility of getting in contact with foreign people (one third of the respondents had lived abroad).
You can find the research on this website: What Japan Thinks.
No need to stress that the second and the third answers are directly related to the slow-but-constant decline of Mixi.
To sum it up, a post published by the Business Week dated back to March 2012 gives us a perfect definition of what actually happened in the Japanese digital scenario:
“In February, Facebook had 13.5 million unique users, up from 6 million a year earlier, according to data from Nielsen. The Japanese are finally overcoming their shyness.“
We’ll be back in Far East Asia tomorrow, to talk about how Facebook overcame the biggest social network in South Korea – Cyworld.