Just Passing Through? A Look at LINE vs Facebook

Recently there was a bit of news in Japan that Facebook’s registered user base had dropped substantially from about 17 million to 13 million, and in the same time LINE’s had increased to 41 million. Analysis across the board tended to equate this as a “tit-for-tat” kind of trade-off – the reason for this was a causal effect – Japanese don’t like Facebook and are flocking to LINE instead. (Source: Facebook users in Japan losing interest and heading for the exits)

Now ignoring the original source numbers in this equation (Socialbakers for the Facebook data, LINE’s own PR division), to say Japanese are simply “replacing” Facebook with LINE is a flawed hypothesis. It ignores both the complexity of the just emerging mainstream role that social media is beginning to take in Japan, misreads who is replacing what in terms of services, and also ignores the actual usage and activity stats of the services. Having a look at each of these factors I think will help us see the forest for the trees in terms of Japan’s evolving social media landscape.

Actual Usage and Activity

Nielsen Japan released its mobile and application tracking service earlier this year, and it paints a slightly more well-rounded picture of the mobile and non-mobile digital landscape here. It shows that Facebook and LINE aren’t really that far off at all. When we look at mobile apps, LINE’s monthly audience turns out to be just over 17 million. This is still an impressive number – ranking it as the most used application in Japan, but at an activation level of just under 50 percent we can see that not everyone who is registered is actually using the service regularly. Facebook’s mobile application itself is ranked fourth, pulling in an estimated audience of 14.1 million.

Smartphone Applications in Japan – Audience Numbers for March 2013 (Nielsen NetRatings)

1. LINE: 17.1 million
2. Google Play: 16.1 million
3. Google Maps: 14. 2 million
4. Facebook: 14.1 million
5. Google Search: 12.9 million

In addition to this Facebook also has a website that pulled in a monthly audience of 17 million visits in the same time period. Though there may be overlap, it’s safe to say this combination could put Facebook at a total unique audience north of 20 million. One theory about Facebook’s declining numbers might just be that having finally made improvements to its mobile app, it may simply be losing audience from its website who prefer to check Facebook on their phones instead.

Now this doesn’t mean there is a compelling reason to doubt LINE’s extremely impressive 40 million members number. The gap between registration and active use could be explained by simply looking at where LINE excels – getting people started. The system for registration is simple and pretty ingenious – it doesn’t require you to do anything than supply your mobile number and confirm it via text, and it then instantly crawls and creates a list of the people on your phone who are also registered to the service. Presto – you have a veritable mobile phone social graph. Facebook, on the other hand, has hurdles that are a little bit higher – it’s pretty useless unless you have a few photos, a few friends (you mostly have to find yourself), and something to say. This is a nice lead into the next reason for why the case of Facebook users defecting to LINE en masse is a false equivalency:

LINE Is Not a True Replacement for Facebook

We have to look at this as a battle for what people are doing with their time – this is really the only context in which we can break down which services are core for the two platforms.

For LINE this is free text chat (stamps!) and VOIP. Facebook does have this interaction feature as well (without the stamps), but its core values and services are more around sharing/personal broadcasting. While Facebook may have some big hurdles ahead as LINE replaces the messaging part of the experience, its business and ad model is more geared to relatively more “public” conversations within your social graph than the private conversations. In sharp contrast to that, LINE does have sharing features as well – the timeline feature in the main app – but it’s really not a core to their service and utilized much less than it is with Facebook.

In terms of who is actually losing From LINE’s quick rise to prominence, in this context texting and talk –  the realm of the mobile carriers themselves – stand the most to lose. Not only are they taking the traffic away, but the introduction of stamps has also allowed LINE to change and redefine the whole experience of texting altogether.

And if we go a step further consider the social and sharing side of LINE’s platform; safe, relatively anonymous sharing one finds on the LINE app with their mobile phone contact list sounds more like the profile of a Mixi user as well, rather than a much more real name you would find on Facebook. This leads into our final reason:

Social Still Has a Different Dynamic in Japan

The relationship between Japan and social media is still evolving. Recently the concept of a real name SNS and interaction on a person’s social graph has been moving into the mainstream but it hasn’t fully arrived like it has in the West. “Traditional” web behaviors are still predominant in Japan – portal sites like Yahoo are still tremendously popular – mixed in with a combination of shopping and social. Here’s an overview of these sites in Japan according to Nielsen:

Top Website Audiences, March 2013 (Nielsen Japan)

1. Google – 23 million
2. Yahoo Japan – 22.5 million
3. Rakuten – 18.3 million
4. Facebook – 17 million
5. Ameba – 16.1 million

In a sense, the mainstream of Japanese learned behaviors online are still fairly traditional “old-school” digital activities – reading news and content, shopping, searching with a bit of blogging and social media added into the mix alongside a robust text-based communication system developed over the years on mobile. In a sense, LINE is succeeding by moving these old-school mobile behaviors (text, etc.) that Japanese already possess to the smartphone with the addition of safe, low-level social – this makes LINE an easy add-on for the majority of those making a switch from a feature phone to a smartphone as they have something they can use right away – text and calls.

In contrast to that, for those who are not early adopters and used to how Japan used the web up until the smartphone took off, the behavior required from them on Facebook, Twitter, and the like is still a bit alien. Social sharing remains either something they will never do, or something they will over time become more comfortable with. It will be interesting to see how much more popular these become in the next six to 12 months – though we do see some signs of the mainstreaming of this taking place. There’s just as good a chance that right now Japan is “passing through” the limited social experience of LINE on their way to something a bit bigger.

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