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Japanese Facebook takes Model T approach

by Lisa Katayama

Late last month, as part of a rare work-vacation trip to Asia, Mark Zuckerberg made a quick stop in Tokyo to announce the launch of Facebook Japan.

Facebook, a social-networking Web site that the 24-year-old new billionaire created while he was a Harvard undergraduate, is one of the most popular online communities in the world. But as Zuckerberg stood on stage at the Aoyama Diamond Hall convention center in his boyish red hair and black blazer, the audience was skeptical.

Facebook’s entry into the Japanese market is definitely buzzworthy. But like all Silicon Valley exports to Japan, the site faces the challenge of penetrating the highly nonporous surface of the Web 2.0 industry here. Its success will depend largely on how it fares against social-networking site Mixi and its ability to expand despite its lack of localization efforts.

In recent years, SNS — social networking sites, or Web-based communities where users can chat with old friends, make new ones, play games, and share pictures — have become gathering places for millions of Web enthusiasts.

Facebook’s predecessors, like LiveJournal, Friendster and MySpace, struggled with scalability and interface design, but most agree that Zuckerberg finally got it right. A simple news feed shows all recent updates by friends on one page. Users can choose varying degrees of connectivity, from being ordinary friends to becoming a “fan” of a favorite author to sending gifts (a plant that grows into a teddy bear) or “pokes” (benign affectionate nudges) to those who arouse interest. “I’ve re-connected with friends I went to summer camp with when I was 8 years old,” says one user, who also met her boyfriend on the site.

Facebook also encourages developers to make their own applications — anyone who knows a little HTML can create a program that runs on the Facebook platform, making their own contribution to the plethora of entertainment options that include everything from imitation Scrabble to matchmaking.

Facebook currently has 30,000 profile applications, 80 million active users worldwide, and an estimated worth of $15 billion.

But surprisingly, for its Japan debut, Facebook is taking a highly unconventional, hands-off approach. It did not set up a Japan office or select a local representative to lead the effort. It hasn’t been adapted for the vast mobile Internet market here, either. In fact, there isn’t a single unique feature about Facebook Japan — it’s just a direct translation of the original English version.

In December, Facebook created an application that let users select a language and start translating the site piecemeal. It then placed in-page ads recruiting volunteers. To date, Facebook has been translated into 17 languages, and dozens more — including Welsh, Hungarian and Korean — are in the works. “Our goal is to have Facebook in every language people want to communicate in,” says Javier Olivan, the international manager for the company.

The Japan project was completed in three weeks with the help of over 1,500 amateur and professional translators who were already members of Facebook. Participants proposed translated phrases, discussed the options, and ultimately voted on which they deem most appropriate for each segment.

“We debated things like, how proper is too proper and how friendly is too friendly?” says Kayoko Seki, a bilingual doctor who took part in the project.

One of Facebook’s biggest challenges will be competing against the native social networking site Mixi. With over 10 million users and the loyalty of more than 50 percent of citizens in their 20s, Mixi is a social networking site made by the Japanese for the Japanese. Newcomers can join by invite only, which provides the degree of privacy and safety that users feel they need in order to divulge their identities online. Communication on the site is centered on the nikki, or diary, a concept that is deeply engendered in the Japanese psyche. Mixi also has a robust mobile application that lets users access and update the site via their cell phones.

“Usually, one company comes out ahead of others within specific Web services in every country,” says Fumiaki Koizumi, the vice president of management headquarters at Mixi. “In the social networking market in Japan, we are that company.” MySpace, LinkedIn and Cyworld are just some of the global SNS that have a presence in Japan already, but so far, no competitor has succeeded in making a dent in Mixi’s dominance.

So what will it take for Facebook to succeed in Japan? Allen Miner, a partner at venture capital firm Sunbridge Partners, believes that strong local leadership is the key to success.

“Hiring a capable leader and enabling them to do what’s right is crucial,” he says. “EBay is a good example of a Silicon Valley export that went wrong here. It had good local management, but the parent company didn’t empower them enough to get the business off the ground.” Miner claims that Yahoo owes much of its initial success to Japan president Masahiro Inoue’s leadership, rather than Softbank’s funding or the parent company’s reputation stateside.

Joi Ito, a venture capitalist and CEO of Creative Commons, points out the importance of staying humble and of maintaining the mind-set of a startup. “You need to assume your brand in the U.S. means diddly squat in Japan,” he says. “You also need a local partner with an equity stake, unless you’re Google and you’re willing to spend years and years becoming relevant.”

But Facebook has neither local leader nor partner, nor does it seem to be coming from a place of humility. In fact, the translation model seems to rely on the premise that people will naturally want to join Facebook Japan.

Logistics issues may also prevent Facebook from rapid localization. Since anybody can become a Facebook translator, the Japanese interface is mediocre at best, compromising the site’s credibility. And although the basic functions can be viewed in Japanese, most of the applications and user messages on Facebook will always be in English.

“Most Japanese don’t use English on a daily basis,” says Takuya Oikawa, a Japanese technology adviser. “They could get confused by seeing English messages in their inboxes from people they don’t know.”

Facebook also requires users to customize their home pages by adding applications and decorating their profiles, but this could scare away less Web-savvy users.

“When you buy a PC here, it comes with preinstalled applications,” says Oikawa. “Japanese people like standard settings that are the same as everyone else’s. Having to choose places an unnecessary strain on them.”

Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube accumulated a quick following in Japan with little or no major localization efforts, but they were entering vacant niches with straightforward services that did not complicate the language barrier. T hat said, Facebook does cater to previously unserved subcultures, like the growing number of Web developers and the international business community.

Facebook’s Olivan, who accompanied Zuckerberg on his trip, says he met more than 150 developers from all over Japan who wanted to show him applications they were working on for the Facebook platform. “These people are experts in the culture, and can build relevant applications for their country,” he says.

Facebook is already well integrated among the international community in Japan. A native application like Mixi has little chance of appealing to expatriates and international business people, but the Japanese version of Facebook allows globally minded Japanese to connect with them directly.

It’s relatively easy for anyone from any country to join the global community of Web users that congregate on Facebook. As a means of making a service expand virally across borders, the translation project may be a smart idea.

Facebook, for one, seems confident that their service is fine as is. When asked what made Facebook Japan unique, Olivan hedges, and simply states: “Facebook is exactly the same all over the world.”

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