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WEB

‘Stealth marketing’ by companies is polluting online forums

by Akky Akimoto

You may have heard that the underbelly of the Japanese Web revolves around a massive bulletin-board service called 2-channel (pronounced ni-channel), where people can post messages anonymously. For Japanese, who find it difficult to freely express their opinions in public, that anonymity has meant that 2-channel has become a place of emancipation. As such, the site is mostly full of garbage and is often the epicenter of Internet “incidents.” It has, though, also become an outlet for a lot of valuable information.

However, to sort though the huge number of posts on 2-channel can take time, and these days many people are not actually reading directly from 2-channel. Instead they read 2-channel matome (summary) sites and blogs that summarize lengthy discussions into short and concise reads.

Once the matome bloggers find an interesting discussion thread, they summarize what can sometimes be thousands of comments by cutting off all extraneous or “noise” comments. They also reorder comments, change the fonts and color of the text so readers can grab the gist of the discussion more easily.

The first summary sites appeared around 2004-2005, and gradually became popular with people who were tired of reading too many comments on 2-channel. Typically, these blogs have many affiliate ads displayed, and some of these bloggers have been able to make enough to live off their blogs.

Following the success of matome blogs, more and more bloggers have entered this field. Livedoor blog, one of Japan’s largest blog-hosting services, is now home to many of these 2-channel summary sites, and the majority of the Top-50-ranked blogs are 2-channel summary sites. Last April, one of the top blogs, Itai News (Ouch News), surpassed 100 million page views per month.

One characteristic of anonymous forums is that it’s not easy to define who holds the copyright of 2-channel discussions. As a result, many of the books and novels based on 2-channel texts have either given profits back to the 2-channel management or donated to natural disasters.

It is also near-impossible to trace the copyright of user comments, so it is often ignored. Summary bloggers therefore take that content and profit off it by attracting ads on their own sites. After learning that some bloggers are earning a lot of money by doing this — and are also rumored to be invited to entertaining company events — some of the 2-channel users, who originally posted comments, started to complain that summary bloggers must not earn money from “their” comments.

In an effort to lure more visitors, some of the larger summary blogs tend to edit and select comments arbitrarily and use biased headlines to make things more controversial. Once these posts are shared on social media, especially on Twitter, people are often misled because many of these blogs do not make corrections. This has led to an increasing number of users protesting against these blogs.

There are even rumors that some of the top editors at 2-channel — who are able to open new discussions — are secretly working with summary bloggers, guiding regular users to make favorable comments for affiliated companies, and steering users into making controversial arguments against rival, non-affiliated products.

Users of 2-channel who are against such bloggers call themselves ken-cho, a newly coined term made up of the kanji for “hate” and “profit.” In 2007, when “antiprofit” users of the site pressed the founder of 2-channel, Hiroyuki Nishimura, on the issue, he created alternative sections where comments are not supposed to be reused for outside profit. However, as there are users who don’t care about the summary sites business, these sections were never as popular as the regular “copying-allowed” counterparts. That is, until this month.

On Jan. 1, a comment was made on 2-channel regarding a link on the website of an anime company called Shaft. Within the link — to a Shaft product on Amazon.jp — was embedded a Amazon Affiliates ID tag belonging to a 2-channel summary site called Yaraon. This convinced some people that Shaft and Yaraon — and maybe more companies and summary sites — are secretly working together to promote certain products on 2-channel to make a profit.

As many other popular matome blogs are known to choose mostly favorable comments on topics such as game consoles, anime, gadgets, and so on, some 2-channel users started to suggest that this is evidence of sutema (an abbreviation of “stealth marketing”) managed by the companies and the blogs.

This led to much discussion on 2-channel, which was in turn summarized on the matome site Hachima-Kikou. But because the summary was done in a cynical manner it made some 2-channel users mad and Hachima-Kikou has now become the main target for antiprofit protesters.

The term sutema has since become a hot topic on the Japanese Web — not only rising on 2-channel but also on Twitter trends and in Google’s hot keywords. And on Jan. 4, another stealth-marketing controversy made news, this time surrounding Japan’s largest restaurant review service, Tabelog.

It was reported that Tabelog’s reviews have been manipulated by third-party agents who receive payment from restaurants who want better ratings, or even to give rival restaurants bad ratings. The national media covered it, adding fuel to the stealth-marketing fire.

Around Jan. 8 many users began to boycott one of the main news forums on 2-channel, News Sokuhou Plus (Flash News Plus) — a main resource for summary sites, and a potential source of sutema. Instead, users migrated to News Sokuhou Ken-cho (Flash News Antiprofit). According to 2-channel’s own tracking service, News Sokuhou Ken-cho is now the second most popular forum, while the original News Sokuhou Plus (without ken-cho) fell to fourth place — though most of comments there are protest messages, and garbage repeating “Sutema! Sutema,” posted by people who want the original News Sokuhou Plus to become a useless, non-communicable forum.

Because of the protests, many summary bloggers are now struggling, losing content to use and edit. It is kind of funny that most of those bloggers are obeying the 2-channel rule, and not taking comments from the ken-cho-type forums.

Whether the stealth-marketing really exists as claimed or not, this incident has made Web marketers reconsider their use of such non-disclosed marketing activities. Though, sadly, I’m sure this won’t last long.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English blog on the Japanese Web scene. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.