This week’s news that Japan is the first country outside the U.S. to to get Facebook Places might have come as a surprise to many. While social networks abound here, online privacy kerfuffles are common and the average Japanese prefers avatars and pseudonyms to real names and identities. Would this nation really embrace an application that broadcasts their movement in the real world?
In case you haven’t heard, Facebook Places is a geolocation app that allows users with GPS-friendly cellphones to “check in” whenever they arrive at a location – and “check out” when they leave. This effectively makes your movements transparent to your social network online, so you can meet up with nearby friends, if you wish. But Facebook aren’t exactly foisting this app on a hostile market: Similar platforms such as Livedoor’s Roketacchi (Location Touch), BrightKite and Foursquare have already proved popular here.
However, it seems odd that geolocation software is such a hit, seeing as traditionally personal privacy online is closely guarded in Japan. Google came under a barrage of criticism when they launched Google Street View, with many complaining that private moments and dirty laundry had been unnecessarily displayed online. The upshot was that the company were forced to reshoot its footage at a lower angle – at considerable expense. Privacy is a big issue even among users of social networking services such as Mixi, where many users veil their identity and avoid posting pictures of themselves.
So why the popularity? A recent article in TNW Asia points to the rise in popularity in Western apps, following on from the runaway success of the iPhone, which is now almost as ubiquitous on the streets as Louis Vuitton handbags. If this is the case, does this mean that a Western laissez-faire attitude to online privacy will follow suit?
Perhaps. Or maybe it will be more of an adopt-and-adapt model: Though Japanese are signing up to Facebook in droves, many users are still loathe to use real head shots for their profile picture. (Many of my Japanese Facebook friends prefer to obscure their faces or put up a photo of an inanimate object instead.)
Those who chose to embrace geolocation services might feel that the benefits outweigh the negatives. This year, for example, DJ Naka_tei made dubious history when he revealed his location in an Akihabara toilet and made a public appeal on Twitter for toilet paper; he was rescued within 20 minutes. It’s times like these when sacrificing your online privacy is not such a pressing issue.