Twitter is the Web site and service on a lot of lips in the technology world right now. It is a service that serves one very simple function by letting its users answer a simple question, “What are you doing now?” Users then subscribe to these answers by “following” the accounts of other users. The result is a stream of microblogs that paint a picture of the small things in people’s lives that are often overlooked on the Internet.
The charm of the service is the simplicity, the growth can be seen in the vast number of uses from third-party Web sites integrating with the information and the constant stream of updates from its passionate user base.
Before April 22, the service was only available in English, but that didn’t stop a fanatically passionate user base in Japan from building. In early 2008, Twitter partnered with Digital Garage to start working on a Japanese version of the service to make it easier for the Japanese user base to access.
Joichi Ito (aka: Joi Ito), who is also the CEO of Creative Commons among a number of other positions across different companies, sits on the board of Digital Garage and remains the most active public figure for the company. A man on the go, he was good enough to spend some time answering questions about the Japanese release of Twitter, localizing foreign Web products and the culture of microblogging in Japan.
What was it that triggered Digital Garage to make the deal with Twitter and bring them into Japan?
We had obviously known about Twitter and known the team for a long time, and one of the functions that we have is that we try to bring interesting companies into Japan. Twitter has always been kind of interesting and one of the things that was particularly interesting was that Twitter was getting fairly wide spread adoption in Japan even though at the beginning they weren’t really targeting the Japanese market. Even though Japanese people don’t use SMS (short message services) as they do in the U.S. and Twitter was designed to have a large SMS component, it seemed like the people on the Web in Japan liked Twitter a lot.
Around the time when the simple English mobile phone Web site was released, I remember seeing via the Twitter monitoring site, Twittervision.com, all the Japanese posts started popping up. Was that the point that you noticed the potential for Twitter in Japan?
I think it was before Twittervision, but I don’t remember when I first started using Twitter. First of all, it didn’t work very well in Japanese in the beginning. I can’t remember exactly, but I think you had to put a space at the end of a line or otherwise the text would be garbled. It was interesting watching the bloggers and the Twitter users in Japan figure this out and explain it to each other. They were working around a pretty fundamental bug in Japanese on Twitter but everybody wanted to use it so much they kind of figured it out. I remember someone mentioning a statistic, it might have been on a Twitter blog, that 30 percent of Twitters at one time were from Japan. I had been using Twitter, I had been talking to them and thinking about it for a long time but it was really the [Japanese] adoption that helped Digital Garage decide that we can contribute to it. The problem is that, as you know, a lot of companies ignore Japan for a while and by the time they get around to doing Japan it’s too late or there is a copycat.
What do you think is the appeal for the Japanese market?
The Internet was originally created by small groups of people working on pretty simple code and those pieces connecting together. As technology guru David Weinberger said, “small pieces loosely joined” describes the philosophy of the Internet. And as the Internet became more commercial, software and services got more and more complicated and you needed big companies with lots of processes to build things. But the real kind of garage tinkerers, weekend programmers that were a lot of the ingenuity of the Internet, they don’t have time or energy to make big, huge programs.
One of Twitters’ strongest points is the API (application program interface), the system for accessing Twitter data from an external Web site. This has put the power in the hands of these weekend developers to make new things with Twitter and innovate. Especially in Japan, the number of services that offer this level of access to data is extremely limited, so it is something the developer community is hungry for.
How has the Web-site traffic been going in Japan since the Japanese rollout? How has that changed things?
The number of users seem to be growing . . . I think that when we announced that we were going to be doing Twitter Japan and set up a Twitter account for Twitter Japan, it got something like 1,200 followers in one day.
While not able to offer specific traffic data for Twitter Japan, Twitter cofounder, Biz Stone commented: “Web traffic from Japan is growing significantly faster now that we have launched a localized site. But the most stunning development for us has been the amount of cultural data we have accumulated in the short time since we launched Twitter Japan.”
How are the Japanese users different from the U.S. users?
I can only speak anecdotally at this time. . . . In Japanese, we say tsubuyaki (murmur), a kind of short blogging thing, is a lot more how the Japanese bloggers tend to be anyway. In the United States, there hasn’t been the kind of microblogging trend [already found in Japan], so it is new for the Americans. On the other hand, for Japan it is more of a familiar mode and Japanese are sort of used to it.
One of the things I noticed in Japan is that a lot of the third-party clients are mobile based. Do you have any plans to roll out a mobile version for Twitter Japan?
We are working on a Japanese mobile site right now and it should be done by the end of next month. What direction would you like to see Twitter evolve in Japan? I think that Japanese companies have been trying to figure out blogs and have been trying to figure out this whole notion of conversational marketing and get out of the PR talk thing. And I think that Twitter is a different way to give a company a voice.
In terms of the literacy of companies, I think Twitter will provide another way for companies to understand what people are saying and care about what people are saying. This will hopefully change the way that [Internet] companies interact with their customers.
What is the appeal of the platform to a mainstream audience?
I think it will be how it gets integrated into other products. As a stand-alone thing, it is interesting, but what’s really interesting is how it ties different things together.
Twitter now sits as the dominant microblogging platform in the world. With only a relatively small number of people consisting of primarily early adopters already active microbloggers, the genre has a long way to grow.
With commercial potential and the number of people expected to join the microblogging party, Twitter can expect stiffer competition in the future, including competition from proposed open standards.
With the launch of the Japanese version of Twitter, Digital Garage brought in Toyota as their launching advertiser. This advertising on Twitter is a world-first, where users were asked to “follow” a news-content Twitter account. Whether the campaign was successful or not is still not clear, but it certainly demonstrates the potential.
In Japan, the platform already has gained a foothold and appears to have done so much faster than in other markets to date. Perhaps, as Ito said, it is because of the Japanese style of blogging and thus a natural progression for users and a simple one for them to understand.
Expect to see more Twittering in the coming months if Japan has truly found its new vice.
Michael Sheetal is an owner/director of Tokyo-based interactive creative agency UltraSuperNew Inc. He also co-organizes industry networking event Tokyo2point0 in Tokyo each month and writes regularly about the Japanese interactive industry at The Next Web and mikesheetal.com. Are you on Twitter? Follow The Japan Times at twitter.com/JAPANTIMES