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Twitter and LINE redefining social mediaTwo services that evolved opposite approaches to the same end

July 01, 2013  Kazuya Ogawa

 This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on June 20. You can read it here.

Japan has been pioneering social media since the creation of the genre, but homegrown services have never found much purchase abroad. The rise of LINE has changed this, as its explosive growth throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe and ability to separate public and private interactions appeal to users and present the other top social media provider in Japan, Twitter, with a serious challenge. Author and social media expert Kazuya Ogawa reports on differences in perceptions of the two services, and ponders their next evolutionary steps.

At the recent digital marketing conference ad:tech Kyushu 2013, I was a speaker at a panel discussion on the latest trends in social media.

The other participants in the discussion were Twitter Japan's Director Masahiro Ajisawa, LINE board member Takeshi Idezawa, and Agile Media Network's COO Satoshi Ueda.

Twitter and LINE coexist as opposites

The former two represented the two social media platforms with the most impact in Japan, while Mr. Ueda and I looked at them from a marketing perspective.

Only having an hour, we knew we would be unable to delve deeply into the topic, so our discussion focused on only a few key points (actually, we also actively discussed the issues backstage before and after the event).

LINE is a free service that merges instant messaging with social media in a format which embraces privacy. Your contacts are primarily real life acquaintances from your mobile address book, who you can exchange messages and play games with individually or in custom groups. A key feature of the service is the ability to collect and use special stickers for additional impact in your messages.

Twitter and LINE are both social media, yet are very much opposites. That's why I suggested that rather than having the two companies' representatives discuss their services, it would be more interesting for them to speak about how they perceive each other's services.

Indeed, LINE's Idezawa said, "LINE was created as the inversion of Twitter."

Twitter went live in 2006, and when a Japanese version of its interface was released in 2008 the number of Japanese users surged.

Although it held the spotlight for several years before LINE arrived in 2011, Twitter was about open communication. Communications could be seen by third parties and be commented on or quoted by complete strangers.

Relationships are based on freely 'following' and 'being followed,' and there is no obligation to use your real name. Through this, Twitter has created an extremely equitable culture of anonymity.

LINE arose as an inversion of this public egalitarianism.

Their view, that although people enjoy open communication they also need private communication, was right on the mark, and this explains why LINE was able to rapidly surpass the 45 million user mark in Japan, including some 23 million daily users.

About a year ago I wrote an article about this inversion of LINE's; to quote the relevant portion:

"For example, areas where you can connect with everyone (submissions and the newsfeed) are like an open 'sea;' you can connect with the world. Areas where you can connect with selected people only (groups) are isolated 'lakes.' Because people are social animals, no matter how tired you get it is hard to exist in a completely isolated world. But by using user permissions you can limit how tired you become.

This is why that balance is so important. You can spend your weekdays at the sea and weekends at the lake. What makes sense for society in real life is also a good idea in social media societies."

With LINE's success in inverting Twitter and Twitter having done very well in providing a different service from LINE's, they are comfortably coexisting.

Social media being redefined as it grows

Another interesting point is in their relationships with the mass media.

With Twitter, many people 'tweet' while watching television, and this strong correlation is often remarked upon. TV stations are creating an increasing number of programs linked with Twitter in an effort to secure real-time viewership.

In the U.S. Twitter is collaborating with Nielsen to begin providing real-time independent ratings data from this autumn, while in Japan, Yahoo is making use of Twitter's data to announce which programs are the most tweeted.

As for LINE, they are developing 'official' accounts for TV programs to provide viewers with information. Although these accounts currently only issue information one-way, down the road LINE will focus on increasing interactivity between users and the programs they watch by creating a structure allowing them to send comments to the programs and strengthening connections with special stickers (allowing the creation and distribution of special-made ones) and commercials.

Whether you prefer Twitter or LINE, that people use them both while watching TV to comment and read others' comments on the programs is indicative of the connection between TV and social media. Social media is becoming television's second screen.

But I think that they will enter another phase of working even more closely with TV. Perhaps through an approach where viewership data from the TV is uploaded to the internet to collaborate organically with data on social media and provide new value to the user.

Compared to TV, social media is not good at attracting users' attention; at least, that's been the accepted wisdom. But both Twitter and LINE have a massive number of users, and the growing amount of time users spend on them shows that there is another side to the story.

As they provide users with instantaneous information and their ability for users to spread that information among themselves has grown, their weakness in retaining attention is gradually disappearing. This shows social media increasingly becoming 'mass social media.'

If you take into account the number and percentage of social media users in Japan, it is clear that it has already broken through to become commonplace. Simultaneously, this is calling for a redefinition of social media itself.

Mr. Ajisawa of Twitter said, "Calling Twitter a social media isn't necessarily accurate; internally, we use the term 'real time information network.'" It is equally difficult to call LINE a social media; as its core is a closed instant messenger service, and it doesn't fit within the common definition of social media.

Despite this, many users say that these services clearly give the impression of being social media-like. This again raises the question, 'Just what is social media?'

New social media will continue to be created and widely used, and the concept of what social media is will evolve in concert with this. But what will not change is that the user is the star, and social media cannot usurp the spotlight from them. Only the services that understand and fulfill users' desires survive. 

The author has published several books on social media and social marketing, also writing articles and lecturing on the topic. He is also founder and CEO of Grand Design & Company.

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