Hi Blog. Here’s an article about a subject I hold a bit dear (as I’ve been a target of Internet libel in the past, including a victorious but unrequited lawsuit): a valuable source of information and even social movement being subverted into a source of bullying and character assassination.
At the heart of it is the denial of a fundamental right granted in developed fora such as courtrooms and (until now) the court of public opinion: the right to know who your accuser is. But by allowing near-absolute online anonymity, it makes the arena for discussion, fight, or whatever you want to call the interaction, unfair — when people become targeted by irresponsible anons who can say what they want with complete impunity. I’ve faced that firsthand these past three months just dealing with the snakepit that is a Wikipedia Talk Page.
In the article below, we’re having justifications for it being dressed up on the guise of “Japanese culture” and increased communication “without worrying about whoever’s talking”. That’s all very well until you’re the one being talked about. That issue is very much underdeveloped in the article about Mixi et al. below, even though it applies to Japan (and to other online societies, such as the one connected to the recent celebrity suicide in Korea) as well. Knock off the silly argument that infers that “Japanese are naturally shy so they need a cloaking device in order to speak freely”. That’s precisely the argument that BBS 2-Channel’s Nishimura makes as he self-servingly promotes his own impunity. Culture being used as a shield here, bollocks.
Arudou Debito in Sapporo, who has never used an online pseudonym to mask his identity in his life, and takes the slings and arrows for it.
Web society opts to stay anonymous
Like a lot of 20-year-olds, Kae Takahashi has a page on U.S.-based MySpace, and there is no mistaking it for anyone else’s.
|Clash of cultures: In this Web site image, Kae Takahashi shows her picture, bottom left, on her U.S.-based MySpace page where her photos and personal details can be viewed by anyone. But she reveals little about herself on similar Japanese Web sites. AP PHOTO|
It’s got pictures of the funky Tokyoite modeling the clothes she designs in her spare time, along with her name, plus personal details and ramblings in slightly awkward English about her love life.
Switch to her site on Mixi, Japan’s dominant online hangout, and her identity vanishes.
There, Takahashi uses a fake name and says she is an 88-year-old from the town of “Christmas.” Her profile is locked to outsiders.
Takahashi is far from alone: The vast majority of Mixi’s roughly 15 million users don’t reveal anything about themselves.
It’s not just Mixi. It’s Japan.
YouTube is wildly successful here, but rare is the user who follows the site’s enticement to “Broadcast Yourself.” Posting pet videos is far more popular, and has bred a generation of animal celebrities.
On large matchmaking sites like Match.com, the whole point is to open up and meet strangers. But fewer than half of Match’s paying members in Japan are willing to post their photos, compared with nearly all members in the United States.
Welcome to Japan’s online social scene, where you’re unlikely to meet anyone you don’t know already. The early promises of a new, open social frontier, akin to the identity-centric world of Facebook and MySpace in the U.S., have been replaced by a realm where people stay safely within their circles of friends and few reveal themselves to strangers.
“There is the sense that, ‘My face just isn’t that interesting, or I’m not attractive — there is nothing special about me to show people,’ ” says Tetsuya Shibui, a writer who has long followed the Internet in Japan.
Indeed, the Japanese virtual world has turned out just like the real one.
People rarely give their first names to those they don’t know well. Spontaneous exchanges are uncommon even on the tightly packed trains and streets of Tokyo. TV news shows often blur the faces of those caught in background footage and photos to protect their privacy.
Takahashi, who joined Mixi three years ago, keeps her profile hidden so that only users she specifically invites can see it. That list of online friends has expanded to nearly 300 people, only a few of whom she didn’t first meet in person, but she has removed personal details and scaled down past postings.
“If I say too much, the wrong people will read it — it could get ugly,” she said.
The penchant for invisibility has made it hard for Western social networks to establish themselves. Belated forays into the Japanese market by Facebook Inc. and News Corp.’s MySpace, for instance, have failed to generate much of a buzz.
Google Inc., which operates YouTube, has tried to convince the Japanese to loosen up, running events in Tokyo in which girls in miniskirts roam the streets with giant picture frames and video cameras, soliciting pedestrians to frame themselves and record a clip for the site.
But it has since eased back on such efforts. YouTube’s latest campaign involves people uploading pictures of their pets.
“We can’t change the mind-set of Japanese people,” said Tomoe Makino, in charge of partner development at YouTube’s Japan site. “It’s the uniqueness of Japanese culture — anonymous works in Japan.”
It wasn’t always like that. When Mixi was launched in early 2004, many people registered with their own names and photos.
“It was all friends, or friends of friends, so you could easily search using real names, and it was easy to be found,” Shibui says.
But Mixi quickly grew in popularity, and was heavily featured in the media as it sped toward a public stock offering in 2006. New members can join only with invitations from existing users, but some people began to send out invites randomly. The circle-of-friends concept was broken, and existing users began to lock their profiles and withdraw behind anonymous user names.
Naoko Ito is a typical denizen of Japan’s online scene.
The office worker’s video clips of her cats running amok at her house are among the most popular on YouTube Japan. Her blog features daily pictures of the feline antics and is popular enough to have spawned a book deal. But she doesn’t post her name and in five years of uploading images has only rarely shown her face.
She says Japanese are just not used to putting themselves in the spotlight, and in the rare cases she has uploaded her picture it has been to show she is like everyone else.
“I want people to feel that I’m a very normal person, nothing special, just someone who likes cats,” she wrote in an e-mail.
The reluctance to reveal oneself online is coupled with a general distrust of those who do, and foreign sites like Match.com have had to adjust. The site has had a local office since 2004, and has added Japan-only features like identity certification to generate an atmosphere of trust.
“When we did research on Japanese consumers, we found that the No. 1 reason for not using online dating is that they don’t know if people are real or not,” says Match.com’s Japan president, Katsu Kuwano.
Match has increased its paying users in Japan by tailoring its approach to better fit marriage-minded women, timing advertising campaigns with national holidays when they travel home and face pressure from parents to find a mate.
But Kuwano says even among the women hunting for a spouse on the site, only 40 percent are willing to post a picture of themselves, and men are far less likely to respond without getting a glimpse first.
The company hopes to make more people show themselves online by defining itself in a less Web-centric way, latching onto the broader “konkatsu” movement, in which people actively seek out marriage partners. Match has also held offline events at Tokyo restaurants.
Even if the Japanese Internet isn’t a place to meet new people, the fixation with anonymity still has led to an explosion in self-expression — a sea change in a culture where strong opinions are usually kept to oneself.
Anonymous bulletin boards like the massive 2channel are highly popular, with active forums popping up to discuss news events just minutes after they occur.
As is true elsewhere in the world, Japan’s online anonymity can bring out the uglier side of human nature, but observers like the writer Shibui find that it is also freeing people to speak their minds.
“In using the Internet to anonymously talk about their troubles, or show off their strong points, or make people laugh, people in Japan can now interact based on what is actually being said, without worrying about who is talking,” he said.
3 comments on “AP article proffers cultural reasons for keeping Internet denizens anonymous”
I think some of it goes to the fact that most Japanese have very little knowledge of events/information outside of Japan. However, over the last decade the era of the Internet has 1) shown them a new “world” with such varied and differing ways to japan 2) shown them how little they know of the outside world 3) shown them how japan is viewed by others, outside of japan. Any of the 3 listed are subjective views by the web page, you either agree or disagree.
Picking up a history book, for example, is always written by the victors. A right wing newspaper will have such views etc, a car magazine, has cars!! Yet, suddenly being exposed to a different point of view or information that leads one to question, or be questioned, has its consequences, for the individual.
As such, to make a comment on a blog is risky. They can think….if they know my real name, I am riduculed for being ignorant or saying something others disagree with etc, or accused of inciting racial hatred, or being the sole opposing voice, or worse, find out where you live! There are many websites/blogs that have a “he who shouts loudest” mentality, and the bloggers are too subjective to realise, or like their dominance. It is all about standing behind ones convictions, regardless of the weight of ridicule, or otherwise, thrown at you. This is not a concept that is part of “Japanese culture”, to be forthright and outspoken. The poppy syndrome in western culture. But, it is also applicable to bloggers outside of japan too.
However, it is the beauty and the ugliness of the web that allows such anonymity. To be free from burden to make comments or about oneself, or to make such uncivil remarks with impunity.
And as such, blogs, this included, has its own following slanted in the same vein. To make a comment on such a site, which is an opposing view, is never greeted well. Having said that, how many bloggers have been in a pub overheard a conversation and felt the need to interject, or been asked by the stranger next to you for your opinion on the subject at hand. Do you 1) decline to comment 2) agree with the views expressed 3) disagree. When taking 3) the consequences can never be assured as non-confrontational, aggressive or even violent.
Being anonymous is not restricted to Japanese blogs as the potential consequences of exposing your name/address etc remain for all….which is somewhat different to the pub scenario…one can always bolt out the door back into obscurity if things turn nasty. Once Pandora’s box of “who you are” is opened, it can’t be shut. That is the fear of many…Japanese and NJs alike.
I recall many years ago when i had a CB radio. Several ‘thugs’ came around to my house (they found my address) and bent my rather large 10m Ariel because they thought i was criticising one of their “babes”…little did they know she was my girl friend at the time and we just had some harmless fun over the airways to give a negative impression of ourselves to each other to see what the reaction listening would be!…as we knew many people listened to our conversation. It was an attempt to stop others interjecting, as she was popular on the airways.
Being anonymous, does has it benefits….
–Good essay, thanks for it!
There’s certainly a privacy issue to it all, not to mention the natural desire to protect yourself from identity theft. At one point, someone on the Chinese version of Myspace was using my name and photo. I just ignored it until I found out they were harrassing other people and whatnot. I sent a message to the administrators, who did nothing, and then finally just told the person in question that if they didn’t delete the fake profile then I’d call the cops. It got deleted the same day.
I’m not a supporter of anonymous idiots slinging mud at people on the Internet, but I do understand why some people, like those in the article, might want to protect their personal information. It’s only common sense!
I rest my case m’lud