An iconic little blue bird seems to have lost its way. Twitter’s user base is stagnating in the U.S., despite the endorsement of a certain prominent politician, and it’s declining elsewhere. In one part of its range, though, the microblogging site is soaring on strong updrafts. According to the Japan-based digital marketing agency Humble Bunny:
Japan is the only country where Twitter is used more frequently than Facebook.
In fact, Twitter’s 45 million active users in Japan are nearly double Facebook’s 28 million, and the annual growth rate for tweet lovers is 12.5 percent. All that vigorous support is bringing the San Francisco-based social network much-needed ad revenue — $2.36 per Japanese user in the final quarter of 2017, a 34 percent jump over the previous year, according to the latest figures from the company.
[Twitter will be in Japan] to stay even if it’s not in other countries.
Caylon Neely, marketing specialist, Humble Bunny
And it’s not just young Japanese who are on Twitter. The platform has a nearly equal male-female split, and 40 percent of active users are 40 years of age and older, according to Humble Bunny. “Twitter is the most diverse social network in Japan in terms of age and gender,” says Caylon Neely, the company’s marketing specialist.
This means Twitter is far more representative of Japanese society than millennial-dominated Facebook or Gen Z–skewing Instagram. As for older users, accessibility is key to Twitter’s popularity. “Smartphone adoption is lower than you would expect in Japan, at 70 percent or so,” says Neely. “A lot of people are still using feature phones.” Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Japanese-based Line and Mixi, Twitter can be accessed via feature phones more commonly used by elderly Japanese.
Another important factor? Anonymity. Unlike Facebook, which requires real names, anyone can create a Twitter account around a hobby, alter ego or even a fictional character. That’s why some of the accounts with the largest followings in Japan are the ones associated with the children’s character Gachapin, the anime blog Monster Strike, Yu the dog and the anonymous stock trader Okasanman.
Twitter’s popularity is also connected to the nature of Japanese writing, which uses kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese). A single character, or letter, often represents an entire word or meaning, so much more information can be packed into a 140- or 280-character tweet than is possible in English, French and other languages with phonetic scripts.
The company has long understood its importance in Japan, according to Kaori Saito, a spokesperson for Twitter Japan. Japanese was the first language officially supported after English, in 2008, and the Japan office was the first to open outside the United States, in 2011. “Twitter fits into the environment and culture in Japan,” says Saito, citing smartphone usage on public transit, the platform’s utility during natural disasters and the country’s high-quality mobile networks as key factors.
Twitter is aiming to take advantage of its market position. In October, it launched In-Stream Video Ads in Japan, with strong growth in both promoted live videos and performance ads. Twitter’s popularity in Japan shows no signs of receding anytime soon, with more businesses, celebrities, politicians and characters using the platform. “People are realizing they can brand themselves on Twitter,” says Neely. “Paid ads, promoted posts and the use of influencer marketing are all growing.”
The problem? Japan’s growth won’t have any impact elsewhere in Asia or in the West. Thus, Twitter’s global fortunes are still looking dire. Neely wonders if the platform might resemble another former U.S. digital giant that remains uniquely popular in Japan even as it fades elsewhere. “It might turn into something like Yahoo Japan,” says Neely. “There is really nothing else competing with Twitter in Japan. It will be here to stay even if it’s not in other countries.”
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