Everyone’s on Facebook

Ok this might be slightly off-topic but it’s not (read to find out why).

It sounds pretty obvious to say that ‘everyone’s on Facebook nowadays’. What is less obvious is to notice how Facebook’s standards flattens the way people can interact with each other. While this might not be particularly shocking if taken within the boundaries of a singular cultural area, things change when the protagonists of this new form of digital sociality belong to different backgrounds.

Japan had social networking before we got it: it’s called Mixi and, like all things Japanese, it’s a closed, invitation-only network. Normally you cannot get a Mixi account unless you have a Japanese mobile email address. How so? Well, simply because you cannot buy a Japanese mobile phone unless you are registered with a long-stay visa in Japan = no phones for tourists. The only option you have is knowing someone who is already registered to Mixi (i.e. a Japanese resident, an exchange student or someone on a working visa). This is just one of the many signs of the ‘fear of the alien’ that is so much rooted into Japanese culture (huge discussion of this in Japanese sociology – I’m not going there now) and that is now expressed in the digital universe, too.

However, things are changing. Twitter has now taken over Japan (check out the numbers) – because Japanese language can express longer concepts with fewer signs, because it is more discreet with fewer pictures/info on profile, and because it is more discrete, with no ‘circles’ but preference of direct crosstalk.

So what about Facebook? It has been a year or so since I started to see my Japanese friends’ profiles appearing on FB. In the beginning it was mostly people who did a year abroad, who could speak a second language (mostly English) or who had any sort of friendship or relationship with non-Japanese people. However, there has been a recent significant increase in full-Japanese FB pages: the network of my Japanese friends has now reached the same magnitude of my non-Japanese group. What has struck me recently is not only how I can now communicate with Japanese friends in Japan (and the peculiarity thereof) but also how I can (or I should say ‘I could’) see their pictures, likes, conversations, and other private information from which I was naturally precluded in the past years.

Facebook mixes everything: students with teachers, bosses with co-workers, masters and pupils. While it is normal to see people such as musicians, actors and dancers on Facebook, one can now see the profile of Noh performers. Of course, you need to be friends with them before you can actually access the profile, but still it is not too improbable to have your request accepted if you have signs of belonging to the Japanese traditional arts showing on your profile. What’s so special about this? To put it simply, Noh is not like Kabuki and other arts that are based on the cult of the individual performer. Kabuki actors have their names and faces on posters hanging everywhere, they feature TV dramas, commercials etc. Articles talk about them, and people know their faces. Noh is nothing like this. Actors wear masks, they don’t come back on stage to take applauses, and most of all their faces are unknown to the general public. There is an aura of mystery enveloping them, which has to do with the semi-sacrality of their art, but also with the secrecy that surrounds their practice. Or so it was until Noh started to be popularised by new media, and most of all through the digital tools such as the Internet.

I’m not judging which is best here: I just felt the urge to collect this datum as I think it is a sign of the times. As Prof. Nishino Haruo has pointed out, the increasing use of information material on Noh is demolishing its fundamental component of secrecy and mystery that has contributed to its success and survival for centuries. This is the next stage: not only the art, but also the artist. Next to my elementary school friend I have the face of a renowned Noh actor to whom I usually bow – now how’s that?

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