WORLDBEAT - The old man and the Internet

On a lazy June afternoon an old man with a suntanned and weather-beaten face wanders the beach introducing himself to visitors. He tells them about the beach, a little about the marine life to be found just a few meters from the shore and he makes small bracelets and necklaces from string and dead coral that he gives as souvenirs.

The beach, on Miyakojima's Yoshino Coast, seems to be about as far as you can get in Japan from the hustle, bustle and pollution of Tokyo. Geographically it's almost true -- Miyakojima, in the Okinawan chain of islands, lies about 2,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo and just 400kms east of Taiwan -- and the slow pace of life here just enhances that distance.

So it came as a jolt when the old man finished off his chat with this: "I'm the old man of the Yoshino Coast, I'm on Mixi. If you look me up we can link our profiles," he said, referring to Japan's largest social networking site.

That Mixi has reached Miyakojima probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. The island of 56,000 people has access to a wide range of telecommunications services and even NTT West Corp.'s 100M bps (bit per second) fiber-to-the-home Internet service is available here.

But that it has reached such a person -- an apparently unemployed man around retirement age who passes his days talking to strangers visiting local beaches -- points to the depth at which Mixi has penetrated Japan.

At last count the service had more than 10 million users, or roughly one in seven of all Internet users in Japan, and was the second most popular site on the local Internet after Yahoo Japan in terms of minutes spent online.

Its users racked up about 1.2 billion minutes on Mixi in June, according to NetRatings. That's well below Yahoo's 8 billion minutes, but handily beats sites like YouTube, at 726 million minutes, and Google, at 292 million minutes, the company said.

Access to Mixi is still by invitation only, although with so many people on the site, scoring an invite isn't as difficult as it used to be. Once online you're free to upload some pictures, keep a diary or blog and join special interest groups, of which there are thousands.

A key point to its success, say many users, is the control given to users over who can see their information. Some items can be made available to only friends while other information can be seen by friends and their friends. An alternative is to make it available to the whole user community.

"I believe that what interests people the most is things they care about and things their friends care about," said Kenji Kasahara, the founder and CEO of Mixi Inc., during a news conference in February this year.

"I believe that SMS and blogs have that feature. Mixi has kept that in mind when we set up our site so its self-centered, you can create a world around yourself. People are most interested in reading about their friends, not people they don't know, so this is why we find this booming," he said.

For Kasahara, the site has meant more than just fame. When Mixi debuted on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in September last year shares ended their first full day of trading at more than double the offer price of ¥1.55 million (US$13,166). Currently, Mixi shares are trading at around ¥852,000 after a 2-for-1 stock split.

Perhaps part of the success of Mixi can be traced back to Japanese society, which has traditionally placed a premium on being part of a group and community. The Web site helps to foster such communities and help members, like "the old man of the Yoshino Coast," feel they belong to a much wider group of people, even if they have never met them.

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