Imagine a land that is similar to Facebook, but with more yellow pigment added to the blue, turning everything a vivid green. Then, imagine this land as an exclusive club available only to those with smartphones. These people live in a place called LINE, and they share inside jokes, send each other ridiculous stickers, and play games among themselves. Oh, and did I mention this magical place known as LINE is actually real?
LINE is a chat-based app that has become the highest-grossing social networking application in the world (mostly through the sale of emoticon-like stickers). LINE has gained popularity in Japan due to already mentioned (but very cute) stickers, chat-centered format, and picky friend-adding system that encourages privacy. So long as you have a cell phone you can join this rich and fruitful social land.
A long time ago Koichi wrote a post about Mixi and using it to study Japanese. One of the problems was that Mixi is a closed social network. You also had to have a Japanese cell phone email to join, making it hard to get in without jumping through the ever-changing loopholes. LINE is a much better social network for real Japanese study, and we'll get into that in a minute. First, let's open our history (e-)books.
How LINE Lined Up From Lines
After the Tohoku earthquake, the Japanese phone services were not working very well. I myself was in Japan at the time and remember trying to call my host family from school, but the phone lines (haha) were so clogged that I and countless others couldn't get a dial tone for hours, even days after the incident. To make post-disaster communication easier, the Japanese branch of the Korean NHN corporation instigated a mobile application where people could use data or wifi to make free calls and texts. They named it LINE because during natural disasters, pay phones have been the most reliant way to contact your loved ones, where there are always long lines outside of them. It looks like LINE took some inspiration from the Japanese pay phone as well. Notice the bright green? The coincidence is a little too blinding to ignore.
Fast forward a couple of years. LINE now has 160 million users worldwide and is the number one free app in Japan and many other Asian countries. To put this in perspective, Instagram announced last Thursday that they have 130 million users, yet they launched in October 2010, which is two years before LINE came into existence. That's incredibly fast growth.
So what is it that makes LINE so popular? Why do they have so many users if it's just a chat application?
How LINE Works
Line is chat-based, so you don't have to worry about other people seeing those long, strange conversations that you have with your friend on your status like on Facebook. You can only register with a smartphone, ipod, or tablet, and you can have one account per device. However, once you register on your phone, you can download the app onto your Mac or Windows computer and access your account through there as well. You can add friends by user ID, scanning a qr code, or a shake function if you're with the person irl (that's "in real life" for those of you who don't know). From there, chats, free calls through data or wifi, and fun downloadable related apps that connect with your LINE account await you!
One distinguishing chat feature is the group chat option. Once you create a group (of up to 100 people), you can communicate either through chat or through the chat group's bulletin board. I'm included in groups for friends, classes, clubs, and even one where we just send each other pictures of what we're eating. Once someone has read your message, a "read by" and "time" message pops up to let you know that your message has been seen. Now you can actually know whether someone is ignoring you or not! (′ʘ⌄ʘ‵)
You can also customize the chat background wallpapers for each individual chat! (Challenge mode- for each friend, change the wallpaper to the most unflattering picture of them that you can find.)
LINE'S Fun (And Addicting) Features – There's Something for Everyone!
All that being said, it's just a chat application with friends, right? How did something so simple and boring become such a huge phenomenon?
Those of you who use LINE will know that it's not just chat, it's so much more. They are feeding you crack under the table, slowly making you dependent and addicted to the service. It's actually quite a lot of fun and has grown a great deal since its post-earthquake days. Sometimes, it's those are little features within the chat, like being able to see when a message was read, and the ability to send audio messages, videos, and Japanese-style emoticons that get you. ❤(◕‿◕✿) (ʘ‿ʘ )ノ✿
Here are some other extra-special in-chat and out-of-chat features. If the little features didn't get you, at least one of these will cater to your individual personality needs.
For the Bad With Words
Say you're chatting with your friend. After searching deep within yourself to identify your emotions, you just can't find the words to express your feelings.
Don't worry! LINE has you covered! Just look through your stickers (basically huge emoticons that send one at a time instead of text) and send one of those. Sometimes whole conversations can be comprised of just stickers (although they usually don't make much sense).
When you join LINE, you get 3 packs of default stickers for free. These are your essentials, and feature the LINE-original characters who are becoming iconic in Japan. Those stickers are great, but if you are yearning for more, there are tons more stickers that you can buy in the shop. Some are LINE originals and some are characters that you already know and love, like Hello Kitty, Stitch, Nameko, and Ojarumaru. New ones come out every week too (I'm holding out for a Kobitodukan set)! If you live in Japan, limited edition free sticker sets come out every once in a while, but not in most other parts of the world.
For the Gamer
If you're less of a chatterer and more of a gamer, you can still be social and play games with your friends on LINE. From the "more" section on the app, you can find a jumble of fun/addicting games that fit whatever kind of game preference you have. Most of the games are one-play arcade type games that have a certain amount of plays every few hours. When you run out, you can use in-game or out-of-game money to buy new plays, or you can receive and gift free plays to and from friends within the game. I hear this is the future of WaniKani, where you'll have to pay for more reviews and your Crabigator friends can give you free review sessions (I'm just kidding, of course).
For the Narcissist
A LINE app for the creative narcissistic is the LINE Camera. LINE camera acts as your basic photo editing app, plus purikura-like extras. There are stamps, effects, and brushes available for free and for sale. Make yourself cute, or just make yourself strange like my example above. Your choice.
For the Rest
In addition to Camera are apps like LINE Card (which sends greeting cards) and LINE brush, which is just a fun drawing app. LINE seems to be getting their fingers into everything, but why not when you're making oodles of yen from your enthusiastic and novelty-hungry userbase.
But What About My Japanese Studies?
Since there's no way to look for people by real name or look at friends of friends, things may be kind of lonely for those of you without friends on LINE already. One particular LINE-affiliated app, LINE Cafe, is here to rescue you! It can rescue you from your solitude, plus, you can use it to practice your Japanese. How? Well, LINE Cafe is a forum and message board app, where you can meet people from all over who have the same interests as you.
Much like using Twitter to study Japanese by following Japanese tweeters, you can join boards in LINE Cafe to practice both reading and writing. Not to mention that some of these boards are specifically for language study, so people will be a little more forgiving there.
From there, you can meet Japanese LINE users and exchange IDs! Or just ask any young person in Japan- they probably have a LINE account.
If you're a fan of Japanese musicians, TV shows, or brands (so many brands), you can also follow official accounts which will send you direct messages with information and updates, kind of like fan newsletters. Also, when they decide to turn their incoming messages on, you can actually talk to the famous person on the other end, or so I've heard (I've yet to actually see this happen).
After you've found your group or person to practice your Japanese with, it's just a matter of doing it. Whether this is taking part in conversations, reading, or grabbing things to study for later in Evernote, iKnow, or something else, it's up to you. Mainly, though, LINE is going to be a great way to get interested enough to force yourself to read and practice. It's all a matter of finding what interests you, though.
Where LINE Is Heading
In July of 2012, a timeline function was introduced to LINE, turning the app into a real Facebook lookalike, and possibly a competitor. In fact, active Japanese Facebook users went from 17 million to 13 million in the past six months, many of them making the switch to LINE and its more simple platform. I don't think that LINE will replace Facebook globally, as Americans love their Facebook, but it has definitely taken over Japan in a very short period of time. Because most people in Japan use the internet through their phones rather than computers, an app-based SNS just seems to make more sense than a web-based one!
Most Japanese people who I asked said that they liked LINE because mostly because of the sticker function. So, in a final plead to get Japanese users back, Facebook also released stickers to use on their mobile app. But Japanese users still use LINE.
Do I think that the Japanese facebook users will go back, or will LINE take over? I don't know. But, the numbers aren't very pleasant for the Zuckerburger. I've already mentioned how active users are declining for Facebook in Japan, but it's more telling to see how fast LINE has been growing. LINE currently has 160 million users. Compare that to Instagram, which came out a year before LINE, which has 130 million users. LINE is also very popular outside of Japan too, something that Mixi could never accomplish. 60% of LINE's users exist outside of Japan. Taiwan has 16 million LINE users and Indonesia has over 23 million. Just from my own experience, I think that the only Japanese people who continue to use Facebook are those who have friends outside of Japan, or are people who are particularly interested in English.
That being said, LINE is mostly just popular in Asia though I hear it's picking up in Spanish-speaking countries as well. How well it does in the English speaking world remains to be seen. If it keeps growing this fast, it'll be hard to not feel its grip around social media's neck sooner rather than later. In fact, out of the 160 million on LINE, 50 million of those joined within a 3-month period, making it the fastest-growing social network ever. That's a lot of people in not very much time!
So what will the future bring? No one knows! I will however say that it isn't LINE down and being quiet.