Tuning into innovation outside the confines of English-speaking web

Fri, May 2, 2008, 01:00

DANNY O'BRIEN WIRED ON FRIDAYVideo commentary sites like Nico Nico Douga, huge in Japan, have the potential to take off in the West

LANGUAGE IS still a great dividing barrier between cultures, even internet cultures. Japan, for instance, has a huge and vibrant commenting community of which we only get the barest hints and echoes.

I've long suspected there's money to be made from the cultural arbitrage of plucking good ideas from the net there and re-selling them here. What has managed to cross over already gives us hints as to what might be successfully transplanted in the future.

When news reporters were covering the picketing and heckling of scientologists by the internet group "Anonymous", few of them understood that the origins of Anonymous lay in Japan.

Anonymous was the de facto nickname of large numbers of users of 4chan, an American anonymous image-sharing site that is based on the Japanese Futaba channel, itself an offshoot of the enormously popular Japanese 2chan site.

In the English-speaking world, the 4chan site has been responsible for some of the internet's most popular fads: "lolcats", those irrepressibly poorly-spelt pictures of cats doing cute things, and "rickrolling", the tricking of unsuspecting net users into viewing old Rick Astley videos (for the yet uninitiated, I am not making either of these crazes up, and it is only a matter of time before you hear of them).

Similarly, 2chan holds a fascinatingly pivotal position in modern Japanese society. More than 2.5 million posts are made on its discussion boards every day.

Its deliberate anonymity means that even reticent Japanese can post freely and without fear on news events, sports and the markets, as well as sexuality and gossip.

And, as with lolcats and rickrolling, its inhabitants frequently collaborate to create works of . . . well, not art, exactly, but certainly unique creations.

The time for someone to take 2chan and run with it in the West has already been and gone. But its creator, Hiroyuki Nishimura, has moved into another arena that has been shaking up Japan, but little heard of elsewhere.

Nico Nico Douga (literally "Smiley Videos") took XXX's skill in creating a community around images, and moved it into the new world of online video.

Originally, it was a commenting system wrapped around Google's YouTube service - allowing visitors to plaster graffiti-like comments over YouTube videos as they were being played. The site quickly became so popular in Japan that YouTube deliberately blocked it from using its content. Nico Nico Douga was up within two weeks of YouTube's block with a hastily-programmed set of its own servers for video-uploading.

These days, "Nico-do" as it is known, competes neck-and-neck with YouTube in the top 10 of sites viewed in Japan. It has more than three million free users and nearly 100,000 premium users.

Its users come for the same reason as 4chan and 2chan were popular: to comment on the affairs of the day, and create something collaboratively themselves.

Nico Nico Douga is all about the commentary: its key feature is that you can splice Japanese comments into the video feed itself, in colour and scrolling across the action. What sounds like a potential distraction becomes an entertaining feature in itself: after a YouTube video has outlived its welcome, it gains a new life on Nico Nico Douga, being the butt of critical comments, admiration or just ingenious heckles.

Could Nico make it to the West? If you've ever visited YouTube and seen the level of commentary that trails underneath its video clips, you will not have very high expectations of an English-speaking video commentary site - especially one, like Nico Nico Douga, that prides itself on its history of protected anonymity.

But the idea of visually and collectively doodling on YouTube videos must be enough to tempt some venture capitalist.

After all, it has all the right ingredients for a Web 2.0 start-up. It's a "mash up" - a mix of different content; it's "user-generated" - meaning the punters themselves make your work for you; and it's video, which everyone now knows is where it's at. Why hasn't it happened yet?

Perhaps the real reason we haven't seen this in the West is for the same reason that almost got Nico Nico Douga shut down in Japan: that Google might not stand for its video content being toyed with in this way.

That's ironic, given the enormous benefits Google gets in almost every part of its business by working under a permissive framework for copyright, with large areas of fair use carved out for commentary and criticism.

The sad truth is that Nico Nico Douga probably benefited from the language divide: by the time YouTube knew what was happening, the site was already popular enough to survive on its own video uploads.

Maybe sometimes, in business, it's better to work in a country that lets you build three million users without anyone in America or Europe's Web 2.0 boom even knowing your name.