It’s a great story: a sprawling and fascinating message board site with mediocre design and millions of users influences society—a lot. That’s the lede of a Wired story published yesterday and written by Lisa Katayama, who apparently writes a fair amount of “news of the weird, cute, or uniquely Japanese”-type material for the Wired website. Here’s the nut graf (non-journalists, please forgive the journalese; I’m with Liberman):
The 2-channel forum is a Japanese internet phenomenon. This single site has more influence on Japanese popular opinion than the prime minister, the emperor and the traditional media combined. On one level, it serves as a fun, informative place for people to read product reviews, download software and compare everything from the size of their poop to quiz show answers. But conversations hosted here have also influenced stock prices, rallied support for philanthropic causes, organized massive synchronized dance routines, prevented terrorism and driven people to their deathbeds. [emphasis mine]
I understand the urge to exaggerate, but this kind of hyperbole misses the mark regarding 2-ch’s place in society. Just imagine yourself as a sociologist trying to test the assertion that 2-ch has more influence than the Kantei, the Imperial Palace, and the media of the most newspaper-reading country in the world. You’d have to come up with some measures for influence, probably tracking false information or things that only came out from one source to see how far they made it into public opinion. But if the emperor says something, his influence is exercised through the imperial administration, the mainstream media, maybe a comment on his statement by the prime minister, and significantly, the alternative media—including 2ch.net.
2-ch, then, does not itself have influence. Its significance is in how it interacts with the Japanese and global public sphere. And I would speculate that the analytical significance of a massive user-driven forum is in fact derived from the fact that it is widely-read and built by a multitude of contributors. In short, 2-ch is a medium for many kinds of pressure to be exerted by those people who frequent the site.
All that said, Katayama compiles a great list of some of the instances of people exercising considerable people-based power through 2-ch, including densha otoko (not exactly independent of the mainstream entertainment business…), stock market snafus, and mass suicide.