Dispatch From Japan: Naked Tokyo's Jonny Shaw on Rumor Mills, Tofu Hoarding and Tweets About Armageddon

Tsunami Reveals the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Dynamic New Media Base

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The great quake in Tohoku and the subsequent tsunami is ultimately going to affect everything in Japan. While the country has clearly done a great job of preparing for and then dealing with such a disaster, the quake was of such a scale that its repercussions will continue to be felt for some time.

The immediate challenge for business comes with the question, "When is it appropriate to go back to business?" The Japanese are very sensitive of being seen to advertise and hard-sell in light of such a disaster. Right now, TV stations are simply absorbing advertisers' cash while not running their ads. Advertisers pay some of the cash in advance to guarantee space and it's now being hinted (though not publicly announced) that this money is gone with the ad space that wasn't used. The situation is clearly far from optimal for anyone and will need to be addressed soon.

The reality in Tokyo is that most of the visible changes in day-to-day life are being driven by a distinct lack of clear leadership, both on a political and business level. Stores and businesses are operating erratic and shorter hours, as information about the situation filters in rather randomly and inconsistently. As for power cuts, they were organized and largely executed according to plan. Central Tokyo has not been affected, but other wards have been blacked out according to schedule.

The media is so full of chatter about short-term disruption that people are starting to change their behavior accordingly. On a positive note people are genuinely trying to consume less electricity, and hopefully this behavior will remain with them well after the immediate crisis has subsided. On a less positive note, people are starting to stockpile things such as toilet paper, batteries, bread and tofu (apparently tofu is high in iodine!) as they become increasingly tetchy about the overall situation. Convenience stores are stripped bare and long lines at supermarkets and gas stations continue. This is really the most tangible disruption that Tokyo faces right now.

One has to hope that this short void of leadership will be filled soon so the country can start to focus on a very important mid- to long-term goal: namely, organizing a big, imaginative reconstruction plan for the Tohoku region. That, in turn, will help stimulate the overall economy. Japan needs to bounce back from this crisis and show the rest of the world what a dynamic and healthy society it is.

In terms of media-related businesses, the quake has highlighted just how fundamentally the media landscape has changed in the past couple of years.

During the quake, and for the hours following it, Twitter was the media channel that was most reliable and which worked best. As mobile and telecommunication service providers went down on Friday and Saturday, mobile data and internet was the only communication medium available. During this time of intense confusion and panic, Twitter connected the Japanese and allowed them to stay in touch and respond to events. Ustream also came into its own, becoming the most reliable source of "TV" in critical times.

In the days following, we have seen an explosion of web mash-up services that gather and display social-media data for things like traffic information, train delays, black-out schedules or even heart-warming messages to lift the spirits of the Japanese people. Google Map visualizations of evacuation shelters helped guide people to safe havens in the wake of the earthquake. As people began to evacuate after the initial earthquakes, Google, Honda and Pioneer created a useful service to visualize traffic activity. Beyond practicality, web mashups like Pray for Japan played an important role online in raising spirits by streaming uplifting messages from the devastated areas and from around the world. One message read "It's pitch dark but we've never seen so many beautiful stars. Look up, Sendai!"

But it's not been all good news regarding social media. Once people settled down after Friday, and plugged themselves into their TVs, social media started to mutate into a rather destructive rumor mill. People shared dubious, if not just downright delusional, information on Twitter, Mixi and Facebook and the like. False rumors and misinformation perpetuated by social media included poison rain, clouds of radioactive dust swarming Tokyo, and even the death of the creator of the Pokemon Franchise, Tadashi Tajiri.

If this rumor mill isn't managed, recovery could be a very long journey for Japan. If social media ushers in a new era of paranoia and fear everyone will suffer, as the economic impact of such fear is self-evident. There may be short-term gains for manufacturers of tofu and toilet paper, but the larger economy will suffer as people stay home and tweet about the upcoming Armageddon.

So the challenge for the industry in the light of the quake is therefore simple: How can we make use of social media platforms such as Twitter in a positive and constructive way to stimulate people into making positive actions? If business can play its part in this critical situation it will most certainly be adding value.

Jonny Shaw is a partner at Naked Tokyo
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