The Line messaging application has been a mainstay during the pandemic. Thousands of businesses, local governments and individuals across Japan use it to keep the public informed. Fittingly, it was developed in response to another national emergency: the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
When telecommunications were disrupted after the earthquake, internet company NHN Japan developed Line as a way for people to communicate, releasing it to the public in June 2011. It gained 50 million users within a year. By comparison, it took Twitter and Facebook over three years to achieve similar numbers.
What made Line so successful was its understanding of the Japanese market. It achieved fame in Japan early on for its stickers, which people used to make their messages stand out. The stickers’ cute and varied character designs endeared the Japanese public to the social network, and by 2013, Line was the country’s most popular messaging app.
Line has also striven to become a fully comprehensive social network. As early as 2012, it introduced its Home and Timeline features, similar to features in Facebook. Other profitable services include Line Manga and Line Play, a platform for mobile games like 2014’s monumentally successful Disney Tsum Tsum. And Line Pay remains one of the most commonly used money payment applications in Japan.
Line hasn’t been without its failures, however, and many of its extra features have been discontinued, including Line Taxi, which was established as a competitor to Uber, and Line Mall, an e-commerce service similar to Mercari. Also, during its 10-year history, Line has been no stranger to scandal, and has already been subject to several data breaches and hacks.
Outside Japan, Line has become the No. 1 messaging app in Taiwan and Thailand, but isn’t well-known in other countries, including many where competitor WhatsApp reigns supreme. What’s more, China and Russia have both prohibited Line, and there is no sign they will reverse their decisions.
But in its place of birth, Line is here to stay. It has quietly become part of the glue that holds Japanese society together and is used by people from all walks of life. It’s more than just an app. Line provides us with the most essential of human needs: communication — with just a dash of cute too.