It’s been a couple weeks since the release of Nintendo’s Miitomo app, a strange social network and mobile game hybrid that has taken the nerd-sphere by storm. Reviews have been generally positive, and rightfully so – Miitomo is a unique social network that combines old-school social network principles with the Farmville-esque mobile games that partner so well with Facebook. You get the security of knowing that you can control who sees the things you post, and the app genuinely seems centered around communication with others and learning new things about them rather than curating your own life with fancy algorithms.
That focus is admirable in theory, but for some reason, jaded, post-ironic internet 2016 me just could NOT handle the idea of being sincere on the internet. I had flashbacks to high school, where the social elite used Facebook and Formspring to spread the kind of hot goss that kept them on top of the world. Even though the questions that Miitomo was asking me were fairly inane, and not terribly invasive — what was my favorite food? What was something I enjoyed about my day yesterday — it triggered some weird anxiety in me that social media hasn’t done for a long time. At the very least, I can decide when I want to express myself or reveal personal information about myself on Facebook or Twitter — here, on Miitomo, self-expression and authenticity is almost essential to using the app without seeming like a smartassed 14-year old again.
As I scrolled through friends’ answers, it appeared to me that I was the only one of my friends who was having this problem. Several of them just answered questions sincerely and authentically, giving real answers to these small-talky questions. Others would joke, sure, but in a way that they still engaged with the goal of the app. So, I asked some of my friends who used the app what they thought of it in hopes that I could figure out what they were getting that I wasn’t.
It turns out I wasn’t alone, and a lot of people had similar feelings to mine, but not for the reason I initially thought. While it seems that the intent of Miitomo is to bring friends closer together (which goes pretty well with the whole Nintendo theme), people actually see Miitomo as a reprieve from the pressures of normal social media. When asked specifically whether they are more sincere on more mainstream social media or on Miitomo, several claimed that because their Miitomo “friends” generally only comprised of their close real-life friends, they were more inclined to joke around and give silly answers to the questions. One person I asked actually found Miitomo to be a performative social platform, even more so than Facebook or Instagram — to them, the Mii avatar created a “layer of fiction” that separated the Miitomo world from reality in a way that Facebook does not. They also felt that the “cutesy” environment of Miitomo was counterproductive to getting interesting answers out of its users, and that it made the answers less serious than they could be.
Additionally, the users I spoke to did not seem to respond to the game-like elements of Miitomo. That’s mostly because of a flaw on the part of the app — the minigames just aren’t that fun, and the process of answering questions to get game coins can be tedious. Instead of engaging with the games, these users just ignored them. Though few chose to elaborate on why, I suspect that the games counteract the goal of coaxing out good answers to each question, and the question-answering component of Miitomo is much more compelling than the games.
After soul-searching about this app and asking others about it, I think it makes sense that I didn’t respond well to it, though my initial reaction was perhaps a bit unfounded. The strange thing about it is not that it asks these questions, but the way that it does it — it encourages the user to stay grounded in reality, but also to create a heightened Second Life-type version of the self that can be jarring.
You aren’t yourself, but at the same time, you are yourself — so how do you answer a question about what your greatest fear is? If we’ve learned anything from the past few years of social media use, the realities and identities that social media creates muddle the answer to that question significantly. Miitomo, an incredibly ambitious app that is also incredibly unsure of how to meet those ambitions, often fails to understand the context of the worlds it exists in, which makes it a confusing and sometimes unsettling experience. However, to the app’s credit, just as many people believed that they had learned something about their Miitomo friends from reading the answers to their questions, which is a key indicator that their goal of grounding this heightened online identity and making it a positive influence on our real world interactions can be successful.
Maybe Nintendo is onto something after all.