Social media has changed the way that we think about friends.
It has elasticated the whole notion of relationships. Imagine if an old boss you haven’t seen for six months (and barely ever talked to) asks you out for a drink to catch up: you’d scoff at the thought. But if they wanted to be Facebook friends, a lot of us may feel it would rude to turn them down. Facebook friends, Twitter friends, internet friends, friend friends – all of these signal distinct and varying levels of social engagement. The result is, we have a lot more ‘friends’ than we ever did before, and this has become tricky to manage – especially on Twitter.
Perhaps more than any other social media platform, Twitter allows users to build and cultivate social circles with very little delineation between friends, strangers, casual acquaintances and celebrities. Communities interlock and overlap in a very ad-hoc, seamless way.
But it’s the very public nature of social media – and the blurriness of these social boundaries – that make it open to abuse. From long-forgotten creeps popping up on your LinkedIn page to smarmy know-it-alls who throw ‘whataboutery’ and grammar corrections into your Twitter conversations, randos can suck the joy out of any internet interaction.
This is why Miitomo, the irrepressibly cute social media app launched by Nintendo in March, has proved such a refreshing change. Here, users create a little avatar called a Mii, then connect with friends, answering and sharing simple set questions about each other’s lives. Nintendo calls the app a ‘social go-between’ which facilitates fun chats in a safe, enclosed environment. To engage in a Q&A session, both participants have to know each other, and no one else can butt in.
To understand the difference between these two channels, lets put them in a real-world context. Twitter is effectively a digital pub – we can meet our pals for a quick catch up, but we risk being interrupted (and insulted) by the drunk guy at the end of the bar, and there’s always a chance we’ll get into a vicious argument that ruins everyone’s night. In comparison, Miitomo is a cosy gathering at someone’s home, a discreet collection of close friends (and friends of friends) getting together to chat, crack jokes and make fun of each other, free from random interruptions and misunderstood references.
To continue this theme, commenting on your friends’ answers and seeing the responses from their other friends who you may or may not know is like being in the kitchen at a house party – you quietly create this small group of people who have found each other through similar interests and shared relationships. Miitomo also includes the Miifoto feature, which lets you cut and paste your Mii – or your friends’ Miis – into any photo on your phone, then change their position, facial expressions and outfits. This simple addition taps into the increasingly image-based way in which we communicate online; it effectively allows users to create micro memes that may only be relevant to a small group. It’s the kind of easily shareable content that social media platforms thrive on. But here, it’s personal and pretty fun too.
Miitomo combines the happiness of seeing your favourite mutual followers’ tweets with the joy of seeing your friends represented as Miis, complete with bizarre robotic voices. It is a social platform dedicated to pleasure. Although on the surface it simply emulates small talk by asking users questions like “What did you do last weekend?” and “What’s your favourite TV show right now?” it also delves into more personal questions about bittersweet memories, and knowing that you’re only sharing your answers with your friends allows everyone’s personalities to shine through unimpeded. The open-ended nature of typing your answer into a textbox, the privacy that you’re granted and the unusual lack of moderation from Nintendo all accentuate this sense of freedom. Which unfortunately for me recently resulted in my friend Gavin answering the question “What’s the best thing about cats?” with the response, “Their puckered arseholes, for certain,” while his onscreen Mii nodded along innocently.
Miitomo then, strips away the farce and spectacle of Twitter. Gone is the ever-present potential for public scrutiny, for replies from people who just don’t get it and the exhaustion of having to explain what you meant or provide background detail, justification, or links. Making friends on Miitomo involves actively sharing and accepting each other’s requests, and the homely nature of the presentation accentuates the sense of social intimacy. Via its peculiarly gentle ‘on ramp’, the game gives you tacit permission to only invite the people you really like and ignore the unknowns. Because of this, it feels like a safe space where you can make whatever dumb joke you want, or to delve a bit deeper into a painful memory or secret fear.
What’s interesting, though, is how Miitomoto can be used in conjunction with Twitter. Often we’ll have followers who we already know very well but also people we want to know better and to be closer to. By inviting them into another, smaller, safer and homelier digital space, we are able to sort of role play a closer friendship without the initial awkwardness of asking if we can chat to them off Twitter. By providing a question/answer set of responses, rather than an open messaging service, Miitomo mimics an actual conversation without the need for anyone to feel awkward about talking too long, cutting off too early or asking odd questions like “What’s the best thing about cats?”.
Miitomo responds to the way in which our social circles are changing; it chips away at the distance that keeps our trusted online friends strictly in the “online friend” pigeon hole. While utilising everything that makes online communication great, Miitomo allows us to experience friendships in a private environment and to enjoy in-jokes without someone else barging in and ruining the fun. You hang out, laugh with your friends, dress up in silly outfits and share fun images in an atmosphere of trust and candid good faith. By creating a digital space which truly feels safe and fun, Nintendo has succeeded where other social media platforms have failed.
This article was written by Ria Jenkins, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st April 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010