All-encompassing social networks may soon be a thing of the past thanks to Nintendo's Miiverse.
This week Nintendo released a version of Miiverse, its newly founded social network, for mobile and desktop browsers. In contrast to Facebook’s all-encompassing approach, which demands every part of your life be reported back to one central place, the Miiverse has been designed in a way that is conscious of its limits.
Instead of asking users to create Timelines weaving together work, family, hobbies, relationships, check-ins, and photos, Miiverse limits a person's interaction with others to communities organized by games. One builds an identity by creating a cartoonish avatar, a Mii, that underscores the fact that every interaction be viewed as a limited fragment, not something representative of an entire person and life experience. It is a sliver of thought drawn from one small nook in a life too large to be quantified.
The moment of the all-inclusive social network is dying, now that the promises of seeing your whole life turned into a series of pics, posts, and messages can be seen for the impossibility it always was.
Nintendo has struggled to sell Wii U since it launched last November but Miiverse has been a bright spot, offering those who have bought the machine a playful way to use it even while there aren't many games to play. Miiverse has many of the game-like elements that users expect from a console—it tracks progress, measures post counts, and likes, and encourages response to activity, all done from under the safe banner of an animated caricature.
The specificity of Miiverse and its cartoonish overlay limit a lot of the social anxiety that has emerged around networks like Facebook, Twitter, and OKCupid. There, the effort to sum up one's self into a coherent whole is made worse by wondering what all the different people in your life will think if you start posting things that show the way you are with one group is not how you are with all groups.
Like most social networks, Facebook is built like an inside-out message board, which presents a running list of users instead of subjects. This switch turns the posters themselves into the subjects of discussion, or at least opens them to that possibility whether they like it or not. On a message board, a user that is not interested in a subject simply avoids the thread. But on Facebook and Twitter, the subjects other people are interested in constantly interrupt a user's experience and create a backdrop of hostility and mistrust.
One logs into Facebook never really knowing what to expect—video of a 747 falling from the sky in Afghanistan or links to a sale at a clothing shop. In the early days of social networking, there was something exciting about this structure. Individuals each had a small scrap of power to disrupt the pious and rigid flow of media with their own whims and insights. But it's become clear the price one pays for that privilege is involuntary exposure to other people's erratic whims and insights, many of which pull us into subjects we don't care about.
Facebook may already be on the downtrend, with the service having lost a combined 11 million monthly visitors in the the US and UK alone over the last six months. A recent report from Mindshare, an international marketing consultancy, predicted that social networks will reach a saturation point in the next two years, noting that already only 10% of users return to a particular Facebook page after liking it, a symptom of growing alienation from the incorporation of retail salesmanship into a platform for defining selves.
The idea of social networks returning to more of a traditional message-board structure has become increasingly prevalent, from Pinterest's enthusiastic embrace of shopping categories to the musical micro-communities that form around Spotify. The moment of the all-inclusive social network is dying, now that the promises of seeing your whole life turned into a series of pics, posts, and messages can be seen for the impossibility it always was.
We all have thousands of different selves, and not all of them need to communicate with all of the people in our lives. Apps like Snapchat can be seen as first attempts to make a social technology that gives the power to control the meaning of a message or photo by controlling the group to whom it is broadcast. That experience of limiting the audience—filtering out those who wouldn't care or shouldn't in the first place—creates an experience of intimacy and sympathetic trust among peers that will become a central currency as technology involves itself in our daily lives more and more.
In January, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata described the process of creating Miiverse, citing Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto's love for "making games that allow players to create and share experiences” Rather than calling it a social network, Iwata said, Nintendo considered it an “experience sharing network."
Just as you carefully choose who to spend time with outside of the realm of social networks, Miiverse and its ilk are coming to depend on the ability to control the people to involve in your shared experiences.
Because all of us lead many different lives within the space of a single day, we're going to need many different networks to comfortably share those experiences. One network is not enough.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.