What happens when a social network is sentenced to death? For Vine, it was wild outrage followed by mummification. The platform’s death was announced in October of last year, and in January, it was gone. Today, Vine is Vine Camera, an app that takes six-second videos for you to then post elsewhere, and Vine.com is preserved in carbonite: All of its videos are still there, but you can’t do anything with them or add any more. It is a shrine to what once was.
What, then, will happen to the Miiverse? Nintendo’s grand experiment in social network design has likewise been sentenced to death: The company’s new Switch, coming out March 3, will not contain the social service. The Miiverse will remain confined to the Wii U and the portable 3DS, systems that are both being phased out by the new device. Presumably users with the old systems will be able to continue to use the Miiverse, although the amount of people posting or observing those posts will dwindle as games stop being released. Unlike Vine, its eulogies have not been kind. Geek called it an “awful, beautiful social network,” a “low-selling walled garden” that was “hilarious, awful, amazing, nonsensical.” New York said it was “too bad” that “Nintendo’s terrible, hapless social network” was closing. Kotaku was slightly kinder, saying it made them “cry, laugh, or wince.”
History, alas, will not be kind to the Miiverse. Originally launched with the Wii U in November 2012, the Miiverse was Nintendo’s stab at adding social interactivity and online play after years of neglecting them. On the Wii, it was near impossible to fire up a game and play someone online, unlike competitor systems by Microsoft and Sony, which were built on streamlined Call Of Duty matches. The Miiverse was Nintendo’s late acknowledgement of the importance of online play, but, the thinking went, it came with a certain Nintendo sparkle. Rewatching its old introduction video from 2012, then-president Satoru Iwata couched the new platform in terms of hoping to create “empathy” between players. This was no simple matchmaking system, à la its earlier competitors, but a sea change in gamer interaction—something friendlier, lighter, more personal. You’d use the Wii U’s stylus to draw or handwrite messages to the Miiverse, which other players would then “like” (or, in the platform’s inimitable parlance, hit “Yeah!” to.)
“What you physically write or draw can convey stronger feelings than what you type,” Iwata said in the video. “With Miiverse, you can even add images or facial expressions to help communicate your emotions.”
The idea was too beautiful for this world—or at least too beautiful for the video game world. The Miiverse quickly turned into a cesspool of hand-drawn pornography, fart jokes, prepubescent confessions, repurposed memes, and bottom-tier fan art. Even with strict moderation, it rarely achieved its design goals. Social networks work by funneling a certain population through a designed space to create a desired output. On Twitter, it’s media people and celebrities engaging in an all-day running argument. On Facebook, it’s anyone with a computer posting photos and links to the people they care about. Pinterest lets its audience collate and curate interests and purchases. Niche platforms like Goodreads and Letterboxd let fans indulge themselves alongside likeminded people. So where did the the Miiverse go wrong? It set out to create empathy among gamers, funneling them through a space designed to make them express themselves proactively. What it ended up doing was handing Nintendo’s storied iconography over to an audience that, quite simply, should not have been trusted.
Soon after its launch, a cottage industry sprang up celebrating bad Miiverse posts. Kotaku regularly plumbed the depths of the platform, exploring a Luigi forum hidden from public view, its Spongebob obsession, and its seedy underbelly—each presented as a new hotbed of Miiverse creativity and/or shittiness. The Twitter account @BadMiiversePosts netted some 70,000 followers for cataloging the network’s offerings, including such garden-variety internet detritus as Harambe memes, racism, 9/11 jokes, Trump train bullshit, and so on. But the hunger for bad Miiverse content existed because it was different than just Reddit runoff. If Xbox Live managed to make you feel like you’d stepped into a teenage boy’s angst-filled room every time you logged on, the Miiverse gave the feeling that you’d stumbled upon a Facebook filled with and run by children. The earnestness could be heartbreaking.
There were occasional howls into the void:
Lots and lots of semi-sexual tomfoolery:
And some that are unexplainable:
I asked Daniel Switzer, the journalism student who runs BadMiiversePosts, which ones were his favorite over the nearly four years he spent running the account. He responded with these:
That last one, featuring the low-rent Donkey Kong character Lanky Kong, is an example of the sort of stuff that took on a life of its own on the Miiverse. While many of the Bad Miiverse Posts seem clueless and isolated, the actual culture within Miiverse had its own set of running gags and secret handshakes, with riffs on Lanky Kong as well as a game called Meme Run, a semi-mythic drawing called Bigley, Shrek and Harambe worship, a shitty game called Funky Barn that took on an ironic second life, and a sweeping love story between two eighth-graders that played out in full view of everyone.
“The culture of Miiverse is… odd,” Switzer told me via email. “There’s actually loads of different subcultures. It depends on the community. In one community it’ll mainly be drawings, another is full of in-jokes that only those who frequent the community will understand. Sometimes the community isn’t even relevant to the game it’s connected to.” In this way it’s not dissimilar from any other online community, which ostensibly comes together under a shared interest but forms a much thicker glue. It’s not quite friendship in the IRL sense, but rather a strange alternate bond that forms only online, preferably via polygonal avatar. The Miiverse was made to be a hub of gamers trading tips and encouragement, but instead they trafficked in memes, confessions, trolls, and occasionally, yes, empathy. “Miiverse, especially in its later life, started blurring the lines between social media network and forum,” Switzer said. “People would come at the same hours every day, to talk to the same people about how their day went, what games they were excited for, and so on.“
They also stopped by to draw pictures of Yoshi eating asshole:
Despite all this, Nintendo historian Jon Irwin told me the Miiverse isn’t quite as left-field as we imagine; in fact, it was a natural evolution of many of the century-old Nintendo corporation’s aesthetic ideas. We think of it as a video game company today, but its real interest has always been toys that connect people. In the 1960s, the company made a “love tester” that measured two users’ romantic compatibility. (There was little science behind it.) The company’s first video game system, the Famicom, came with two controller ports, encouraging cooperation and competition. The Nintendo 64 redefined slumber parties everywhere by doubling that to four ports. The Miiverse, at least theoretically, drew on this thread. “Even if you’re alone and playing a game, the idea is that you’re not alone,” Irwin said, “because you can look and see all these other people playing it, too.” The Wii U’s power-up screen, in which little platoons of individualized Miis clustered around the apps they were using, was a clear visualization of this ideal.
Nintendo has, over the course of decades, typically been correct about how humans like to play, leading to countless sea changes in the way people think about video games. (This is how it sold 100 million Wiis.) The people behind Nintendo know humans, but they incorrectly thought the internet was full of humans. It’s not. They do not act like it there, and they cannot be relied upon to behave themselves when given free reign to draw a picture on someone else’s TV screen. A comparison might be made to Sonic The Hedgehog, who has enjoyed an ironic resurgence thanks to an almost vaporwave embrace of his tired ’90s iconography. Sega stopped making consoles in 2001, and now cranks out mid-tier games trading on its old properties with a sort of grim opportunism, but Sonic—rebranded with dadaist internet abandon as Sanic—is more popular than ever. Sega’s official Sonic account tweets out pithy rejoinders, almost in the mold of a self-aware fast food company, and Sanic appreciation has become so pervasive it has generated its own art-game parody, the Sonic Dreams Collection.
Nintendo never bottomed out like Sega did, and it has kept control of Mario and the rest of its stable of beloved characters rather than outsourcing their future to the internet. The walls of Nintendo’s garden are extraordinarily high, and if the Miiverse did anything it was probably to reinforce the conservative company’s decision to keep them that way. They tried giving us nice things, and we made porn with it. We drew stupid shit. We acted like it was the internet. Because they were wrong: it was. You cannot control what it wants to do. The company has given very few indications about what the social features for the Switch will be, although indications are that it will be less of a visible network and more about functionally connecting people in games, à la Sony’s successful—and near-invisible—PlayStation Network. They declined comment for this article, presumably because they are just fucking done will this whole Miiverse thing.
Which only leaves one question: When will the Miiverse die? When an online culture is sentenced to death, it does not quietly make its peace with the world. Vine was eulogized generously, perhaps because it still received some of its parent company Twitter’s glow. The Miiverse has been a joke for years, on the other hand, and eulogized as such. Its death might look more like those of the massively multiplayer online games like The Matrix Online, Asheron’s Call, or PlayStation Home, all of which celebrated their individual apocalypses with vast cyberspace bacchanalias up until the exact second the servers switched off. The Miiverse may be preserved, but its final days should be a Caligulan orgy of IP infringement the likes of which Nintendo characters have never seen before. Pull the moderators out while there is still time, and let the children draw what they want. Let them crown Bigley their mock God. Set Pokémon upon Pokémon, Mario brother upon Mario brother. That is the death the Miiverse deserves.