I used to think there was no room for another social network in my life. I already have Twitter for public interactions and jokes, Facebook for connecting with friends and family, Instagram for sharing closeup photos of my dinner and Snapchat for when I feel like goofing around. Upstart social networks like Ello, App.net and Peach never resonated with me. But for the past two weeks, I've been flirting with a new contender. It's called Miitomo, a game from Nintendo that's really a social network in disguise. And my Miitomo obsession has made me wonder if the social networks I use the most often -- Twitter, Facebook and Instagram -- aren't games of a sort too.
Released about a month ago in Japan and then in the US a week or so later, Miitomo is Nintendo's first-ever smartphone app. Since it comes from the publisher of iconic titles like Super Mario Bros and the Legend of Zelda, you'd be forgiven if you thought Miitomo was a video game too. One of the first things you do in Miitomo is to create your "Mii," a a cartoon avatar that's been part of the Nintendo experience since the original Wii. But after tricking out your Mii with cool clothes and funky hairstyles, you don't play a rousing round of Wii Tennis or go for the perfect strike in Wii Bowling. Instead, you're supposed to add friends and interact with them.
Of course, Miitomo is not a pure social network like Twitter or Facebook. In it, you're supposed to answer randomly generated questions: Examples include what you did last week, who your favorite celebrity is and what sort of nightmares you had as a kid. Your friends can then heart your answers or leave comments on them and vice versa. Social interactions are limited to just that. There's no feed of free-form messages, and you can't seek out a specific person's stream of content. Rather, you have to read whatever responses happen to come up.
Despite these limitations, I'm starting to feel addicted to Miitomo. And no, it's not just because of the cute factor. For one, I feel that I'm learning more about my friends than I would otherwise. Some of the answers I've read were their memories as a child or their hopes and dreams -- answers to questions that I'd probably never think to ask. Also, I feel compelled to answer the same questions, not only to earn points but also because I wish my friends were this interested in me in real life.
Ultimately, one of the main reasons Miitomo is addictive is that it rewards you for being social. You get coins for each answer, and you get coins for reading answers from your friends. You also get points for sharing Miifotos -- posed portraits of your Mii in action. You can then use this in-game currency to buy costumes or try your luck at a drop-chute challenge to see if you can win exclusive outfits. Miitomo feeds both the innate desire to connect with people and the more obvious high of getting points. In short, it's gamified social interactions.
That got me thinking that using mainstream social networks like Twitter and Facebook is addictive for many of the same reasons. Though it's not immediately obvious (Twitter doesn't give you coins, and Facebook doesn't offer ninja costumes), they offer a distinct feeling of reward just for socializing. There've been numerous studies that show we get a dopamine hit every time someone retweets us or likes our post on Facebook. Kristen Lindquist, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the Financial Times that this sort of interaction feeds the reward center of the brain and is akin to how drug addicts feel when they take yet another cocaine hit. "You end up developing an association between Facebook and goodness, and that sustains the behavior," she said.
I know this is the case for me. I often take care to construct witty or interesting tweets, hoping for a retweet or a favorite. I carefully compose each shot on Instagram, painstakingly going through each filter to see which one makes my homemade guacamole pop more on the screen. I give myself a little high five whenever more than five people like a post I published on Facebook. I'll admit that this sort of instantaneous interaction feeds an inner desire for validation, and I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge that I try pretty hard to get it. Pathetic? Maybe. But some of you probably feel this too. Most of us attempt to present our best selves on social media to gain acceptance.
All of this is to say that I think Nintendo has tapped into what makes social networks so addictive. Instead of tweeting for hearts, I'm answering questions for coins. And while retweets and favorites are dependent on the fickle minds of the public, the coins in Miitomo are constant and reliable. Even without the validation of my peers, I still get some kind of reward from interacting with them. Right now, I have 10,900 coins in Miitomo. I've never received that many retweets, likes, stars or hearts on any other social network. And I can't use those to buy a stylin' pair of cat ears.