Future Tense

Goodbye, Mii. Hello, Facebook Avatar?

The same week we find out Facebook is developing social avatars, Nintendo is shutting its down.

Various online avatars.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Apple, Facebook, Nintendo, and Bitmoji.

When I was in high school, I had a small, silly-looking version of myself who lived inside my friend’s TV. I never owned a Nintendo Wii, but I spent many hours playing on Laura’s—my mini-me was always there waiting for me when I arrived, strolling around the boundless floor of the Mii Channel in her duo-chromatic outfit, smiling like an idiot.

Miis, in their original capacity, were not social avatars (they didn’t exist to communicate with friends or represent you online), but my experience with them always was. After all, I only saw my Mii when hanging out at my friend’s house—even when I wasn’t there, she was mingling with the other Miis on the channel, avatars made by our other friends: Monica, Chelsea, Shaan, Laura’s brother Chris, and Beardy Weirdy, a bizarro Mii someone once made who showed up a disproportionate amount of the time and remains a hilarious in-joke more than a decade on. I haven’t seen my Mii in about that long, but Miis have continued to appear in Nintendo releases, right up until their starring role in Nintendo’s first social app in 2016.

But the same week we find out Facebook is developing cartoonish social avatars, Nintendo is shutting down its Mii social network.

Developer and super sleuth Jane Manchun Wong was looking at the Facebook Android app’s code when she spotted details for an unreleased feature called Facebook Avatars. It seems that the social network is heading down the bespoke emoji path: TechCrunch, which first reported on the feature, called it a “clone of Snapchat’s Bitmoji,” the app—acquired by Snap Inc. in July 2016—that allows users to create their own idiosyncratic cartoon selves.

Bitmoji has sat among the most popular apps for years, but it’s not the first example of an iconic personal avatar. Among its precursors was the Mii—that fingerless, balloon-headed Nintendo player character. But as social avatars rise, the Mii is falling. On Wednesday, Nintendo shut down Miitomo—the social app where your Mii could actually converse with your friends’ Miis—after only two years. How did we get here, and why aren’t Miis sharing in the avatar boom?

Avatars—from avatara, the Hindu concept of the “descent” of a deity into a terrestrial form—have been popular in the virtual world for about as long as the web has existed. An online avatar refers to any pictorial representation of a user, 2D or 3D, moving or static, whether or not that representation actually resembles its operator IRL—it could be a picture of a flower, a logo, or (as my MSN Messenger avatar remained until the very end) Irish actor Johnathan Rhys Meyers in a Hugo Boss campaign. It’s simply anything that represents you online, be that in a forum, a chatroom, an IM service, or a video game.

The use of the term avatar to mean online virtual bodies was first popularized in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, in which avatars were “the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse,” Stephenson’s virtual reality internet. Over the years, avatars have become increasingly important in lending users a “physical” embodiment online. One of the earliest examples of customizable, expressive avatars was Microsoft Comic Chat, launched in 1996, in which users had cartoon avatars for chatting—free programs online allowed people to create their own custom characters.

Customizable, controllable avatars, or “player characters,” are now central to virtual worlds, from MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) to MUDs (multiuser domains). But the point of avatars in these worlds is often about character—about being someone else. In World of Warcraft, there are 15 different “races” to choose from, of which human is only one—in the U.S. realm, human characters currently only make up 16.5 percent of the population, even though we can assume it’s (mostly) humans playing it. Even in nongaming interactive worlds—online communities like Active Worlds and Second Life—users have gone to great lengths to create custom, nonhuman avatars: Today the Second Life Marketplace is full of wolves, centaurs, and My Little Ponies.

With the rise of social media—online networks that supposedly reflect our real-life networks—more true-to-self avatars have climbed in popularity. Avatars in social media are about being yourself: less alter ego than ego. Your Bitmoji is your bodily incarnation in the virtual world, your internet stunt double—it wears your earthly haircut and hangs with digitized versions of your earthly friends. After all, if you don’t have a cartoon self in the comic book land that is, apparently, the internet, are you really there at all?

Getting involved in the cartoon avatar game is a safe bet for Facebook. It’s not hard to see why these expressive mini-mes have become so popular in this age of increasingly nonverbal communication and self-presentation, in which even the color of our thumbs-up can be changed. In an ecosystem of complex, multifaceted online identities—curated personas made up of statuses, Stories, Snaps, and selfies—cartoon avatars are a simple yet powerful representational tool. And what social media narcissist doesn’t enjoy customizing her cartoon self? Going from screen to screen, choosing just the right eye color, just the right nose shape. There’s a certain satisfaction in looking at your cartoon self and knowing it’s “you,” even though it’s likely that hundreds of people have an almost identical one. On Snapchat, I can scroll through stickers of “me” doing activities with “my friends”—I rarely see my best friend, who lives on the other side of the world, but inside the app I fist-bump her, brunch with her, jump out of objects to surprise her, and throw myself down on her couch.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that the emotional, relatable Bitmoji has risen to become the most prominent version of the self-avatar. But there were a multitude of customizable cartoons that could have been “the one” proliferating online at the end of the previous decade.
When Bitstrips—Bitmoji’s original comic strip habitat—launched at South by Southwest in 2008, there were many styles in which you could cartoonify yourself. In 2009, Pariah S. Burke wrote a series for MacWorld on how to “Cartoon You,” using Meez, Mii, Mr. Picassohead (now known simply as Picassohead), Gaia, Yahoo Avatars, the South Park Avatar Creator, Face Your Manga, the Simpsons avatar generator, Toonlet, Doppel Me, Portrait Illustration Maker, and WeeWorld. (Of that list, only the hyperlinked survive, but if you really want to Simpsonize yourself, I found a replacement.) Mad Men even got in on the trend to promote the launch of its third season in 2009 (RIP MadMen Yourself).

Two years before the birth of Bitmoji, Mii burst onto the scene. But despite being developed for gaming, the philosophy of Mii seemed much more in line with today’s social media avatars. As the name would suggest, the Nintendo avatars were about creating me for the Wii—everyday digital selves with our own birthdays, eyebrows, and favorite colors—rather than mythical creatures or great fighters. There was even a facial recognition tool in later versions that would generate a Mii based on a photograph. Jon Irwin suggests that the characters were made to look like us so that we got used to the idea of being “inside” the game—something we will likely be adjusting to all over again with the rise of VR. In a way, Miis were ahead of the self-avatar, self-representational trend.

Ahead of the rise of social media, and yet their own social network is now ending due to waning interest. Miitomo, which shut down Wednesday, was a social game that allowed users to communicate with friends as their Miis, with their avatars visiting one another and asking questions, saying aloud whatever users typed. (Nintendo has announced that users will continue to be able to edit their Mii characters via a web browser tool, but with the Miitomo servers switched off, Miis won’t be able to do much.) Perhaps it failed because it lacked what Amanda Hess sees as the key element of Bitmoji: the ability to colorfully express yourself with its wide array of emotional responses, from “unabashed excitement” to “emotional vulnerability.” The Miis of Miimoto were rather reserved, apparently. As Irwin writes, “it always felt more geared toward a shy Japanese marketplace, thirsty for ice-breakers, than the western world and our penchant for braggadocio”—something Bitmojis revel in.

But another contributor was surely that starting a social network is hard. Miis have been around for a long time, but the app that their social iteration launched into was brand new, unlike Bitmojis’ integration into our phone keyboards and Snapchat, which added to existing social networks. Where was the incentive to sign in to Miitomo, especially once it turned into a ghost town? (Other than a deep appreciation for the Mii aesthetic, that is.) Facebook Avatars are almost guaranteed to be a success: Like it or not, Facebook profiles have become the central tenet of online identity for most of us. The market is already assembled.

Miis might have had more luck in the social world had they attached themselves to an existing network. FaceMii? Miistagram? TWiiter? I guess we’ll never know what Miight have been.