By Daniel Little, Western Kentucky University
When I assigned students to study outdated and dying writing technologies, I imagined that most would focus their projects textual logics, visual rhetorics, and tactics of distribution. I also predicted that students would choose from three categories of writing technologies: those that died many years ago (parchment), those that died more recently (ichat), and those that were slowly being killed off (fax machines). Certainly, many students followed this model. Several students, for example, studied the Vine platform for publishing viral videos, investigating the rhetorical value of short videos for production, distribution, and consumption. Another group of students chose to research the influence of typewriters on professional and creative writing.
But one of the many joys of Delson’s project was that it reframed the possibilities of the assignment, helping me to remember other links between technology and rhetoric. Unlike the platforms I had suggested, the Miiverse was rapidly dismantled and de-incentivised during the semester. Before every class session Delson would give me an update on the state of the platform, often reflecting on the reactions of community members. In turn there was an unexpected exigence to Delson’s project. If he didn’t collect screenshots and account for the communities on the platform, who would? And while Delson clearly found this exigence invigorating (as did I), the uncertainty of the Miiverse required Delson to plan ahead of the course calendar, collecting materials for small assignments weeks in advance just in case the service was taken down early.
As Delson studied and documented the death of the Miiverse it became clear that the visual rhetoric of the drawings and the genre of the messages were ultimately less important than the nature of the Miiverse community and the relationship of writing to that community. In this sense the narrative of the Miiverse, a virtual community about to be deleted, reminded me of Celia Pearce’s Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds. Unfortunately, the readings and activities of the course did not explicitly emphasize community building, let alone community destruction. While I pointed him to complementary source material, including Communities of Play, I am impressed by the way Delson captured the complex, contradictory nature of the Miiverse community.
One theme from the course that did emerge in Delson’s project was the balanced consideration of the Miiverse as an important space, but not a utopic one. Clearly the Miiverse allowed for innovative interactions between players within the game interface, and the use of user-made tips and sign-posts appeared to shift seemingly single-player games into a communal experience. But I am proud of the way Delson captured conflicts within the community and criticisms of the platform itself. These moments support the core argument of the project, that “all communities, no matter how small or fringe they are, have something of value that makes them unique.” Indeed, the Miiverse was not a site for detailed political discourse, and the limited social functions of the platform are a far cry from the deep personal bonds of other online gaming communities. But by virtue documenting the social contours of the Miiverse in this project, Delson demonstrates the value of studying these short-lived online communities.