The gentle minimalism of Idyll’s microsociety leads this gamer to question the hungers that drive social media platforms. By Jini Maxwell.


Graphic of a corked bottle floating past a grass headland.
A scene from the game Idyll.
Credit: Demi Schänzel

In the postscript to the digital exhibition InterCommunication’95, exhibiting net artist Heath Bunting wrote: “networking fills many hungers”. The exhibition included Bunting’s 1995 online messaging artwork Communication Creates Conflict, which posed an early consideration of how networked communication would intervene in public life. Networking fills many hungers. A prescient statement – and maybe a warning.

The first time I open Idyll, I feel lost. After typing my name, I am transported to an empty island. No helpful pop-up appears to explain the controls or prompt an action. For a while my avatar stands still, a pink oblong that contrasts with the illustrative wash of grass and water that fills the screen. I click the mouse button and my avatar moves. I press a letter key and I realise I can type a message. I type into the void, “is this right”, and the message appears in a bubble above my avatar. At the same time, another bubble emanates from a green bottle floating by the shoreline: “a fellow bean entity has been spotted.”

Idyll is the latest experimental online social platform from academic and game developer Demi Schänzel, who researches the design of creative, prosocial online spaces. There are essentially four actions: you can type a message that appears in a speech bubble above your avatar and disappears shortly after, and you can record a message in a bottle that persists after you leave the island. You can also read the messages left by others and walk around.

Idyll is an iteration of a former work of Schänzel’s, The Library of Babble, an “intimate space of shared asynchronous communication”. Babble drops its players at a random point on a large map, a fraction of which is viewable at a time. As you navigate its candy-coloured topography, you can leave a message or read messages that others have left behind, which are often poetic or nostalgic in nature. It is a platform for “smaller acts of storytelling and prose”, in Schänzel’s words, rather than direct communication.

This new game takes a less abstract approach to social space. Its small island can be traversed by your avatar in a couple of clicks. Unlike Babble, Idyll offers the promise of bumping into other players and speaking to them live, though I am yet to encounter another player. I know they have been there through their messages.

Idyll is one of a growing body of microsocial platforms that counter the insidious logics of mainstream social media. Another is v buckenham’s Frog Chorus, a browser-based space that deposits you, a newly generated frog, in the big pond. When you hold down the mouse button, your frog inhales, letting out a series of croaks on release. You can rename the pond, generating a link that you can send to others, if you wish to gather and croak more privately. Frog Chorus offers its players the experience of sharing space online, and nothing else. There is nothing Frog Chorus wants to give me or that I expect of Frog Chorus, except the chance to be a little frog online for a while. No likes, no friend lists, no text chat, no masters.

While platforms such as Twitter and Instagram primarily advertise themselves as communication platforms, Frog Chorus and Idyll reveal an interesting truth about the role of social media in our domestic lives. Online social spaces offer not only the chance to talk to other people but also feel close to them – to observe their reality and share in it, in some ambient way.

On a platform such as Twitter, where the only tool for expressing closeness is direct text, this prosocial instinct feeds antisocial behaviour, encouraged by an algorithm designed to generate engagement. This includes direct harassment – what establishes community spirit more effectively than a common enemy? – and also what sociologist Dr Katherine Cross terms “third-order harassment”. Using the example of trans author Isabel Fall, who was harassed off Twitter following the publication of her sci-fi short story “I Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, Cross looks at the role that memes, observational tweets and general participation in “the discourse” play in normalising harassing behaviours online. Through the mechanisms of this third order of harassment, a whole person is reduced to a vector for discourse. This hostile mode of digital proximity is addictive but alienating and paranoia-inducing – the best way to avoid being Twitter’s latest discourse-vector is by identifying another tribute. This network fills one hunger but, in doing so, creates another.

In the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, a range of other social media platforms gained greater visibility, each with its own host of systemic issues. Mastodon is prohibitively difficult to navigate; messaging platform Discord is rife with scam bots. Both of these platforms also require you to join an existing server – there’s no sense of participating in the public square, no big-pond analogue.

Like Frog Chorus’s big pond, the island of Idyll is open to all, sidestepping the issue of real-time community management through its simplicity. In Idyll, there isn’t very much to do: it is designed to pique curiosity for the duration of an occasional visit, not to sustain a persistent community. There is little risk of developing a culture of third-order harassment if people don’t stick around for very long.

Rather than maintaining live moderation – a practical impossibility in a non-commercial project from a solo developer – Idyll neither encourages nor rewards antisocial behaviour. Bottle messages appear consecutively and without attribution, signalling they are from different players by appearing in different coloured bubbles that correspond to the colour of the avatar who left it.

It would take patience and a co-ordinated effort to abuse Idyll’s trust system, though it’s a system that wouldn’t work at a larger scale. Its positive atmosphere relies as much on its assumption of the kind of people who will want to download an experimental, prosocial digital experience as it does on its design.

The range of responses recorded in the bottles indicates the gamut of emotional experiences Idyll has elicited: “It would be funny if this was all some personal info scam,” one reads, while another offers: “I am so so proud of you. It wasn’t easy, but here you are.”

So: does this network fill my hungers? Objectively, no. I enjoy reading and leaving messages – much more than a scroll through my revamped “For You” Twitter feed – but my response is to take screenshots to post on my Instagram story. Look, I want to say, social media can be good, while the act itself indicates that Idyll has left some need unmet.

My time with Idyll made me see that hunger in plainer view. Instead of wondering how this tiny platform might be altered to meet the many-headed desires that I ask the network to sate, I wonder where those hungers came from, how else they could be directed. If digital intimacy is what I want, how can I find it without compulsively engaging with hostile platforms? In the shadow of the network, how can I become a person who can spend time in a gentle, curious online space, filled with signs of digital life, without focusing on the fact that I am here, unwatched and alone?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2023 as "Unwatched and alone".

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