Zwinktopia Slides Younger Teens Into Their Virtual Playground

zwinky.pngCall it a marketing hook, tween baiting, or young teen branding brilliance, Zwinktopia, the online virtual world that just launched Monday has leveraged their growth substantially by familiarizing kids with their avatar site Zwinky, first.

Kids have been creating customizable Zwinky identities to plop on their blogs, profiles, IM and chat sites representing themselves for quite some time…Now they have their own world to play in too.

According to TechCrunch, they’re launching at the peak of virtual world hype. 606Tech adds that Zwinky already has 20 million active members making it one of the largest launches ever. Hmn. Smart. A little TOO smart…Did they just get lucky or did they strategically plan this? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

With 4.7 million unique users to open up their world, they have a built-in launchpad to take off…PLUS youth immersive worlds are booming AND their avatars are not just ‘in-world’ they can travel all over the web.

My advertising, brandwashing and privacy bells are playing pinball here, “ka-ching, ding-ding,” prompting me to ponder data mining opportunists and multi-media “shopping experiences” from drooling profiteers seeking ‘fresh flesh’ on the $51 billion tween scene.

I talked to a few 12-year olds that have already popped “in-world,” to ask about navigation of chat and functionality, since this Time online article revealed “there is no age verification process and Zwinktopia does not filter sexually explicit comments.” (thank you, safety queen, Izzy Neis!)

We’re keeping eyes peeled on the “add a friend” network, security standards, ease of use and corporate commercialism, but so far the kids are mostly interested in drag-n-drop dressing and shuffling their avatars hither and yon.

With 29 hangouts to explore from dorms and colleges to beaches, delis and bowling, I predict kids will be changing avatar clothes faster than a Milan runway of virtual paper dolls.

Zwinktopia is a particularly strong draw for middle schoolers emulating social media mannerisms and networked community chat…especially when they feel they’ve “outgrown” some of the safe site-lockbox hubs in search of more freedom and interaction.

This is a scary thought in a site sans filters, as Izzy Neis rightfully points out in her new blog post here and this Zwinktopia blogspot confirms in their collection of detailed postings.

Many middle schoolers find Club Penguin text limiting…(although I’ve watched a firsthand ‘penguin pick up’ and jealousy interchange with ‘do you like so & so’ and one girl being invited on an igloo tour and another one getting wounded by not having equal attention…it’s a wild world when little girls are getting self-worth from virtual penguin invitations!)

And though my daughter is a safe-site Imbee queen who loves to make friends knowing it’s ‘MySpace with training wheels’ (full parental safety; pings parents any time kids have incoming/outgoing friend requests, blog comments sent or received, etc.) she’s a typical tween…

Meaning? Bopping around trying out new things like goldilocks in cyberspace…Testing, using it for awhile, then off to search for that “ah, just right” fit. Fickle beasties.

Some tweens have proudly bluffed their way onto 13 & up artsy communities like the anime hotspot, Gaia, 3D avatar chat sites like IMVU (balanced pro/con forum here w/considerable parental tween warnings) or MySpace itself. (we’ve all heard the wisecracks that MySpace is now dominated by 8th graders and corporations instead of musicians, bands and chums)

I’m hoping Zwinktopia might be a more “age-appropriate” virtual vision that falls into the middle ground category of “filtered but fun.” Right now, it’s not filtered, but certainly fun. Tweens are dollin’ up their avatars as we speak, guaranteed.

We’ll see where they take it…and how they market it, and to whom.

We’ve got a youth team of random “beta testers” on Zwinktopia for Shaping Youth. One’s admittedly my daughter. I sat with her to observe how intuitive it is, “I still don’t know how to make friends yet; but someone already invited me, so I know you can.”

Some of our advisory crew was befuddled as to how to enter Zwinktopia from the Zwinky site itself, (enter via ‘wardrobe,’ button in the lower left corner) and a few users abandoned the session at the first sign of an error screen saying their system wasn’t up to snuff and needed a “shockwave” plug-in for a certain game (young teens bail and defer to adults whenever error messages & downloads crop up).

I find it a bit ironic that the kids/tweens ‘virtual gold rush’ positioning in the press has dominated, when their site eligibility says age 13. I guess it’s because tweens are such avatar fiends for cute icons and it’s inevitable.

I’ll save the cleavage critique of those round melon aspirational “hotties” and “cuties” (yes, that IS the real lexicon they use for BOTH genders when choosing an avatar, ugh) but despite appearance-driven cues, it’s cartoony fashion not 3D/surreal body types.

As for consumerism? Zwinktopia uses Zbucks as virtual currency which seems to be much like Gaia gold that kids use to buy clothes, goods and “cool stuff. ” (again, won’t go global on the mindless “must-have” messaging of acquisition-based values)

Twitch-n-tap games and Zchievements (which you get for most any movement) reward engagement constantly. As a parent, I’m not sure this is wise to feed unrealistic “entitlement” expectations as it often leads to a “pay me in points just for being here” attitude.

(I’ll curb my curmudgeon commentary, but since I’m not a reviewer or a beholden hack, I can call ’em like I see ’em, and voice some long term behavioral concerns, eh?)

There’s also an ad revenue element derived from click throughs on toolbar icons, which kids probably love, but I find controlling.

Reports say it’s ‘optional’ but when I created my own Zwinky, it quickly hijacked my toolbar adding free icons unannounced. (Smiley Central, Zwinky, Screensavers, Cursor Mania, Webfetti and Fun Cards all part of a MyWebSearch Toolbar “package.”

You can uninstall it but then you can’t access Zwinky. Huh? What’s optional there?

ANY technology that doesn’t ask permission, then crashes into my world and tries to boss me and over-ride my system tweaks the heck out of me.

(Including the InterActual dvd player that self-installs when you boot up a rental flick like Spiderman chock full of promos, and it decides it’s going to pummel me with previews AND be my default player. Sorry. Guess again. Deleted. Uninstall. Bye, bye. Good riddance. Bleh.)

On a global scale, not sure we “need” yet another shop-n-social sweet spot, nor a tired popularity poll of how many avatars can be mustered in “add a friend” mode…(wish more kids could boot their keisters outdoors to play and make “real world” friends… though I realize that’s not always feasible in some communities, thus, media is shaping youth)

BUT: Whether it’s Disney’s fully moderated multiplayer tween VMK (Virtual Magic Kingdom site) or the new Zwinktopia community, kids will no doubt find some experiential social skills can be explored virtually. (even in mouseland there can be some ‘mean’ kids, according to my 9-year old goddaughter, who was duped in a Disney ‘pin-trade’)

Personally, I’m more of a Teen Second Life fan, since it offers innovation as much as recreation, with meaningful “thinkers and do-ers” participating in forums like this one at Global Kids Digital Initiative.

An experiential hangout that adds value and opens new doors of thinking is much more appealing than the vapid pursuit of the bling thing. (maybe I’m being an intellectual elitist, after all, Zwinktopia is hardly comparable)

Anyway, to each his own. I’m eager to dive into Zwinktopia and see how it compares as a design your own avatar and play in their world site.

A quick summation of Zwinktopia context for parents?

Tween social media sites like Club Penguin have games, friends and limited chat, Imbee adds more robust texting opportunities in blogs and chat without games and Zwinktopia seems to be going for “all of the above,” with a dash of TSL (Teen Second Life) tossed in from a “pretend money translating to real money” economic currency model…but what’s with the age 13 bit, and sloppy safety?

You know this has tween target appeal. Gimme a break. Must be a COPPA legal thing.

Zwinktopia seems to be older tween level level virtual world socialization, with avatar design (virtual paperdolls) and simple games, friends and chat…But no filters or moderation!!! Just to be clear, this is also in no way a full blown gaming “in-world” experience akin to Runescape or a pay-to-play behemoth MMORPG like WoW.

As for “tween specific” virtual worlds?

Online community whiz Izzy Neis just put together an excellent list of “Worthy Tween/Kid Communities” that I need to plow through and compare with my own thoughts…Overall we’re often aligned in centrist thinking, my self-proclaimed party pooper caveat is this:

I tend to be more sensitive to the “branding kids’ brains” issue and rampant commercialism than Izzy, but she has a great eye for pragmatic safety and “kid appeal” so her site’s a solid bellwether for me to gauge my middle ground. (very fun, too)

In fact, she posted the same TechCrunch article and here are HER comments below it about Zwinktopia. Sounds like she’s thinking it skews differently in age too…maybe it’s the press that’s fouled up the positioning? Is it meant for U13? Feedback and share data if you give it a go…

We’ll be watching. (And playing)—no doubt from the tween trenches…

More on all this soon as the beta bugs shake out…Stay tuned.

Visual Credit: Zwinky.com/606Tech.com

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Comments

  1. Hellllllo!
    Oh how you spoil me– thanks for the kind words and the links!!

    You know, this whole Zwinktopia thing is really confusing me, to be perfectly honest. The Zwink toolbar (needed to do most things with anything Zwinky) is explicitly not for anyone under thirteen– http://info.zwinky.com/zwinkyinfo/eula.jhtml

    And it’s an avatar based-virtual world, right? Isn’t the toolbar needed for the virutal world? How can tweens use Zwinktopia without it? I think that’s where my assumption that Zwinktopia wasn’t for tweens originated from.

    I also found this great blog based around Zwinktopia and here is a comment about the safety level: http://zwinktopia.blogspot.com/2007/05/zwinktopia-gains-momentum-were-already.html

    I shudder with worry. No filters, easy info sharing, and creepy web-make-out sessions? Dear lord. What are your thoughts on that?

    Your piece on Zwinktopa rocks! Thanks for citing me in it, Amy!!!

  2. Izzy, yes, I put that toolbar link in the original post (the not under 13 bit) and that’s what confuses me, as it’s clearly targeted to them…???!!!! I know TONS of tweens already on it and also on Gaia…Even the Webpronews guy cited his 10 year old niece or somethin’ on ’em and I linked to that too…that’s what I mean…it’s unclear ‘what they’re gonna do w/it!’
    http://www.webpronews.com/topnews/2007/04/30/zwinktopia-iacs-procrastination-heaven

  3. WHOA IZZY YOU ARE SOOOOOOOOOOO RIGHT! THAT BLOG DIDN’T POP IN MY SEARCH!!! I’m going to go back into the main piece and link/edit to redflag this NO FILTERS data PRONTO. You are gold. Thank you!!! (and btw, you DO see you’re on our blogroll, right? You’re fabulous)

    Here’s an excerpt:

    “Before parents set their kids loose in Zwinktopia or any other virtual world, however, they should know there is nothing to prevent, say, a pedophile from joining the site and masquerading as a 13-year-old girl. There is no age verification process and Zwinktopia does not filter sexually explicit comments. While some sites aimed at younger kids, such as Disney’ s ToonTown and Ganz’ s Webkinz only let members exchange canned messages, anything goes on Zwinktopia. On the site’ s opening night, conversations on the virtual beach called “Splash” went like this: “If u wanna hook up with me, say 123,” wrote one person. “123” says another. “Ok, let’ s kiss then.” Other members were swapping their MySpace addresses and asking for e-mail addresses. There’s even a video chat feature built-in that lets kids activate their webcams.

    While members can report offensive comments and the site keeps a log of all chats, IAC is taking a hands-off approach to monitoring what goes on at Zwinktopia. “It’ s going to be a learning process,” says Dorcas Casey, IAC’s director of product strategy, when asked where the company draws the line on inappropriate behavior. If Zwinktopia really hopes to attract kids aged 13 and up without sending their parents into cardiac arrest, it might want to speed that process up.

  4. Ahhh! You’ve made me blush. You rock, Amy! We shall rule the world! Muhoahahaha 😉 Happy Friday (and thanks for the sidebar link too!)

  5. I THINK ZWINKY IS A THUMBS UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. I THINK ZWINKY IS A GREAT WEBSITE AND I LOVE HOW YOU CREATED IT AND I TRIED TO PLAY BUT IT WOULD NOT FUNCTION RIGHT BUT BY THE WAY IT LOOKED AND HOW IT LOOKED I THINK I WOULD GIVE IT A 10!!!! OH YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Hi Tori, I didn’t CREATE Zwinky or Zwinktopia AT ALL, I’m just reporting about it!

    I was wondering if you might like to share some of your experiences with it though…Did you create an avatar? Choose clothes, look, style, etc.? What’s your favorite part about it? how did you find out about it, that kind of thing.

    Also, several of my counter-marketing students were confused by seeing Zwinky on the Technorati site thinking it was mine…are you one of them (using a different name online?)

    If so, feel free to ping me at my personal e-mail directly: [email protected] ok? I’d love to get some kids’ comments and dialogue going…:-)

  8. “there is no age verification process and Zwinktopia does not filter sexually explicit comments.” That is what you said. I wasn’t allowed on zwinky bacause I was only 12. I am confuzed because you said: “there is no age verification process.” Doesn’t that mean all ages can join. Or did I miss understand?
    Respectfully,
    Amber

  9. Hi Amber, “no age verification process” does not mean that all ages can join. It means that they take you at your word that you agree to their site’s terms…(Zwinky/Zwinktopia requires you to be 13 or older)

    In other words, if you SAY you’re the right age, they don’t have a ‘verification’ process for checks & balances, so younger kids have been bluffing the system and ending up in chat rooms “out of their league” with older kids.

    Specifically, here’s what their terms say, “You must be 13 years of age or older to install or to use the MyWebSearch toolbar. If you are not yet 13, do not download the MyWebSearch toolbar.—If you are at least 13 but not yet 18 years of age, please have your parents or legal guardian review this END USER LICENSE TERMS/PRIVACY POLICY/TERMS OF SERVICES with you, discuss any questions you might have, and give you their permission to install and use the MyWebSearch toolbar and associated features with both your and their full understanding of the rules. By using the MyWebSearch toolbar and associated features, you are telling us that you and your parents or guardian have agreed to this agreement.”

    Hope that helps clarify???? Best, Amy

    Once again, here’s Izzy’s great list of virtual worlds for TWEENS (12 is fine!) you might want to check out:
    http://izzyneis.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/worthy-tween-sites

    And for internet safety tips/social media tips: BlogSafety.com

  10. I cant sign up because of the age required if that is the case what we will write in the year because i am so excited to join but i cant. Can you help me…..

    Sincerly yours,
    Mariel

  11. Mariel, like I mentioned to Amber above, Zwinky is NOT for under 13, (and I did NOT create it) It simply pops on the search engine for Technorati when you search Shaping Youth, so many younger kids (and our school/lab students!) think it’s part of Shaping Youth, but it’s not!

    Check these sites for virtual worlds you CAN enter and avatars you CAN create for yourself…They’re all ‘safe sites’, ok?
    http://izzyneis.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/worthy-tween-sites

    If you bluff the age for Zwinky, you might end up in Zwinktopia with all kinds of inappropriate chat, so stay on the safer sites for now, ‘k? –Amy

  12. i want a zwinky

  13. Adding this link to Totally Wired’s deconstruction of Zwinky/Zwinktopia, sites for teens which also references Izzy Neis and her round-up of suggested ‘safe sites’ for tweens:
    http://totallywired.ypulse.com/archives/2007/08/just_because_a_website_looks_l_1.php

    Here’s an out-take from Anastasia Goodstein’s blog:
    “I’m not saying the owners and operators of sites for teens 13 and up (where teens are their primary audience) aren’t doing what they can to make their sites safe. But it’s easier to put a lot more disclaimers out there when you have a site where 14 year olds can interact with 25 year olds on the same service. And, when you have millions of users like MySpace or Facebook uploading thousands of photos and videos or posting blog entries every hour of every day, you just can’t screen it all.

    What’s confusing for a lot of parents are the sites that look like they are for kids but really aren’t. A lot of these virtual worlds use avatars that look like they would be popular with younger children and tweens. Sites like Zwinktopia, Gaia Online, WeeWorld, IMVU and Habbo Hotel. Parents: These sites are for teens 13 and up. You can find this out by reading the site’s privacy policy. Every site has a privacy policy — you can usually find it in a text link at the very bottom of the web page. It’s a lot of legalese and disclaimers, but it will say whether the site is for teens 13 and up, and if it does allow kids under 13, it will talk about the need to get your permission before they can collect your child’s personal information. The media might refer to the sites I listed as “tween sites,” but they are really teen sites. Part of being a totally wired parent means doing your own investigation (by clicking the site’s privacy policy) to make sure a site your child may be attracted to (because of how it looks) is really appropriate for them to hang out on.”

    GREAT reminders for all…

    And to Julia, and all the others above that are Zwinky wannabes, I can only reiterate that Zwinktopia did an incredible marketing job on this…and kids as young as 4th grade are trying to bluff their way on with ZERO media literacy. Please DON’T…”What to know before you go” should be this…It’s NOT for tweens it’s for TEENS. The chat can be incredibly provocative (even rude) with very questionable moderation in terms of what we’ve witnessed so far…(some of these thought bubbles are NOT appropriate on ANY site, 13+ or not!) Anyway, I know it’s fun to do the dress up part…but check Izzy’s list…I trust her moderation quality control picks…Here’s the link again:

    http://izzyneis.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/worthy-tween-sites

  14. I have went i think to all the places that i can go to find how to get ore zbucks faster if you dont have a card? that is my question. i would lov eif you help me thank you very much.

  15. how do you get money on a zwink card without using real money

  16. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!! Zwinky is, like, the absolute best!!I still perfer Gaia however.

  17. Well, c’mon then, Jenny…’give.’ What’s the scoop?

    Why is Gaia better? And what’s Zwinky got that you love so much…Do tell! 🙂

    Our tween/teen testers would love to hear!!! (and yes, they love Zwinky too…but I reiterate, it’s NOT for young kids, nor are any of the VW/unmoderated chat rooms that get a bit dicey) Media literacy is the hot ticket here…

  18. HI

  19. HI I JUST WANTED TO TELL U THAT IM 14 YEARS OLD AND I WANT TO CHAT

  20. Hi Ray, are you chatting on Zwinktopia’s site? If so, I’d love to hear your take on things…and how it’s going in that world…our teen team hasn’t been ‘in-world’ for awhile…

    We’ve been exploring some new virtual worlds with cool content like Zookazoo.com, Dizzywood.com, and HulalaGirls.com all ‘green’ fun eco sites with meaningful messages and colorful critters. Best, Amy

  21. Hey people! i have a question, i downloaded zwinky on my toolbar right but now when i try to log onto my zwinkytopia, it says chkdsk utility error and i dont know what to do any help here?

  22. will life ever be normal after my divorce

  23. I think Zwinky is a breeding ground for child predators. I logged in as my son and was surprised to meet my son’s g/f! There is absolutely no filtering of any messaging, making this an unacceptable game for the 13 – 15 yr. olds. Why expose our kids to this before their really ready to understand what’s going on? Why are almost all of the female wardrob choices slutty? Hmmm…. My son won’t ever play this game again and I’m glad I monitor what my children to while on-line. Hope this helps other parents! Where are more games like runescape? Runescape filters almost all inappropriate text and focuses more on the challange of the game, as they spent way more time on Reasearch and Dev to make a well rounded, interactive game.

  24. Hi Sarah, thanks for your input…yes, we’ve all concurred it’s NOT for under 13 at all, and even over 13 has trashmouth and sass talk galore…In fact, we’re asking Izzy Neis to do a full post for us about ‘moderation’ and ‘filtered messaging’ in online chat rooms (what makes a decent site, what is an ‘anything goes’ caveat emptor site, how can you tell by a quick visit, etc.) to help both parents AND teens.

    Don’t miss Izzy’s list of worthy tween sites here: http://izzyneis.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/worthy-tween-sites

    And for internet safety tips/social media tips:
    http://www.ConnectSafely.com

  25. Also, wanted to add these distilled social web tips and 2.0 mythbusters from the same site…good for teens AND parents:

    http://www.connectsafely.org/code/code/

    Pretty thorough, too…

  26. WOW THIS SEEM LIKE THE ONE PLACE I FILL LIKE I HAVE SOME PRIVES SO I SAY THANK YOU

  27. Hi Betty…not sure who you’re thanking or why, as we’re just reporting about Zwinktopia, not involved with it????

  28. i like zwinky i tried even dough i am 101/2 well my mom found me on zwinky she would dress mine but it aen’t as fun as weeworld well at least i don’t go on imvu and zwinky but do go to weeworld and gagia

  29. but my 11 year old cusion does but she watches r rated movies like child’s play with that evil doll but i wat ch simpons and (not very offen) futuramma ,familly guy at my dads

  30. Katie, your mom should be with you at all times on any site that’s not for tweens 8-12, as the chat and filters aren’t moderated the same way.

    Your cousin may ‘think’ she’s old enough and being ‘edgy’ with jumping the rating system, but I did that once when I was young (it was a vampire movie!) and I STILL sleep snuggle the sheet over my neck to this DAY!

    These things have a lasting effect in our brains…and nightmares and visuals ‘stick’ so please help your cousin out by finding age appropriate/fun stuff instead???

    Izzy has a TON of fun links to sites for kids with games and dress up avatars and chat that are MUCH more appropo!

    Have you tried Hulala Girls yet??? We need some tween teams in there to give us feedback so if you feel like trying it, give it a go and I’ll interview you about it! Just ping me on the blog anytime!! 🙂 best, Amy

  31. gabriella says:

    WOW!!!!!! Thank u sooo much for making Zwinktopia where teens can talk to each other privately!!!

    Gabby from Chico High!!!

  32. Gabriella…we are NOT affiliated with Zwinktopia at all…Just reporting on it, to clarify!! (see #9, #11, #29, etc.) Be safe with your chats, high school or not…

    Check out http://www.ConnectSafely.org

  33. well, I think these websites are cool and fun too, but there are always going to be bad people out there, so if you are in a bad situation walk away and report it to the mods! I run the website http://www.cliquebuzz.weebly.com and try to keep it as safe as possible, I have access to every conversation on the chat box and the virtual world on my site! I am 12 and I want to make a safe and cool enviorment for girls and boys my age! I can also ban and kick out people that say or do things I don’t think is apropriate. I want to keep my site and userers as safe as posssible. So check my site out!

  34. helloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

  35. They should lower the age to make a zwinky acount to 12 and older,cause us 12 year olds just lie about our age and make one.

  36. Jyair, You bring up a solid point…I work with kids of all ages and am amazed at how easy it is to just ‘lie’ and re-enter the site…

    But age verification is meant to protect young kids (particularly where ‘chat’ is involved and older teens and adults are using the same site) in something called the COPPA legislation (Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act) And even though some 12 year olds are very internet safe and savvy, other ones don’t know how to use safe chat wisely…

    I wish there were a way to get kids ‘certified’ in some way so that those who know what they’re doing have a ‘pass’ to use certain sites…

    What do you think about that idea?

    Other kids have suggested teaching internet safety in school since so many kids are ‘faking’ to get onto social media sites…
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Ads Get Lost in The Fray, REVERB Rocks The Eco-Concert Scene =-.

  37. Zwinky is definitely a haven for child predators. My daughter just fell prey to one such predator who immediately began asking her if she knew how to turn guys on and requesting that she send him naked photos of herself (while refusing to send photos of himself of course). Please DO NOT allow your children to play on this website! And yes, I have reported him to the authorities!

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