Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Wee Generation

This week I visited WeeWorld, an online make-your-own-avatar community that seems to be targeted at female tweens, much like the more explicitly educationally oriented Whyville. In fact, just today, The Independent included WeeWorld in its list of potentially subversive sites that "are getting girls as young as six hooked on social networking." As someone who considers herself a relatively responsible digital parent, I must say I'm tired of the rhetoric of the mainstream media that continues to use the language of addiction to characterize social networking sites. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also say that the CEO of WeeWorld is Celia Francis, pictured above, who at one time was my next-door neighbor in the Harvard dorms and is now a Facebook friend.

WeeWorld has two obvious advantages over Whyville: 1) It is designed for a fluid user experience in connecting to pre-existing social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook and 2) Your avatar appearance immediately presents a more polished, organic whole, which might also reflect a particularly popular contemporary Internet aesthetic that I would argue is also seen in the Nintendo Mii application for the Wii game system. Visitors to WeeWorld can play games as their avatars, such as their simplified version of Dance Dance Revolution as a non-exergame, Disco Fever.

WeeWorld certainly appeals to the same part of the Zeitgeist for modular makeovers with an aesthetic that is simultaneously cartoonish and faithfully representational. As someone who follows intellectual property issues, I was interested to learn about the company's copyright battle with Nintendo, which Francis explains from her company's perspective here.

(For those who missed it, the Mii craze swept blogs and YouTube videos a little while ago. Homages to fan culture were particularly popular, with armies of mini-Mii s assembled from copies of reality TV-type celebrities minted from shows like American Idol and Lost. There are several Mii-making tutorials now available online, like this Mii How-To Guide, just as there are tons of online videos with stages of Photoshop retouching, like "playboy evolution made by photoshop" or the "Photoshopped to kill" video from Argentina.)

Although I liked the fact that I could inhabit WeeWorld as a bearded lady dressed only in fig leaves, I still must admit that I found WeeWorld a little constraining, even if as Francis points out there are more potential avatar permutations available than there are people on the planet. Michele White has argued in The Body and the Screen that when more user-generated content is permitted in avatar creation, there are also more interesting conflicts possible over property, ownership, artistic license, and the social contract itself. Even if WeeWorld attempts to respond to current events with items like their possibly crass virtual Virginia Tech t-shirt, it's not really participatory culture at the level of digital design. Of course, some people prefer having a more limited number of choices in creating their virtual character and more instructions for facilitating social networking. Nonetheless, I thought that there were more kinds of emergent behavior possible in Whyville than there were in WeeWorld, as the strange commerce in avatar face parts in Whyville shows.

Despite some androgynous models, there were certainly forms of gender regulation in play. After an odd experience with the "belly" feature, which only allows for skeletal and beer belly extremes, I was reminded of the observations of One Jewish Dyke about her issues with "plus-sized" Yahoo avatars. It felt like the ideology of marketers was still shaping the online discourse.

In contrast, Whyville feels much more like a true virtual world in which strangers might either go by on the street or offer themselves for orientation services. Even if WeeWorld supports chat features in Skype and IM, it still lacks what Alison McMahan calls "perceptual realism" and "social realism." For me, the in-your-face existence of strangers is an important and under-written-about component of virtual worlds that gets at how people regulate behavior when they must interact with people who aren't part of any kinship structure. I would also claim that it is a critical part of ultimately creating legal, social, and political realities there. Even if, in places like Second Life, it creates interactive awkwardness while parties figure out the rules for social and physical interaction, as this YouTube video satirizes.

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Blogger Lupton said...

My family pursues a pretty laissez fair internet policy. I figure if I'm on the computer all day, why should the kids be subjected to quotas? Still, I could not get my son Eliot, age 7, off the internet yesterday. He was home from camp (Fourth of July), and he chose going to the grocery store with Mommy over Ratatouille with his sisters because it meant more monitor time. He missed our barbeque completely, coming down for a cold hot dog in time to go to the fireworks. (At least he attended these!). His game of choice is Disney's Toontown -- nothing so sophisticated as Whyville or Weeworld. Maybe I can get him interested in Mii -- so that he'll play the Wii more often, which at least gets him off his butt!

7:10 AM  
Blogger jim said...


As the founder and owner of Whyville, thought I would comment on your post.

First, of course, social networking sites aren't "hooking girls on social networking", they simply reflect the fact that establishing social connections and a social persona is a fundamental part of the natural development of tweens.

Second, the notion that kids are now on the Internet instead of playing outside is obviously absurd. Kids are on the internet instead of being on the phone or (passively) watching TV. So, a reasonable argument can be made that participating in an (active) interactive media is an improvement over what our generation was doing. That said, we have activities in Whyville specifically designed to get kids off the computer and outside.

third, adults often assume, incorrectly, that kids use the Internet the way adults do, to be anonymous. Turns out that isn't the case, most of the friends kids have in Whyville are also their friends in school. So, Whyville enhances and extends real world social networking, adding a substantial educational component, including education in how to be safe on the Internet.

that said, there is, in our opinion, a real opportunity for marketers to take advantage of kids through these kinds of sites. Whyville, as you note, is explicitly educational -- and was launched to serve a higher purpose than selling kids stuffed toys or food that isn't good for them. We are pleased that, even without the media advantages of some of these sites, whyville is approaching 2.5 million registered users.

And, just to correct a point - Whyville was explicitly not set up for young girls, although young girls make up 2/3rds of our users. In fact, we are happy to have adults visit Whyville too. The US National Science Foundation recently published a study on why so many young girls like Whyville -- the results are interesting (one answer is that whyville is challanging and safe, and its "ok to be smart" in whyville).

Finally, while it might make marketing sense to have a smooth connection to sites like myspace and facebook -- we are concerned about the unregulated nature of these sites. We prefer to have kids stay in Whyville, where we have more control over what goes on -

Thanks again, however, for addressing these issues - they are important.

Jim Bower
CEO Numedeon Inc.
Founders of Whyville.net

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whyville is awesome! Its so cool, I've learned tons of things thta helped me out in school from there! Thanks for making whyville Jim!

A Very Dedicated Whyvillian

8:05 AM  

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