The concept of a social network for kids is like the kid's table at Thanksgiving: it's ultimately just an excuse to get the kids out of the way for a while so that the grown-ups can talk without having to self-censor (anyone with a school-age child knows the relief of finally being able to have a conversation where you can say the word "stupid" with impunity).
When it comes to the Web, the online equivalent of the grown-ups' table is, of course, Facebook, which is where the kids want to be, but they know that until they turn 13 (and stop screaming when they hear the word "stupid"), they're stuck at the kids' table.
Disney was naturally one of the early pioneers of online virtual worlds and games for kids, and on Thursday the company made its first foray into kid-friendly social media with its acquisition of Togetherville. Togetherville, a social network for kids aged 6-10, confirmed the acquisition with VatorNews, but declined to give specifics on the terms of the deal. Disney also confirmed the acquisition with the following statement:
“We can confirm that The Walt Disney Company has acquired Togetherville, a social online community for families and kids. Through a merger agreement, Togetherville is now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company reporting into Disney Interactive Media Group (DIMG).”
So what's different about the site? Like other social networks for kids (like Everloop), Togetherville puts the keys in parents' hands. Parents' create their child's social network from their own social graph, using Facebook Connect to add other adults' and their children. Adding new friends from outside the parent's social graph is also left up to the parent, who can screen potential new additions to their child's social network.
Unlike other sites, Togetherville takes a slightly more personal approach to kids' social networks by allowing kids to use their own pictures and information to connect with others, rather than avatars. The company says it does this because it recognizes that social networks are about personal relationships, and kids want those personal relationships just as much as anyone else. It seems like a refreshing angle to the often overly-sanitized world of kid-friendly products, but it still allows parents' to monitor every move their child makes, screen every message their child sends and receives, and so on. Even status updates are child-proofed: they're pre-written updates called "quips" that make general statements like "Yes, aced the test!" and "Who's going to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid?"
Will Disney be able to turn Togetherville into a successful social network for pre-tweens?
Let's look at a social network for kids that has seen alarming success: Club Penguin. It's a simple virtual world that is slowly leeching middle-class America dry by requiring kids to pay for memberships in order to participate fully in the site. And kids love it so much that parents' are funneling money into the site like nobody's business. (I have a six-year-old brother and every Christmas and birthday, all he asks for is another monthly Club Penguin membership card.)
What's the difference between Club Penguin and other social networks for kids? No adult supervision. In addition to being able to dress up your penguin and play games, you can also take your penguin avatar into one of the "rooms" and chat with other users, who revel in the parent-free zone and take advantage of the opportunity to talk about things they don't want to talk about in front of their parents, like dating and friend dramas.
Personally, I love the idea of safe social networks for kids. I tried desperately to switch my 11-year-old sister over to Everloop, and while she liked the games and clubs, it didn't stave off her craving for Facebook (she recently defied the all mighty Zuckerberg and created a Facebook profile despite being underage). When I spoke with Everloop CEO Hilary DeCesare, she noted that as kids get older, they tend to use Everloop and Facebook concurrently, as the two offer different things.
So will Disney see success with Togetherville? Ultimately, kids want the same things adults want out of their social networks. They want freedom of expression and they want to expand their social graphs through the same kinds of serendipitous connections adults experience on Facebook. If Disney can pull that off with Togetherville, more power to it.
Image source: Flickr.com (Note: the child in this picture is not surfing Facebook, but rather appears to be creating a word document.)