My soon-to-be-10-year-old nephew took me on a tour of Webkinz, today – the hottest thing since, well, the last hottest thing, for kids from 4 to
12. 14. Webkinz.com combines the kid appeal of Neopets with a kid-friendly mashup of MySpace and Second Life.
Take a look at it and you’ll begin to realize how soon the kindergarten through junior high generation will leapfrog over adults in their ability to use the Internet, their understanding of e-commerce, their acceptance of online community, and the idea that one’s social life can be centered in a virtual world.
Publishers, this is how kids will learn instead of with already obsolete text books. Fashion, music, art and commerce online will be as natural a part of young digital native’s lives as TV was to baby boomers. The Internet really has changed everything. And we sure live in interesting times.
Webkinz is the brain-child of family-owned Ganz, a Canadian gift wholesaler. It combines off-line sales with online multi-media, that’s feature-rich, ever-changing, and fun — kind of like NeoPets on steroids. And it passed one million members during the summer – entirely through kids’ word of mouth. Ad budget: zero.
Webkinz are adorable stuffed animals (limited edition, a la Beanie Babies) that are sold with a secret code on their foot that gives kids access to an online world where the toys’ avatar versions can chat with other members, play games, decorate their homes, and change their clothes.
Kids have to keep their Webkinz well-fed, rested and exercised, although they don’t die like neglected NeoPets. They win KinzCash by playing games and can use it to buy things for their Webkinz.
There are 41 versions of Webkinz, two retired and selling briskly on e-Bay, and 25 smaller Lil’Kinz. My niece and nephew each own several, as do all of their friends.
Webkinz cost about $10. Lil’ Kinz are $7.50. But you can’t get them. “You put your name on a list,” my sister says. “The store gets them in and they call you. You throw the kids in the car and race to the store. And they’re already gone.”
Kids have posted scores of Webkinz videos on YouTube, some made with the movie sutdio within the site, which also includes a store, an arcade, a clinic where you find out if you are taking good enough care of your avatars, and a whole array of other features that eat time.
Safety is Webkinz’ biggest parental appeal, and the site says that “chat is constructed, so users can’t type in whatever they want. Nothing inappropriate can be said, and there is no way to exchange any personal information.”
Besides teaching children to type, it helps them learn reading, spelling, logical thinking and, perhaps also kiddy gambling. But, the FAQs maintain, “While the Wishing Well and Wheel of WOW use visual metaphors that are sometimes associated with gambling, there is no gambling involved.”
I’ll tell you one thing I’d gamble on: a Ganz public offering.