Disney just acquired Togetherville, a social network site for kids that is linked with Facebook. If the parents have a Facebook account, they can create a Togetherville account for their kid. It is interesting that they used Facebook as an authentication measure because Facebook technically does not have any formal means of adult authentication. Hopefully, Disney will quickly realize these problems and create a sounder measure, such as credit card authentication. This would make it easier for Disney not only to ensure security, but also use that credit card information as the base card for future microtransactions that the child may make. For example, the parent could create a “stipend” of virtual coins for the child with real money, which can be a very nice cash cow. One paper (under review) I wrote with my colleague EK Na looks at the pattern of virtual item purchase in an SNS for kids and it shows that social factors strongly contribute to spending of real money.
The acquisition of Togetherville was somewhat surprising from my standpoint because unlike other social network sites for children- which veer more towards 3D virtual environments (e.g., Club Penguin, Habbo hotel)- Togetherville is very two dimensional. It seems almost like a “backward” trend and will be interesting to see how the power of Disney affects future child SNS design. I personally think the best way would be to combine the two dimensional elements with the 3D virtual environment. Kids, especially girls, really enjoy visual customization, and some of the research I’ve done shows that visualization of space is strongly related with social interaction, showing different patterns from that of avatar customization (This article is also under review, sigh). However, if the system is entirely 3D, it may not be very accessible for children with slower Internet connection speeds.
One of my current research projects seeks to look at psychological constructs, friendship, and visual customization in 3D virtual worlds for kids. Given that the research involves kids, I don’t know if IRB will approve the project in time for my dissertation. The bright side is that IRB and slow academic publishing process really encourages multi-tasking. The down side is that the projects start piling on top of one another.