I Have Seen the Future, and It’s Fluffy

It is one thing to look at how adults are using media right now. It is another to look at the younger generation, to understand their lifestyle and expectations, and use this information to think about the future of media consumption.

I am talking, of course, about Webkinz.

Webkinz are those Beanie-Baby-like stuffed animals, which also gives you a virtual version of your little animal that you can use in the online Webkinz virtual world. When you buy a Webkinz, this is what happens:

"When a user adopts their first Webkinz pet, they are given basic items such as a room, a welcome balloon, a food item, a piece of furniture for their pet, and 2000 in Kinzcash."

Okay, so let’s take this sentence apart:

  • Your child is now called a "user."
  • You are given extra free stuff! Not only that, but money!
  • An expectation is set that this is just the beginning. You can now interact with your new pet, and with others as well.

Let’s move on:

"Each pet has levels of happiness, health, and hunger that decrease as time is spent with that Webkinz."

I have always found this aspect of digital pets disturbing – the guilt must be overwhelming. If you don’t play with your new toy, IT GETS SICK OR DIES!

And here is the topper:

"Much of the gameplay involves the making and spending of Kinzcash."

The only thing missing is putting the child in a small gray cubicle. But don’t worry, this is what the experts say:

"For the most part, experts say, the Web site helps children develop their computer skills, learn about responsibility, and enjoy a sense of being connected in a kid-safe environment."

Okay, so can we learn from Webkinz?

Will a younger generation, one who is raised on "interactive" toys, "interactive" communities (such as MySpace and Facebook), and interactive communications (cell phones, texting, instant messanger) have different expectations for their news and information sources when they get older?

The interesting aspect of digitization is not just how people access and use the information – but how they network with others and create their own content. In the case of Webkinz, the manufacturer fully understands the value of buying a real-world object, and giving the child something that they can hug.

But it doesn’t just stop there. How much more profitable is a customer who doesn’t simply purchase a product – but one who logs onto a brand’s website everyday to interact with that product, and build relationships with other customers? Is the plush animal simply a gimmick to build an online community?

Now, these are all very interesting questions, but I have to go now. If I don’t feed my virtual pet, it gets mad at me.

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