Dave Taylor has been involved with the online world since 1980 and
is recognized globally as an expert on both technical and business
issues. He has been published over a thousand times, launched four Internet-related
startup companies, has written twenty business and technical books and holds both an MBA and MS Ed.
He's a columnist for the Boulder Daily Camera and
Linux Journal and frequently appears
in other publications both online and in print.
Additionally, Dave maintains four weblogs:
The Business Blog at Intuitive.com,
Ask Dave Taylor,
Dave On Film,
Based in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, Dave is an award-winning speaker, sought after conference and workshop participant and
frequent guest on radio and podcast programs, as well as active member of
his community and busy single father to three children.
Welcome to Neopets' Neopia, 25 million strong
If you haven't popped over to the Neopets site, you should. It's an amazing online world, perfectly designed for younger children who are more interested in cute fun and adventures than the latest "shooter" game. Gamers would likely categorize Neopets as a "massively multiplayer online role playing game" (MMORPG) but then again, they'd probably all turn up their noses at this rather cloyingly cute and oh-so-Japanese online world.
Here are some facts about Neopets to whet your own appetite:
Neopets has 25 million members worldwide
Neopets is translated into 10 different languages
The Neopets site gets more than 2.5 billion pageviews per month
The average Neopet fan - Neopian in its lingo - spends over six hours per month on the site, making it one of the two or three "stickiest" sites on the entire Internet.
Neopia has a demographic that would explain why you probably haven't heard of it too: 80% of Neopians are under 18 and 40% of Neopians are under 13
How much does this make the company worth?
Cable and media conglomerate Viacom recently bought Neopets for $160 million (which seems darn low to me, actually, but that's another story).
The secret to Neopets success? It's darn cute, and it's a truly perfect venue for hawking products.
Consider this map of the main "market" area in Neopia:
Notice anything about that picture? Corporations sponsor certain key areas where members inevitably spend lots of time: There's a McDonalds, a Disney store, a "Cereal Adventure" where kids can go and watch commercials for General Mills cereals, and much more.
In a lot of ways, Web sites like Neopets really does represent the future of the Internet for children, online sites that offer entire worlds to explore and enjoy, but with produce placement, familiar logos and corporate messages throughout.
An example is "Pet Central", the main area where you manage your virtual pet or pets:
Beauty contests, feeding your pet, winning trophies, and even a separate page for each of the tens of millions of different Neopets in the world, plus a private email system, calendar of events and even, believe it or not, an inflation rate that varies slightly every day (today it's at 2.31%). It really is a whole new world and while it's reassuringly complex for children to learn about things like inflation, it's also disturbing that commercial enterprises have their tendrils so deeply intertwined into Neopia.
This is definitely not something that I'd spend time with, but my kids would unquestionably find this completely engrossing.
Neopia also has its own currency, the NeoPoints, and it seems likely that there's a crossover into real currency and real financial transactions too, for those kids who really want to get ahead. After all, if you're spending a zillion hours playing games and earning NP, why not offer to donate a few thousand to someone else if they Paypal you $20?
When children earn "money" by taking marketing surveys, watching TV commercials on their computers, and playing logo-heavy games it's no surprise that media critics are appalled by Neopia. It's even more distressing to learn that almost 500,000 Neopets members are less than eight years old, an age group that's darn susceptible to the type of aggressive marketing that is rife on the site.
I also find it most disturbing, an apparently innocent site that zealously promotes products like "Lucky Charms" and businesses like McDonalds to millions of children whose parents probably think it's all cute, harmless fun. I think that we'd have happier, healthier kids if they weren't eating this sort of junk food but were instead having their parents help teach them the value of quality food that isn't processed and isn't full of "natural flavorings" and worse. But that's a discussion you're more likely to find on my Attachment Parenting Blog anyway.
Wondering about the people behind Neopia and how kid-friendly they are? Here's a very telling quote from WIRED magazine's recent writeup of Neopets:
"[Neopets boss Doug] Dohring didn't respond to outcries of Neopians who lost their shirts on the Neodaq, a stock market in which all members can invest their NeoPoints. "Around the time of the Enron scandal, we bankrupted three of those companies just for the hell of it," he says. The Neopians weren't amused. "They were saying, 'This is no fair!'" he recalls with a laugh. "But, hey, stuff happens in the world."
The Web site is also just the tip of the iceberg with this business too. There are trading cards, stuffed animals, movies, a TV series, and much more, all spinning out of this 25 million member world. Pop over to eBay and search for "neopets" and you'll see what I mean.
One thing's for sure: if you want to learn about the future of the 'net for the younger set, Neopets.com is an important place to start. It's a whole 'nother world, and it's doubtless inspiring a raft of competitors, many of which will likely be even more appalling to adult eyes and thrilling to young ones.
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