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Disney Acquires Togetherville: Smart, and Maybe Creepy

Friday, February 25, 2011

Yesterday, Disney acquired Togetherville, a social networking site for 6-10 year olds. At first blush, this looks like simply another grab for internet real estate and infrastructure, much like their aquisition of Club Penguin, which has never made much sense to me after their controversial decision a few years back to close their Virtual Magic Kingdom. (My husband wants to know: If Disney closes Togetherville in a couple years, are they prepared for the hordes of angry, angsty 10-year-olds?)

But here's what makes Togetherville special: It integrates seamlessly with Facebook, and replicates the "real-world" social interactions that parents have every day regarding their children's social connections. From Bloomberg:

"Togetherville is meant for children aged 6 to 10 and allows them to interact with the children of their parents' friends on Facebook. They can play games, watch videos, send pre-selected messages to their friends or have their comments vetted before being published."


Now, letting parents control their kids' online interactions is nothing new. I remember 7-8 years ago, faxing a form to NeoPets that allowed my child to send messages to other NeoPets users, without being restricted to the pre-selected phrases that the site made available. (Because yeah, no matter how hard the site designers try, those pre-selected phrases are nothing but lame.)

But what's new here, to the best of my knowledge, is the seamless integration with Facebook, not only allowing parents to approve "friending" within the system, but also by integrating this with a system many parents already have. From the Togetherville FAQ:

"We've intentionally built Togetherville to only allow trusted people the parent knows to connect and interact with a child. Only those people within a parent's social network who also have the Togetherville application - and their child(ren) - can request to connect to a child. Because of these protective layers, it's impossible for an anonymous or unknown person to access a child in Togetherville."

When my son was younger, I made it a habit to join the various sites he'd frequent. (I still feel kinda bad about abandoning my cute little NeoPets, but I doubt anybody would've picked them up from the Pound anyway, and a couple years ago I forgot to keep paying my Mountain Lodge bills.) Knowing the lay of the land on these sites, and the nature of the interactions, helped me not only understand what the (real or imagined) dangers could be, but also gave us something fun to chat about over dinner ("Did you see today's Daily Double on Ice Cream Machine?"). I also told him that his membership in any of those site was contingent on the fact that, at any time, I could ask him to log in and show me any messages he'd sent and received. (Sure, I know these are falliable safeguards, but so are almost any other controls a parent can put in place.) I think I would have welcomed a site like Togetherville, where I could monitor my child's activities in a more pro-active way.

I do hope, though, that parents won't think that monitoring their kids' online activities through a Facebook app is enough. I'm not talking about network nanny software, though; I've worked in IT long enough to know how easily such things are worked around. What I mean is just plain old conversations. Talking to kids about who their friends are, about what they've seen online, about what they think is fun, about what confuses them. Sooner or later, even with content-blocking firewalls in place, just about every kid is gonna stumble across something their parents don't want them to see. (After all, didn't that happen to kids even before the interwebs?)

I'm also a little creeped out by the implications of this much personal information going into the proprietary databases of Facebook and Togetherville. We've already sunk a whole lotta personal data in there, both by directly entering it or by demonstrating who we are by our actions (which are far easier to data-mine than we might like).

But, as a business aquisition, Togetherville makes a whole lot of sense. Not only will Togetherville most likely draw a large user base (bringing those eyeballs Disney is always hungry for), but future integration with other Disney properties could be both amazingly convenient, and frighteningly creepy. Remember that rumor some time back that characters in the park might someday remember your name and your number of previous visits, based on data stored in a specialized wrist band? Well, if this were integrated with Togetherville and Facebook, Mickey might also happen to know that you hit a new high score yesterday on Pixel Purge, and that your Dad's sciatica has been acting up. 

Not sure I'm comfortable with that future, but it sure does sound profitable.