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Friday, May 08, 2009

Undercover Mom in Stardoll, Part 3: A+ for creativity

By Sharon Duke Estroff

As I’ve devoted my last two posts to illuminating the darker sides of Stardoll, I’m going to dedicate today’s entry to spotlighting what I consider to be the site’s crowning glory: its design center.

A few weeks back, while investigating Club Penguin, I described my experience in the pizza parlor, where dozens of kids/penguins pretending to be waiters and waitresses took my order for food that was never delivered. At first, I’d found the scene to be a charming example of virtual pretend play but, the more time I spent in there, the less charming it seemed to be.

When I was a kid, playing “restaurant” meant creating something out of nothing – taking a cardboard box and turning it into an elegantly set table; turning inanimate dolls and stuffed animals into lively customers; creating our own recipes out of random ingredients we’d swiped from the kitchen. I didn't see anything of the sort taking place on Club Penguin. Graphic designers - not kids' imaginations - built the pizzeria, where the extent of children's imaginary play was asking a roomful of already animated penguins what they wanted to eat – and leaving them virtually to starve at the table.

In the Stardoll design center, the scene is quite different. Children can create their own fabrics, choosing from dozens of colors and decorative shapes and adjusting for the size and repetition of the print. They can then use that custom fabric to sew tablecloths, curtains, and rugs, even uniforms for their restaurant staff.

In the scenery design area, kids can create backdrops - themes span from a Parisian café to a creepy castle dungeon - and jazz up the interior with kitschy furniture and accessories (some of these perks require a paid Super Star membership). As in most virtual worlds, including Club Penguin, Stardoll players can also decorate their home spaces with items they’ve “purchased” using the site’s currency.

Another clever Stardoll creative activity is the “Print Your Tee” concept. Kids can select from a dozen or so shirt styles in a rainbow of colors, and personalize them with decorative designs and self-created slogans. With the help of a credit card, the tee can be catapulted across the digital divide and arrive at the real world front door several days later. Yes, it's a ruthless money-making ploy, but a brilliant one, don't you think? Besides, what aspiring designer wouldn’t thrill to the chance to strut her own designs on the school playground? [I am slightly unsettled by the “maternity” shirt style choice, as Stardoll says most of its clientele are girls 7-17.]

Another feather in Stardoll's hat is the personal album feature, which allows kids to compile a portfolio of their design work. In addition to displaying images of their work (some of which require a Super Star membership to save and post), the album also offers creative-writing opps, enabling children to add captions and storylines to their designs.

So if I were to sum up my stint in Stardoll, I’d have to call it a blend of parenting pros and cons - a fast-moving, materialistic, slightly-slutty, anorexic-ish virtual world, where imagination abounds and the potential for creative expression in children is far greater than anything I’ve seen in my undercover travels.


  • Design your Stardoll's environment too
  • Design your own fabric (for apparel or décor)
  • Sewing is part of clothing design
  • Virtual but (to users) very real Design Center
  • Design as well as writing opportunities, with the possibility of instant feedback from fellow designers
  • Stardoll users can also model their clothing designs in real life

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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  • Thursday, May 07, 2009

    Games' popularity: Computer-security tipping point?

    Online games and virtual worlds - more than social networking or any technology before it - could be where computer-security ed really hits home with users. Why? Because online games and worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life have whole economies in which users buy and sell virtual goods "to the tune of $1 billion a year" industry-wide, CNET reports, citing game security experts speaking at the RSA 2009 security conference in San Francisco recently. So it just may be true that money talks. Two examples they gave occurred in Second Life and WoW. In one hack created just to prove it could be done, a security expert figured out how to "filch Second Life users' virtual currency - which is directly convertible to US dollars - [and] ... credit card information and then use it to buy more of the currency to trade in." In WoW, a security expert wrote a bot (software code that automates certain actions and that's "almost universally prohibited" in games and worlds), which "allowed his character to stay safe from attack from the rear, while also luring in loot-bearing enemies to kill. Once killed, the enemies would be regenerated by the bot, allowing Hoglund's character to kill them and pick off all their loot over and over again, a process that netted him significant profit," according to CNET.

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    Gen F's workplace

    Not sure why, but this is the first reference I've seen to "Generation Facebook" - though it could be used interchangeably with "Gen Digital." But whatever they're called, but the point being made in this Wall Street Journal blog is that the people who've never known life without the Internet will be changing the workplace, which means the workplace will be very different for their younger siblings when they're ready to enter it - and on and on - parental and school "control" of social media notwithstanding. Baby boomers might call some of these 12 features "written into the social DNA of Generation F" subversive, but what's subversive now will soon be normative. You've got to read blogger Gary Hamel's descriptions of all of them, but some of the 12 are: "Intrinsic rewards matter most," "Users can veto most policy decisions," "Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it," "Resources get attracted, not allocated," "Intrinsic rewards matter most," and "Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed."

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    Wednesday, May 06, 2009

    100 million+ Spore creatures

    Timely news, in light of the very viral "pig sniffles" subject, as CNET put it: Thanks to the Spore Creature Creator there are now more than 100 million such creatures in the wild. And the Creature Creator launched less than a year ago, USATODAY's Game Hunters report. If you want to do your own fact checking, go to Sporepedia for the exact number.

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    Where 160-character texts (& tweets) come from

    A year ago, US cellphone users (not just teenaged ones, who sent a lot more) sent an average of 357 texts per month versus an average of 204 voice calls, the Los Angeles Times reports, but how did they arrive at 160 characters for the max length of text messages? Well, it was an interesting thought, research, and experimentation process that started with a guy in Bonn, Germany, named Friedhelm Hillebrand back in 1985, when "the guys who invented Twitter were probably still playing with Matchbox cars." Hillebrand was "chairman of the nonvoice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a group that sets standards for the majority of the global mobile market." That group decreed that "all cellular carriers and mobile phones ... must support the short messaging service (SMS)," the Times reports. Hillebrand, it adds, was also the man who discovered the pipe or channel for all those texts, "a secondary radio channel that already existed on mobile networks."

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    Tuesday, May 05, 2009

    The role of betrayal in sexting

    Well put: "A brokered trust leads to broken trust when those photos are sent into the ether," writes Ellen Goodman in a column about sexting in the Boston Globe. The vast majority of those naked photos are sent to romantic partners, experts say, with "a guy saying, 'You don't trust me? You won't send me a naked picture?'" And what happens later that can lead to serious psychological and legal trouble (the wider sharing of those photos) is often about betrayed trust. Little of this is new - photography (remember Polaroids at parties?), brokered and betrayed trust in relationships, sexism (betrayed girls get called sluts while the betrayer gets to go ruin someone else's reputation). What is new is the *extra* unintended exposure (party Polaroids could possibly be obtained, ripped up, and tossed). That exposure is mostly bad. Goodman led with the bad part - high-profile cases of teens being subjected to truly nasty peer behavior or overzealous prosecutors or both (Vermont, Utah, and Ohio are all trying to reduce the possibility of criminal charges for sexting, the Globe reports). But the one ray of light is that there's a national discussion about the need to "Trust but verify," adjust laws and apply them appropriately, and "raise the social penalty for being a certified creep."

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    Monday, May 04, 2009

    Texting sex education

    "Why do guys think it’s cool to sleep with a girl and tell their friends?" is one of the (easier) questions North Carolina teens have texted to the Birds and Bees Text Line, a project of the Durham-based Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina. "Within 24 hours, each will receive a cautious, nonjudgmental reply, texted directly to their cellphones, from a nameless, faceless adult at the Campaign," the New York Times reports. The answer - from staff member James Martin, 31, married and dad of a toddler - was: "Mostly it’s because they believe that having sex makes them cool. Most guys outgrow that phase." The Times cites epidemiologists and public health experts as saying that sex education in the classroom is "often ineffective or just insufficient," and North Carolina has the 9th-highest teen pregnancy rate in the US. Certainly, teens are much more engaged in education delivered through their cellphones! But of course the program is not without controversy (though the Campaign hasn't received complaints from parents yet) - some opposing organizations recommend that parents turn off texting altogether on their kids' phones so they can't access the hotline. Pls see the Times for details, info on other such programs in the US, and examples of much tougher questions, among them: "If I was raped when I was little and just had sex was it technically my first time when I was raped or when I recently had sex?" James Martin got it while getting ready for bed. "He read it and sat down abruptly. His wife asked what was wrong. He wrote three drafts. An hour later, he texted back: 'Your first time is whatever you make it. There is no ‘right’ answer: I believe your first time can be many things (good, bad, fun, embarrassing, wonderful) but it should never be nonconsensual. Your first time is the first time you choose to have sex, not when some horrible person forces you.'"

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    Ed campaign on sexting in Oz

    Not at all surprising (because what are borders or continents, where social technology's concerned), the New South Wales government is educating its teens about the risks of sexting too. "The government has produced a fact sheet for schools, parents and young people to warn about the possible lifetime consequences of the growing practice," the Sydney Morning Herald reports. The NSW minister of community services told the Morning Herald that her department "had received reports of girls as young as 13 sending sexually explicit images to their boyfriends' mobiles, which are then passed on to other friends." Like in the US, youth are being warned that the practice is illegal. Interestingly, there's nothing in either the article or the Community Services Department's Fact Sheet on Sexting about the risk to children of being convicted for producing, possessing, or distributing child pornography, as can happen in the US (though there are efforts in some US states to take criminal prosecution off the table). The NSW Fact Sheet refers to the risks of "public humiliation, cyberbullying, or even sexual assault." For US-style info on sexting, check out our tips at Meanwhile, the Australian federal government has appointed a Youth Advisory Group of 305 11-to-17-year-olds to "advise the Government on strategies to tackle online bullying," reports.

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