On Tuesday May 18, 2010, 11:30 pm EDT
Mandeep Singh Dhillon's son, Zoraver, learned how to take pictures of himself with his father's computer when he was four years old, and he immediately wanted to share the results with relatives online. Mr. Dhillon liked the idea of his son developing skills at an early age that he would use for a lifetime, but was also hesitant to let Zoraver loose on the open Internet. He began working on an alternative.
Three years later the result is Togetherville, a social networking site intended for use by children between the ages of six and 10 and their parents. It aims to keep children safe from cyberbullying and other online dangers while allowing them to become comfortable with online interaction. The site, which has been in private beta for several months, was opened to the public on Tuesday night.
Togetherville allows parents to build a social circle for their children based on their own collection of Facebook friends. The children can then interact with the children of their parents' friends, and specific adults that their parents have chosen, in a semi-private environment. The content on the site is curated, so children can play games, make art projects and watch or share videos, but everything they have access to has been vetted in advance, Mr. Dhillon said. Children can comment on their friends' posts directly through drop-down menus of preselected phrases. If a user wants to say something that is not on the list, he can submit a request that it be added.
Mr. Dhillon said this type of interaction helps children develop social skills that they can't get from virtual worlds like Club Penguin, which protect children by having them act only through anonymous avatars.
"We teach kids from a very early age, never let your identity be online, never let anyone know who you are, but we're teaching some bad things," he said. "Kids don't learn how to be accountable."
Mr. Dhillon said the site, which has about 10 employees, would not charge a subscription or carry advertising, and that it would rely at least in part on parents giving their children allowances to buy virtual merchandise. The business model is not entirely clear, said Ann Miura-Ko, a partner at Floodgate, the site's main investor. The site's market is a potentially lucrative one, though.
"Once you have parents and their children operating on the same system there are a lot of opportunities," Ms. Miura-Ko said. Floodgate was also an early investor in Twitter and Digg.
Mr. Dhillon is pushing Togetherville not just as a business but also as a social tool. He has enlisted the help of various people who work on online safety issues. Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, is one of those who has been advising Mr. Dhillon. He said that he thought the site could keep younger children off of Facebook, where they are more likely to find inappropriate content and are less protected from potentially harmful interactions with strangers or bullies.
But Vicky Rideout, who wrote a recent large-scale study of children's media use for the Kaiser Family Foundation, is skeptical of the claim that Togetherville will be a useful educational tool, saying there is no data to suggest a demand from children under 10 for more social media. She also dismissed the idea that children need an intermediary step toward unrestricted online networking.
"From the child's perspective, I'm not sure what the benefit is," she wrote in an e-mail message. "Believe me, kids will learn how to use technology and media when the time comes."