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Togetherville – safe social networking for kids

Another social network for kids made its debut this week as Togetherville entered an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Described as "a new type of online community for families whose kids are too young for Facebook", Togetherville offers games, videos and a "neighborhood" where kids can interact with people they know in real life. The site will eventually incorporate paid content and games, but for now, access is free and the site features no advertising.

The site's founder, Mandeep Singh Dhillon, is clearly positioning Togetherville as a Facebook for kids, an approach adopted by numerous other web sites as they try to break into the potentially lucrative but elusive pre-tween market. However, Togetherville goes one step further: it specifically ties itself to Facebook by requiring that every parent who signs up on behalf of their child must have a Facebook account.

This curious move closes the door to millions of kids whose parents don't have and don't want a Facebook account. The site suggests that Togetherville will eventually be available for non-Facebook users but doesn't give any indication of when that might be.

The Facebook connection is restrictive in many other ways. Only parents are allowed to invite friends onto Togetherville, which they can do through their Facebook account or via e-mail. But as most parents are unlikely to find many 6-10 year-olds among their Facebook friends or in their e-mail address books, this seems an odd way to try and populate a child's neighborhood.

Kids can suggest their own friends to invite but this request is routed back to the parent, who then has to send an e-mail to the friend or, more likely, the friend's parents. This convoluted process clearly adds a layer of safety on a site where kids are allowed to use their own names and identities but it will certainly be a roadblock for youngsters used to building a quick buddy list by themselves on sites like Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters.

Unfortunately, the experience for kids on Togetherville is very limited. There are currently 5 craft activities and about 30 games to play. There is also an eclectic mix of nearly 3,000 pre-selected videos, ranging from classic YouTube-style stunts to favorite Disney channel episodes. (The video selection was clearly put together by a hockey fan – there are also dozens of NHL game highlights!)

The social networking experience is also limited. Kids can send "gifts", which consist of emoticons and other symbols, to neighborhood friends, or they can send "quips", such as Singling makes me happy! or Homework is evil, which are selected from a pre-populated list. Kids can also add comments on other areas of the site and see other kids' comments but there is no way to contact kids directly unless they are in your neighborhood.

The site is described as being in "public beta", which means they are still ironing out some of the kinks. Navigation is a little clunky and some links aren't working. The only way out of some games and video selections is to hit the back button, which throws you back to one of the main menus.

Togetherville is backed by some big names from the Silicon Valley VC market and has mounted an impressive PR campaign at launch. The press releases make much of the fact that kids under 13 are signing up for Facebook and Togetherville supposedly offers those kids – and their parents – a safer environment in which to practice their social networking skills.

While there are undoubtedly numerous under-13s that are on Facebook with or without their parents' permission, the majority are almost certainly in the tween-age category and far beyond what Togetherville has to offer. For the 6-10 age group, which is Togetherville's target market, the Facebook sign-up restriction will undoubtedly be an issue but the lack of compelling content may prove to be an even bigger problem.

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