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It's a whole new world for Zwinky
(Original publication: November 11, 2007)

WHITE PLAINS

Part of John Park's job is reading young minds. And Park thinks he's finally figured out what will fascinate kids.

"If it doesn't make sense to us it's probably going to work," Park said, laughing.

Park, 38, an executive vice president and general manager with IAC/InterActiveCorp., tycoon Barry Diller's giant Internet company, is part of a team that came up with Zwinky, a Web site that has become a popular hangout for kids 13 to 17 years old. The site, at www.zwinky.com, allows users to create cartoon-like characters in their own likeness and then guide those characters through life in a fantasy place known as Zwinktopia.

The site, which went live in April 2006, has 10.8 million registered users and logged 23.3 million visits in September, according to comScore Networks Inc.

Built and operated by IAC's consumer applications and portals group, which employs 126 people at offices in downtown White Plains, Zwinky appeals to a tech-savvy age group that is quick to turn an idea into a craze. That means Park's mind never stops racing as he tries to figure out what's next.

"Trends happen quickly but then they go very quickly as well," he said.

The site takes advantage of the latest Internet craze, which is virtual worlds.

In August, the Walt Disney Co. paid $350 million for Club Penguin, a virtual community in which young children customize penguins and play games. Second Life, an online universe started in 2003, has become a popular site for marketing, conferences and education.

A Zwinky user dresses a character - called an avatar - and then uses that character as sort of an online alter ego. The avatars look for fun and companionship in 30 Zwinktopia locations, including college dorms, a dance club, a pizza parlor and a mall called the Zwinchester - a takeoff on Westchester. There's also a beach, a games arcade and a bowling alley.

There's a catch, though: Users need a PC. Zwinky is not compatible with Macintosh computers.

Tiffany Stoddard, 20, of Brooklyn, said she became a Zwinky fan in June after seeing a commercial on television. She said she was on the site about three times a day during the summer but has cut her visits since then in order to devote time to her studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

She said she was drawn to the site by the ability to dress an avatar.

"I'm really into fashion and they put a big emphasis on designing your avatar any way you want," she said.

She said she enjoyed seeing how other users dressed their avatars and then speaking and playing games with them.

With a double major in psychology and sociology, Stoddard said she also found it fascinating to observe users' online behavior.

About 65 percent of Zwinky users are girls and most are in their young teenage years - an age group the company calls "tweens," as in between elementary age and adulthood.

A feature introduced in September allows users to shop for clothes and furniture for their virtual rooms and other products with their "Z-bucks," credits they buy with their own money by entering a credit card number or setting up a Pay Pal account. A townhouse futon goes for 175 Z-bucks, a floor lamp for 55 and a ceiling fan for 125.

For $5.99 in real money, a user can get 2,000 Z-bucks to spend in the fanciful world.

IAC built the site, but the users have come up with their own concepts. They created a work schedule at the pizza parlor and take turns showing up to "work" there. Users even dress their avatars according to the pizza parlor's dress code when they send them off to work.

Zwinky makes most of its money from searches. A search produces ask.com search results, which have Google-sponsored listings at the top of the page. The sponsored listings are those of companies that pay Google, which in turn pays IAC.

The consumer applications and portals group - the division Park leads - also runs sites for adults.

In April of this year, the group launched www.webfetti.com, which allows people to make attention-grabbing graphics on social networking sites like MySpace.com. Webfetti.com drew 7.1 million users in September.

The group also built and runs the new version of iWon.com, a search site relaunched last month with new games and prizes. The iWon site was first launched as a startup business in October 1999 by Bill Daugherty and Jonas Steinman, college friends who got financial backing from CBS.

AskJeeves bought Irvington-based Interactive Search Holdings, the company that ran iWon.com, for $343 million in March 2004. IAC later bought AskJeeves.

In all, IAC's consumer applications and portals group runs nine sites. They also include SmileyCentral.com, which allows a user to get smiley emoticons to attach to e-mails, instant messages and blogs; MyFunCards.com, where a user can make greeting cards; and cursormania.com, where a user can make their computer cursor look like a football, a heart, a castle or just about anything else.

Park said IAC is constantly trying to gauge what will catch the fancy of the next generation of young computer users. For advice, the company sometimes turns to kids at local high schools, recruiting those young people to show up at focus groups and speak about what they like.

"I've been in this industry for 14 years now and every single year there's something new," he said. "The industry is constantly evolving. With the newer generation, the younger kids growing up on computers, there's a whole world going on out there that's hard for us, being mature, to understand."

So, what's next? Timothy Allen, 29, vice president of portals for IAC, said he expects kids to begin seeking out virtual worlds tailored to their specific interests.

"I think it's going to get to a micro level," he said. "You'll start seeing these silos of kids getting together. It'll be the band kids or the drama kids getting together to form their own social clubs and their networks. They'll break off into their factions like you see in a typical high school."

Allen said he believes the success of Zwinky demonstrates the ability of young teens to multi-task. They can do their homework, listen to their iPod, carry on several online conversations and live their fantasy life on Zwinky all at the same time.

"And they're effective at managing it all, which is amazing," he said. "What I see with a Zwinky audience is that they're effectively managing all these various conversations."

Reach Allan Drury at adrury@lohud.com or at 914-694-5069.

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Tania Savayan/The Journal News
Consumer Applications & Portals, a division of IAC/InterActive Corp., is the creator of Zwinky, an online service for users to create customizable social avatars. From left, Zwinky Design Manager Cindy Barry, Zwinky Production Manager Scott Canoni, Consumer Applications & Portals General Manager and Executive Vice President John Park and Consumer Applications & Portals Vice President Tim Allen in their White Plains office.