February 23, 2007

Social networking, social shopping:

by Ann Moylan-McAulay

The third part in our series about social Web sites and services from the perspective of a university student studying their impact on youth.

As the popularity of social networking continues its steady growth, niche social networking (SN) is becoming more common. Sites such as connect those that love their furry felines, and is a SN site specifically for artists., which calls itself "The World's Largest Repository of What People Own," is another example of this phenomenon. It is a site where materialism and social networking collide. People can use the site to shop, socialize, or build profiles. In turn, they can connect with people who either buy or want the same things.

Once I heard about this site, I wanted to know what youth were doing with it that they couldn't do with other social networking sites. Is MySpace growing tiresome to some youth? I was curious if teens were really shopping online as early as 13 years old. It seemed unlikely to me, but then again, when I initially looked through the profiles I found many young members. So I took a closer look into this online social-shopping world....

Young people with a strong material side may find this site particularly appealing (I found many teen girls listing Prada bags and iPods in their "Wants" section), and any youth familiar with MySpace will find this site easy to use. While ZEBO does have age restrictions on the site, the bar is relatively low. Users have to be at least 13 (as compared to 14 on MySpace, 16 to have a public profile on that site). Once a member, there is an option for users to hide their age, if they happen to feel "embarrassed." Some activities on the site, such as purchasing items, do require either a PayPal account (you have to be 18 to acquire one) or a major credit card.

According to a New York Times article that ran last September, ZEBO founder Roy de Souza claims that the site has 4 million users mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, and this is evident just by taking a quick browse through some of the member profiles. Although the site is focused on consumerism, it is clear that many youth are using the site primarily to connect to each other and second to bond over what they own. For example, many young people have gotten creative and list "boyfriends," "girlfriends," or "sex" as something they either have or want. The site doesn't seem to engage in much censorship, and after looking around I realized that listing "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is mild compared to what a few members came up with. An upside to some may be that visitors to the site are only able to search for people based on what they own or want. Unlike other social sites, visitors cannot search by age or location.

The FAQ section of the site provides three more details parents may want to know:

  1. Comment blocking. Users are not able to block certain people from sending messages to their ZEBO inbox. Blocking comments can be a very useful tool for online socializers - for blocking cyberbullying or other unwanted messages from unknown users. The site did mention that they were working on getting this option put into place, but as of mid-February, it isn't in place.
  2. Photostrips. The site caters to the more egocentric side of youth by offering a "photostrip" option (MySpace does not offer this feature, though someone savvy in html code could install one themselves). The photostrip is a scrolling slideshow on a user's profile page that can contain up to 1,000 pictures. The idea of photostrip may seem downright terrifying to some parents. While youth are exploring their identities, they may not fully understand that the photos they display are there for everyone to see. So, as a parent, it's important to keep a running dialogue with your child about the public nature of Web sites and discuss what is and is not OK to upload onto a public site.
  3. WikiEdit. This tool enables users to go to friends' profiles and change them in two ways. Members of the site can change a friend's profile photo or background image, by uploading one for them. Once a page has been edited the profile change will go into effect within 24 hours and an email will be sent to the friend notifying them of the change. If they don't like what was done to their profile they can change it back, but there is no option to approve the change before it goes public. There is an option within the site to not allow WikiEdits on your profile. But my concern is that younger users may not know about this option, or choose not to use it until something goes awry. If the intentions of the person making the edit are good, all should go well, but malicious edits could be traumatic for the profile owner. Out of spite or "humor," someone could post an inappropriate picture of a friend without considering the possible consequences. In other words, this is a feature that can be used for cyberbullying purposes.

There are certainly a number of things to take into consideration if your child is using Some questions I might ask would be: Does he or she know how to use a shopping site responsibly? Does the child know to be critical of marketing schemes aimed directly at him or his peers? What lessons does my child learn from being on this site?

The same New York Times article quoted Mr. de Souza as saying "For the youth, you are what you own." The Times added: "Compare it to gleaning something about someone's personality by reviewing their book or music collection." Personally, I feel tweens or teens may be better off defining themselves on a site that isn't all about consumerism. I would lean toward sites that encourage community and identity development through positive aspects of their personalities, experiences, or skills, rather than their possessions. If your child has a specific interest, try looking for a social site that you are both comfortable with. Exploring the site together could help you both understand each other's side, or at least keep the dialogue running!

Ann Moylan-McAulay is a third-year student at Portland State University majoring in Community Health Education. Her internship under Dr. Kris Gowen focuses on educating teens about smart and healthy use of the Net. Previously in NetFamilyNews she reviewed and

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