As concerns mount over the potential security risks posed by social-networking web sites such as MySpace and Friendster, a new generation of “safe” social networking sites is emerging. These new sites aim to capitalize on the enormous popularity of online social networking while at the same time providing a secure, educational platform for such activity.
So-called “safe” social networking sites, such as Whyville.net and Imbee.com, hope to limit the dangers that can accompany sites like MySpace, such as talking to internet predators and revealing too many personal details.
Whyville, which claims some 1.7 million users, is an online virtual world that immerses children in a video game-like experience where they must manage money, make sure they eat properly, and have the ability to communicate with others. More importantly, the site seeks to educate its users about online safety and how to behave in an online community.
Whyville was created by Numedeon, a media company specializing in online virtual worlds. Users create an avatar, or virtual character, and move around in a virtual world. Because these characters have real-world abilities, the experience is different from a more “flat” social networking site, said Jay Goss, chief operating officer of Whyville.net. Goss said Whyville’s approach to safety hinges on the fact that a majority of the audience it serves is children ages 8-15. Children must provide a parent’s eMail address when registering. When they complete their registration, an eMail message is sent to the parent notifying him or her of the new registration.
Proprietary artificial intelligence reportedly prevents members from using foul language and can block those words with a filter. The site also compiles a database of words that might lead to inappropriate conversations, Goss said, citing the word “pants” as an example.
“Some percentage of the time when kids use that word, it’s going down a path that we don’t want it to go down,” he said of the online conversation. That word would be flagged, and community managers would examine the chat script to determine how the word was being used. If inappropriate, its use could result in characters being banned from “talking” for several days.
Before children can even participate, they must pass a test to get their “chat license.” After passing the test, users must spend three days becoming familiar with the web site before they have full access to its chat features.
Members younger than 13 must undergo even more safety checks and cannot communicate with other users in any capacity until they have a parent sign a permission slip. Whyville’s security measures reportedly limit predators from entering the site–but “it’s not technically impossible for that creepy, bad adult to do some creepy, bad things,” Goss acknowledged.
Adults may use the site, but Whyville forbids them to pretend to be kids. Goss said most users are children, but adults and children do chat, citing as examples a teacher using Whyville for a class, or a child chatting with a parent stationed overseas.
In addition to site monitors who watch for predatory activity, other children and Whyville citizens can virtually “call 911,” Goss said, if they see something suspicious. Whyville citizens are visible to one another when they are in the same area of the virtual town. Their conversations, like in an internet chat room, also are visible–though users can chat privately through “whispers,” similar to instant messaging.
Aside from acting as a virtual social community, Whyville also offers educational games and activities. “We have thousands of teachers exposing kids to it and softly incorporating Whyville in their lesson plans, especially the sciences,” Goss said.