Does a Toddler Need an NFT?
When Olympia Ohanian — the daughter of the tennis player Serena Williams and the internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian — was an infant, her parents got her a plastic baby doll. Then they got that doll an Instagram account.
Qai Qai, as the doll was named, emerged on the platform in 2018 in a series of enigmatic photographs. Though the doll’s feed resembled crime-scene photography — Qai Qai could be dumped unceremoniously in a sandbox or splayed lifelessly on a lonely stretch of asphalt — it also had a delightfully nostalgic quality. The images embodied the comic dark side of a young child’s obsessional devotion to a beloved object: When a new plaything appears, the object may be ruthlessly discarded. Every photo of Qai Qai’s casual neglect seemed infused with Olympia’s own boundless spirit.
As the doll amassed followers, however, she adapted to the demands of various online platforms. Soon she had mutated into a computer-generated cartoon figure with doe eyes and a curlicue of hair atop her head. This new, seemingly sentient Qai Qai could lip-sync to viral videos like a TikTok star and wave from an F. A. O. Schwarz toy convertible like a mini influencer. Eventually, the original Qai Qai doll vanished from social media, replaced instead by a new one styled after the cartoon version and available for purchase on Amazon. Last week, Qai Qai dropped her first NFT collection.Qai Qai is part of a movement to drag children’s entertainment into the digital future. She was animated by the tech company Invisible Universe, which develops internet-native cartoon-character intellectual property attached to celebrities. (Invisible Universe has also created a long-lost teddy bear character for the TikTok-famous D’Amelio family and a cartoon food influencer dog for Jennifer Aniston.) And Qai Qai’s NFTs — or nonfungible tokens, unique digital assets that have birthed a highly speculative marketplace riddled with gimmickry — were released on Zigazoo, an app for children as young as 3 that bills itself as “the world’s largest social network and NFT platform for kids.”
Does your toddler need an NFT? Zigazoo says yes. The app’s mission is to “empower kids to shape the very landscape and infrastructure of NFTs and Web3,” to help them “express themselves through art and practice essential financial literacy skills” and to allow them to grow into “tomorrow’s digital citizens.” As Rebecca Jennings recently reported in Vox, efforts to usher children into the worlds of cryptocurrency, NFTs and blockchain technology are being pitched as “preparing future workers for lucrative jobs in tech.” Traditional children’s entertainment has long angled at extracting maximum cash from its little consumers (soon Pixar will release a gritty origin film featuring the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear), but the slick language suggesting that kids should spend money to make money feels new. Platforms like Zigazoo are building a hype bubble for children and pitching it as a creative outlet, an educational opportunity, even a civic duty to join in.
Recently I practiced my own essential financial literacy skills by acquiring a set of images of Qai Qai dancing in a tutu. First I had to download Zigazoo, which is a kind of junior TikTok designed to be managed by an adult caregiver. Once you’re inside, the app solicits videos built around anodyne “challenges,” like “Can you sing in another language?,” and not-too-personal questions, like “What are your favorite shoes to wear?” The content feels less important than the design of the app, which, like any grown-up social network, encourages users to amass followers, rack up likes and generally become Zigazoo-famous. In Zigazoo-ese, this might be translated as “practicing essential attention economy skills.”
Many of the app’s users appear charmingly unpolished, posting shaky videos that cut their faces off at their foreheads or chins as they deliver breathless extemporaneous monologues. And yet their dispatches are infused with the language of influencers; a typical video begins with “Hey Zigazoo friends!” and ends with “Like and subscribe!” Along the way there are apologies for not posting recently, promises to post more soon and offers to shout out the user’s most engaged followers in the next post, even if those followers don’t exist. Occasionally this strange and tender feed will be interrupted by an oddly glossy video — like from a big-on-Zigazoo child actor who can execute his challenges while staring meaningfully into the lens and tickling a piano just out of frame. (When I signed up, Zigazoo suggested I follow him, along with an account associated with the “Paw Patrol” movie and a teenage “Ninja Warrior” champion.) Occasionally, adults will appear. Usually they are selling something, like a toy subscription box or a podcast for children.