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Togetherville founder calls growth of kids' social networking site 'phenomenal'

July 02, 2010|By Scott Duke Harris

Reporting from San Jose —

Like a lot of kids born in the 21st century, including mine, 8-year-old Zoraver Dhillon loves playing games on the Internet. A couple of months ago, after setting a personal best in Super Crazy Turbo Taxi 4 by 1,000 points, he quickly checked to see if he'd moved up in the rankings.

Zoraver was stunned to discover he'd fallen from fourth place to 69th. But his father, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was thrilled.

Mandeep Dhillon was so thrilled, in fact, that he and Zoraver got on Skype for a video chat with software engineers working late at Togetherville, a start-up in Palo Alto. Zoraver's plummet was validation that Togetherville, a social networking site that Dhillon designed for grade-schoolers and their parents, was off the starting line like Speed Racer. Suddenly Zoraver was competing against a lot of Turbo Taxi drivers.

The reaction to Togetherville "has been phenomenal," said Dhillon, who had quietly been working on this start-up since 2007. At a time when Facebook, the dominant social network, is said to be approaching 500 million users, Togetherville's early numbers far exceed the company's expectations, Dhillon said.

One reviewer called it "Facebook with training wheels." That wasn't necessarily meant as a compliment, but Dhillon would be thrilled if Togetherville won over just a fraction of the parents on Facebook.

Dhillon declined to disclose numbers about Togetherville's growth, citing competitive reasons. "We're literally three times larger than I thought we would be at this point," he said. "We've grown so fast that we've had to push some of our development back."

Media coverage of Togetherville has also exceeded expectations, even inspiring a joke on late-night TV. "They're calling it Togetherville because To-Catch-a-Predatorville was too long," Jimmy Fallon said.

The quip neatly sums up parents' darkest fears when they worry about the time their children spend on the Internet. Just the other day I was creeped out by a "friend" request on Facebook from my wife's 12-year-old cousin, who had lied about her age to get on the social networking service.

But even milder concerns make parents ambivalent. The Internet is a powerful and increasingly indispensable medium for communication, research and entertainment. But when I see my kids on our aging iMac playing games or watching YouTube videos, I often wish they were getting some exercise, reading a book or playing a board game.

"Of course I always prefer for her to play in her room, outside or anything other than watching TV or playing on the Internet," Dominique Lawrenz said of her 7-year-old daughter. "Unless she is playing a game that allows her to practice her reading, comprehension or math skills. Then I don't mind as much."

Togetherville's pitch is that it creates a social network that gives parents a strong measure of control in shaping their kids' online activities. Only parents and legal guardians can approve the addition of friends, and the content, such as YouTube videos, requires approval of Dhillon and his team. (Togetherville's board of advisers includes Anne Collier, co-founder of ConnectSafely.org, and Ann McCormick, founder of the Learning Co.)

Lawrenz, a 39-year-old Oakland resident, was invited into a beta test of Togetherville by a friend. "My daughter is always looking over my shoulder when I am on Facebook, so when I saw Togetherville, I knew she would love it, and I was right," she said. "I feel comfortable with allowing her to play freely on Togetherville, without me having to worry about who she is interacting with."

Lawrenz was also pleased that her daughter interacted with her on the site as well, by sharing some videos and sending some pre-prepared messages, a common aspect in child-oriented sites. Togetherville also gives kids a limited ability to craft their own messages.

A reviewer on Common Sense Media, a site that invites parental reviews credited Togetherville for "super-safe posts that use scripted phrases, and the ability to socialize with known friends — without stranger-danger and inappropriate posts." But, she added: "On the downside, Togetherville trains kids in the use of social networking, a habit which may not be something parents feel they need to nurture."

Togetherville is counting on its social networking and security aspects to give it an edge in a competitive environment that includes such popular websites as Neopets and Disney's Club Penguin. Another newcomer offering social networking aspects is Tiny Planets, based on an animated television series by the same name. Tiny Planets, which has offices in London and Palo Alto and touts the appeal of "an imaginary space-themed experience," also has aspects of social networking.

Meanwhile, the child-security sector is also growing: SafetyWeb, a Colorado start-up service that markets itself as an "online guardian angel" to help parents monitor their child's activity on the Web, recently secured a second round of funding for $8 million.

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