When Olympia Ohanian – the daughter of tennis player Serena Williams and internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian – was a child, her parents gave her a plastic doll. Then they got this doll an Instagram account.
Qai Qai, as the doll was named, appeared on the platform in 2018 in a series of enigmatic photographs. Although the doll’s stream resembled a crime scene photograph – Qai Qai could be dumped unceremoniously into a sandbox or sprawled lifelessly across a lonely expanse of asphalt – it also had a deliciously nostalgic quality to it. The images embodied the dark, comedic side of a young child’s obsessive devotion to a loved object: when a new toy appears, the object can be ruthlessly thrown away. Every photo of Qai Qai’s flippant negligence seemed imbued with Olympia’s limitless spirit.
However, as the doll amassed followers, it adapted to the demands of various online platforms. Soon, she had transformed into a computer-generated cartoon figure with doe eyes and a tuft of hair on top of her head. This seemingly sentient new Qai Qai could lip-sync to viral videos like a TikTok star and wave from an FAO Schwarz convertible toy like a mini influencer. Eventually, the original Qai Qai doll disappeared from social media, replaced instead by a new one inspired by the cartoon version and available for purchase on Amazon. Last week, Qai Qai released their first NFT collection.
Qai Qai is part of a movement to bring children’s entertainment into the digital future. It was hosted by the technology company unseen universe, which develops the intellectual property of native cartoon characters on the Internet attached to celebrities. (Invisible Universe has also created a long lost teddy bear character for TikTok’s famous D’Amelio family and turned Jennifer Aniston’s dog, Clyde, into Clydeo, a cartoon food influencer.) And Qai Qai’s NFTs – or non-fungible tokens, unique digital assets that have spawned a highly speculative gimmick-riddled market – were released on Zigazooan app for kids as young as 3 years old that bills itself as “the world’s largest social network and NFT platform for kids”.
Fact your toddler needs an NFT? Zigazoo says yes. The app assignment is to “empower children to shape the very landscape and infrastructure of NFTs and the Web3”, to help them “express themselves through the art and practice of essential financial literacy skills” and to enable them to become the “digital citizens of tomorrow”. Like Rebecca Jennings recently reported in Vox, efforts to bring kids into the world of cryptocurrency, NFTs, and blockchain technology are touted as “preparing future workers for lucrative tech jobs.” Traditional children’s entertainment has long been about making the most money out of its small consumers (soon Pixar will release a gritty origin film featuring “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear), but the clever language suggesting kids should spend money on Craft the money looks new. Platforms like Zigazoo build a hype bubble for kids and present it as a creative outlet, an educational opportunity, even a civic duty to join.
Recently, I practiced my own essential financial literacy skills by acquiring an image set 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 carer. Once inside, the app invites videos built around innocuous “challenges,” like “Can you sing in another language? and questions that aren’t too personal, like “Which shoes do you prefer to wear?” The content seems less important than the design of the app, which like any adult social network encourages users to amass followers, rack up likes and generally become famous for Zigazoo. In zigazoo-ese, this could be translated as “practicing essential skills of the attention economy”.
Many of the app’s users seem charming and unpolished, posting shaky videos that cut across their foreheads or chins as they deliver breathless improvised monologues. And yet their dispatches are imbued with the language of influencers; a typical video begins with “Hey Zigazoo friends!” and ends with “Like and Subscribe!” Along the way, there are excuses for not posting recently, promises to post sooner, and offers to shout out the user’s most engaged followers in the next post, even if those followers don’t exist. . Occasionally, this eerie, tender flow will be interrupted by an eerily brilliant video – like that of a child actor big on Zigazoo who can perform 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, with an account associated with the “Paw Patrol” movie and a “Ninja Warrior” teenage champion.) From time to time, adults will appear. Usually they sell something, like a toy subscription box or a podcast for kids.
Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that assesses the age appropriateness of media and technology, gives Zigazoo high marks for its lack of images of violence, drugs and “sexy stuff”. There are no comments on the app, only positive reinforcement mechanisms, and each video is moderated by a human. But although the Common Sense review says consumerism is “not present” on the app, it is everywhere. Every time I opened Zigazoo, I learned that I had earned more “Zigabucks”, the platform’s in-app currency, for conscientiously visiting each day. Plus, I was constantly made to care about Zigazoo’s latest NFT drop: footage featuring CoComelon’s infant cartoon star JJ.
CoComelon is a very popular YouTube channel with crudely rendered CGI videos and repetitive nursery rhymes, like “Dentist Song” and “Pasta Song”. Although he has no discernible value beyond his ability to hypnotize toddlers for long periods of time, he has taken the world by storm; brand recently in partnership with the Saudi government build a physical CoComelon village in Riyadh, perhaps as part of Saudi Arabia’s wider PR effort to get known for something other than torturing dissidents. (Let’s call it “practicing essential geopolitical skills.”)
Anyway, the kids love it: the CoComelon NFTs sold out before I could catch one, so I waited for the Qai Qai NFTs to drop, watching the countdown on the Zigazoo app to my time to “invest”. Qai Qai’s NFTs were selling for between $5.99 and $49.99 a pack, with more money buying you a greater likelihood of acquiring not just a “common” NFT, but also a “rare” or ” legendary”, a distinction that has remained unexplained. (Although each Zigazoo NFT is tied to a unique digital record on the Flow blockchain, the app didn’t specify how many of those records it attributed to each Qai Qai image, making it even harder to guess at how worthless it might be in the future.) I selected a “rare” pack of Qai Qai collectibles for $19.99, responded with a “Parents only!” multiple-choice multiplication problem to prove that I was an adult (even though I knew my times tables better as a kid), and eventually I was rewarded with four stills of Qai Qai and a “rare” repetitive video of Qai Qai performing the “Heel to Toe Dance.
Over the next few days, I was asked to trade my NFTs with other users and participate in NFT-related challenges like “#QaiQaiDrop: What new toy are you hoping to get?” and “CoComelon: Can you show us your favorite pajamas?” The “winner” of each challenge was rewarded with even more NFTs. The real challenge in this case seems to be “expressing yourself by helping to promote a new tech gadget to a younger consumer class.” This concluded my NFT education on Zigazoo.
My Qai Qai NFT is fine. Like a lot of the internet dancing babies before her, she’s cute, and buying the digital asset also supports a larger project: Serena Williams developed Qai Qai to ensure her daughter’s generation had access to black dolls, including Williams herself. even lacked in his childhood. (I have nothing nice to say about CoComelon NFTs.) The dolls offer endless possibilities for creative play, as evidenced by Qai Qai’s gruesome debut. His first Instagram account exemplified the generative power of the internet, the ability to start a weird creative project and share it with the world – not because it will help you “learn” how to invest in cryptocurrencies, but just because you want to.
In its in-app explainer, “Why should kids have NFTs?”, Zigazoo laments that “the internet is all about consumption,” but says “the future of the internet is what you can create “. For now, though, it’s all about what you can buy with Zigabucks.