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 called, appeared on the platform in 2018 in a series of enigmatic photos. While the doll’s flow resembled a crime scene photograph—Qai Qai could be unceremoniously dumped in a sandbox or splayed lifeless over a lonely patch of asphalt—it also had a wonderfully nostalgic quality. The images embodied the dark, comic side of a young child’s obsessive devotion to a beloved object: when new toys appear, the object can be ruthlessly thrown away. Every photo of Qai Qai’s casual negligence seemed imbued with Olympia’s boundless spirit.
However, as the doll gained followers, it adapted to the demands of various online platforms. She was soon transformed into a computer-generated cartoon character with doe eyes and a tuft of hair on her head. This seemingly conscious new Qai Qai can lip sync to viral videos like a TikTok star and wave an FAO Schwarz convertible toy like a mini influencer. Eventually, the original Qai Qai doll disappeared from social media, but was replaced 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 animated by technology company Univers Invisible, which develops the intellectual property of native internet cartoon characters associated with celebrities. (Invisible Universe also created a long-lost teddy bear character for TikTok’s famed D’Amelio family and turned Jennifer Aniston’s dog Clyde into cartoon food influencer Clydeo.) And Qai Qai’s NFTs — or irreplaceable tokens, unique digital assets that have a highly speculative nature. Gadget riddled market – have been released on Zigazoo, an app for kids ages 3 and up 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’s mission is to “enable children to shape the landscape and infrastructure of NFTs and Web3”, helping them “express themselves through the art and practice of essential skills in the fields of financial literacy” and empowering them to become the “digital citizens of tomorrow”. † As Rebecca Jennings recently reported in Vox, efforts to bring children into the world of cryptocurrency, NFTs and blockchain technology are being touted as “preparing future employees for lucrative tech jobs.” Traditional children’s entertainment has long revolved around making the most money with its small consumers (soon Pixar will release a gritty original film starring “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear), but the sly language that suggests kids should spend money on craft the money looks new. Platforms like Zigazoo are building a hype bubble for kids, presenting it as a creative outlet, an educational opportunity, even a civic duty to join.
Recently I practiced my own essential financial literacy by acquiring an image set of Qai Qai dancing in a tutu. First I had to download Zigazoo, a sort of junior TikTok designed to be managed by an adult caregiver. Once inside, the app invites videos built around harmless “challenges,” such as “Can you sing in another language?” and questions that aren’t too personal, such as “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, collect likes and generally become famous because of Zigazoo. In zigazoo-ese, this could be translated as “practice the essential skills of attention economics”.
Many of the app’s users seem charming and unpolished, posting shaky videos cutting across their foreheads or chins while delivering breathless improvised monologues. And yet their posts are infused with influencer language; a typical video starts 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. † Every now and then this eerie, tender flow is interrupted by an eerily brilliant video – like that of a child actor big in Zigazoo who can perform his challenges while staring meaningfully into the lens and tickling a piano that is just out of frame. (When I signed up, Zigazoo suggested I follow him, with an account associated with the movie “Paw Patrol” and a teenage champion “Ninja Warrior”.) 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, just positive reinforcement mechanisms and each video is moderated by a human. But while the Common Sense review says consumerism is “not present” in the app, it’s everywhere. Every time I opened Zigazoo, I found that I had earned more ‘Zigabucks’, the platform’s in-app currency, for every day of conscientious visit. In addition, I had to constantly worry about Zigazoo’s latest NFT drop: footage featuring CoComelon’s children’s cartoon star JJ.
CoComelon is a very popular YouTube channel with crudely rendered CGI videos and repetitive nursery rhymes, such as “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; recently, the brand partnered with the Saudi government to build a physical CoComelon village in Riyadh, perhaps as part of Saudi Arabia’s larger public relations efforts to raise awareness for something other than torturing dissidents. (Let’s call it “practice 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, while on the Zigazoo app I counted down my time to “invest” . Qai Qai’s NFTs sold for between $5.99 and $49.99 per pack, with more cash giving you a greater chance of acquiring not just a “regular” NFT, but a “rare” or “legendary” one as well. a distinction that has remained unexplained. (Although each Zigazoo NFT is associated with 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 how worthless it might be in the future.) I selected a “rare” pack of Qai Qai collectibles for $19.99, was answered with a “Parents only!” multiple-choice multiplication problem to prove I was an adult (even though I knew my times tables better as a kid), and in the end 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 such as “#QaiQaiDrop: What new toy do you hope to get?” and “CoComelon: Can you show us your favorite pajamas?” The “winner” of each challenge was awarded 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.” With this I completed my NFT training on Zigazoo.