I'm not sure, but I think I went on date with a 12-year-old last night. We met at Club Penguin, a social networking site for preteens. I was a blue penguin, new to town. She was pink, and carrying a surfboard.
Pink: "boy or girl?"
Pink: "im a girl"
Pink: [sends a heart emoticon]
Me: "want to sled race?"
Pink: "yer funny"
Flipper-in-flipper, we waddled through the forest, stopped at the disco, and then played a little Find Four, the Club Penguin version of Connect Four. When Pink sent a message, "brb," I slipped away to the mountain for some sled racing. Man's gotta be free!
Creating a penguin is simple, though the entire sign-up process emphasizes safety in such a way that a curious adult can't help feeling like a predator. The site asks you to "Respect Other Penguins" and "Never Reveal Your Personal Information," and there is a button that parents can click on for reassurance that Club Penguin is nothing like MySpace. Establishing a sheltered haven in the Internet maelstrom is Club Penguin's selling point. The site offers "Ultimate Safe Chat," in which a penguin can use only preselected words, and "Standard Safe Chat," in which you can type any word, but all the words are screened by a filter. For example, it's very difficult to communicate a number in Club Penguin, which means no ages, no phone calls, no street addresses, no interstate rendezvous at Burger King. (I've seen penguins get around this by misspelling numbers, e.g., "Im tweleve.") There are also moderators present in the penguin world, their presence noted by a big gold shield in the corner of the screen. Finally, in an Orwellian touch, penguins are encouraged to report other penguins who misbehave.
So, there I was: old enough to remember Voltron, beer in hand, sitting with my laptop, surrounded by (presumed) preteens. Club Penguin plopped me in the town center. Forty or so birds were milling about. Some were dancing, others throwing snowballs. As I gazed upon this scene, I remembered something that I had once read: If your body could stay the same as it was at 12, you would live for hundreds of years. But what about your mind? What if it stayed locked at 12? Club Penguin offers that deeply trippy experience.
The first thing you notice is that everyone is really dressed up. When you click on another penguin, their "Player Card" appears. This shows all of the pins, hats, props, and accessories that the penguin has acquired by completing various missions and shopping at various stores. The net result is that a lot of penguins end up looking like Elton John. (As Emily Yoffe points out, you must have a paid subscription to Club Penguin to properly outfit your penguin.)Many initial penguin-to-penguin comments are sartorial in nature, such as "Where did you get that hat?" or "Nice outfit." A common opener, though, is the one that the pink penguin directed my way: "boy or girl?" An enterprising penguin tried this variation: "All girls in the room come to me!" The emphatic "WHO WANTS TO BE A COUPLE?" is also popular.
On occasion, couplehood is rejected, and one penguin will shout "STOP FOLLOWING ME!" or the more drastic "I WILL REPORT YOU!!!" (All of the penguin comments appear as nearby text boxes, like a comic book.) If couplehood is established, penguins will "friend" each other. Next, two or three heart emoticons may be exchanged, and one penguin may invite the other back to their igloo. That's not what it sounds like. Going to someone's igloo usually means admiring how they've decorated it with three flatscreen TVs, an aquarium, and a drum set. You might do a little dancing to the booming rock soundtrack (penguins can acquire special dance moves) and then go your separate ways. After all, there are constant parties to attend.