When Olympia Ohanian – daughter of tennis player Serena Williams and internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian – was a baby, her parents gave her a plastic baby doll. Then they got that 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 food resembled crime scene photography—Qai Qai could be unceremoniously dumped in a sandbox or splayed lifeless on a lonely patch of asphalt—it also had a wonderfully nostalgic quality. The images embodied the comic dark side of a young child’s obsessive devotion to a beloved object: when a new toy appears, the object can be ruthlessly thrown away. Every photo of Qai Qai’s casual neglect seemed imbued with Olympia’s own boundless spirit.
However, as the doll gained a following, she adapted to the demands of various online platforms. Soon she had mutated into a computer-generated cartoon character with hind eyes and a curl of hair on her head. This new apparently sentient Qai Qai can lip-sync to viral videos like a TikTok star and wave from an FAO Schwarz toy convertible like a mini influencer. Eventually, the original Qai Qai doll disappeared from social media, instead being replaced 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-owned cartoon character intellectual property attached to celebrities. (Invisible Universe also created a long-lost teddy bear character for the TikTok-famous D’Amelio family and turned Jennifer Aniston’s dog Clyde into Clydeo, a cartoon food influencer.) And Qai Qai’s NFTs — or non-replaceable tokens, unique digital assets that have a highly speculative marketplace riddled with gimmickry – 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.”
Does Your Toddler Need an NFT? Zigazoo says yes. The app’s mission is to “enable children to shape the landscape and infrastructure of NFTs and Web3”, help them “express themselves through the arts and practice essential financial literacy” and enable them to 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 presented as “preparing future employees for lucrative jobs in technology”. Traditional children’s entertainment has long focused on getting the most money out of small consumers (soon Pixar will release a gritty original movie starring the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear), but the slick language that suggests kids should spend money to make money feels 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 get involved.
Recently I practiced my own essential financial literacy by acquiring a series of images 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 you’re in, the app prompts for videos built around anodyne “challenges,” such as “Can you sing in another language?” and questions that aren’t too personal, such as ‘What are your favorite shoes to wear?’ The content feels less important than the design of the app, which, like any adult social network, encourages users to amass followers, amass likes and generally become Zigazoo famous. In Zigazoo-es this can be translated as ‘practice essential attention economics skills’.
Many of the app’s users look charmingly unpolished and post shaky videos cutting their faces off at 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 more soon, 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 strange and tender feed is interrupted by an oddly glossy video — like of a big-on-Zigazoo child actor performing his challenges while staring meaningfully into the lens and tickling a piano that’s 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 show up. 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 Common Sense’s review states that 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, to dutifully visit every day. Also, I was constantly asked to worry about Zigazoo’s latest NFT drop: images featuring JJ, the cartoon star of CoComelon.
CoComelon is a wildly popular YouTube channel featuring crudely rendered CGI videos and repetitive nursery rhymes, such as “Dentist Song” and “Pasta Song.” While it has no discernible value beyond the ability to hypnotize toddlers for long periods of time, it has taken over the world; 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 effort to become known for something other than torturing dissidents. (Let’s call that “practice essential geopolitical skills”).
Anyway, kids love it: The CoComelon NFTs sold out before I could get my hands on one, so I waited for the Qai Qai NFTs to drop and watched the countdown on the Zigazoo app for my moment to “invest” . Qai Qai’s NFTs sold for $5.99 to $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. distinction that remained unexplained. (Although each Zigazoo NFT is linked to a unique digital record on the Flow blockchain, the app didn’t clarify how many of these records it assigned 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, answered a “Parents only!” multiple choice multiplication problem to prove I was an adult (although I knew my multiplication tables better when I was a kid), and was eventually rewarded with four still images of Qai Qai and a “rare” repetitive video of Qai Qai showing the “Very Come on Dance.”
Over the next few days, I was invited 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 to “express yourself by helping hype a new tech gimmick for a younger class of consumers.” With this I completed my NFT training on Zigazoo.
My Qai Qai NFT is fine. Like the many dancing babies in front of her on the internet, she’s adorable, and buying the digital assets also supports a wider project: Serena Williams developed Qai Qai to ensure her daughter’s generation has access to black dolls, which Williams himself as a child did not have . (I have nothing nice to say about the CoComelon NFTs.) Dolls offer endless possibilities for creative play, as evidenced by Qai Qai’s macabre beginnings. Her early Instagram account was an example of the generative power of the internet, the ability to launch 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 feel like it .
In the in-app explanation, “Why should kids have NFTs?” Zigazoo laments that “so much about the internet is about consumption” but states that “the future of the internet is what you can create.” At the moment, though, it’s all about what you can buy with Zigabucks.