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Webkinz: I fell in love with a cyber alley cat

As the socially-networked stuffed animals celebrate their second birthday, a reporter delves into the hype, and controversy. Photos: A cybercat for the Digital Age Video: Webkinz target kids for early social networking

It's Friday afternoon, and I've called 12 toy stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. All have the same frustrating answer: "We're sold out of Webkinz...sorry. We hope to get a shipment soon."

I have no children of my own, but I can relate to how parents must feel hearing these heartbreaking words. I also feel a surge of respect for my own mom and dad, who waited in line in the late 1980s for a Go Go My Walkin' Pup or my beloved Magic Nursery Doll--the Webkinz stuffed animal of my generation.

Toys du jour Webkinz, of course, are notably different from good old Go Go or Magic Nursery Dolls. Not only are they cuddly, they're also a portal to an online social network for children, much like and Facebook, only for elementary school-aged kids. Created by Canadian gift company Ganz, the plush toys celebrated their second birthday late last month. To mark this occasion--dubbed Webkinz Day by Ganz--I set out to explore the buzz, and the concern by parents who worry their tots may be spending too much time online.

The phenomenon has been a huge hit; Ganz claims that more than 2 million units have been sold to retailers and 1 million users have registered on the Webkinz site, where kids can create lively domiciles for the virtual versions of their animal, shop for pet paraphernalia, and chat with fellow Webkinz owners.

"Webkinz has married two very popular play patterns in one unique toy--cute plush, which brings in nurturing play, combined with online virtual worlds, which have proven to be wildly popular with such brands as Neopets," said Anita Frazier, a toy analyst with The NPD Group.

Last year, Webkinz brought in more than $45 million in retail in the U.S., according to Frazier. "This is great performance for a new brand to realize out of the gate," she noted.

How much is that doggie on the Web site?
Not surprisingly, that popularity can make it hard to . The week after my futile first calling frenzy, I followed a lead that a card store near CNET Networks' office would be restocking the furry social networkers soon. It was there that I found my Webkinz, an orange and black alley cat I named Cneta.

Originally, I had hoped to avoid the runaround and find one online, but a Webkinz cat on eBay was selling for $99; on, a Dalmatian Webkinz dog went for $59.99. You get the picture; I was lucky to snag one at $12.

But if I thought finding a Webkinz was challenging, I was unprepared for just how complex it would be to register a stuffed critter online. A number of documents need to be completed: a lengthy terms of use, plus a disclaimer and registration form, making the process more akin to filing taxes than adopting a toy cat.

After signing up, I was excited to move on and customize my pet's room, much like I personalized my MySpace page with HTML coding. Each Webkinz account starts with 2,000 units of "KinzCash." With that virtual currency, I splurged on a salmon strudel feast for Cneta, as well as a batch of her favorite food, marshmallows, rainbow-patterned boots, a blue striped bed set, a scooter and some horn-rimmed specs.

Fluffy animals introduce youngsters to online networking.

Kinz cash can go fast, and to regain my loot, I played a round of "Hide 'n' Skunk" or spun the "Wheel of Wow" in the virtual arcade on the Webkinz site. Another option for scoring cash is successfully completing a timed math, language or science quiz at Quizzy's Question Corner. Cneta and I even enlisted as assistants for Dr. Quack at the Kinz veterinary clinic, and assembled burgers at the Kinz burger joint. As I brought home the Meow Mix for Cneta, she cheered me on via conversation bubbles floating above her head.

But alas, my social interactions on Webkinz were limited to me and my feline. Initially, I thought I would be able to befriend fellow Webkinz owners on the Web site, but I soon realized the chatting and meeting features were few and far between.

The only way to communicate with a Webkinz owner, it turns out, is if you already know someone with an account. Although this is presumably a safety measure by Ganz, it does limit the prospect for interactions with new people. Granted, as someone used to the endless possibilities for contact on other social-networking platforms, I found that to be a constraint. But most parents would probably heave a sigh of relief at this precaution.

"I like that the Web site is user-friendly and that it is safe," said Joanna Hafter, whose kids Talia, 9, and Josh, 7, have eight Webkinz between them. "The games are fun and safe and it is less expensive getting a Webkinz than buying a new software game. I have never seen them so excited to play any other game on the computer. I also like that it is nonviolent."

In addition, Hafter sees Webkinz as a good alternative for parents who don't relish the idea of housebreaking a pet or cleaning cat hair from the couches.

"They are soft and cute, and I think it is very clever that you can go online and have a virtual is a great substitution if you do not want a live pet," she said.

Not everyone is so thrilled by Webkinz. In Boston, Wessagussett Primary School recently banned the stuffed animals, according to The Boston Globe, calling them a distraction. Some parents feel conflicted about the newest toy obsession, as well.

"I do not like the fact that kids want to collect them all so as to get more points," said Vicky Kalish, the mother of Elana, 11, and Leah, 7. "My kids pressure me to buy them a new one each week so they can get another 2,000 points (to buy more things on the Web site) versus the 90 points they can achieve by winning things. Clearly, this is part of the company's marketing, and I don't like it. Why isn't having one enough?"

And every parent takes a different approach.

Amy Jo Kim, a game designer and mother of Gabriel, 8, believes it's up to the parent to decide how much is too much when it comes to virtual worlds for kids. "As a parent you can take different stands," she said. "You can ignore it--see it as a 'digital babysitter'--or you can set limits. We set limits in our household.

"An analogy I use is that I look at this stuff like really strong coffee; it gets my son jazzed up, it's addictive, but also something to be very careful with," she added. "It's a very powerful experience. I'm not scared of him having a powerful experience. I want to help him have a good experience, and learn to step away from the keyboard. I'm teaching him how to do that on his own."

Though I am older than most Webkinz users, those same lessons in restraint apply to me. As an avid social networker, at first I checked my Webkinz page many times a day--just about as much as I log on to MySpace and Facebook. Then, fearing the virtual cat would cost me yet another happy hour with friends, I gave myself something of a time-out and started restricting how much I logged on. Yes, I continue to interact with my virtual cat online from time to time, and she's rocking her new red hair ribbon. Sadly, the last time I checked on her, Cneta did seem a bit under the weather. Let's hope it's just a hairball.