Culture

Lego's new social network for kids uses Lego emoji to communicate

Branding, or community-building? Lego's first dive into a kid hub, Lego Life, will be a moderated work in progress.

Kids and social networks aren't exactly a happy marriage. In fact, most parents I know shield their kids under 13 from being connected much at all.

What if there was a magic world where kids could share Lego ideas and building suggestions, and safely collaborate on new projects, like Minecraft? What if kids could end up forming an ever-evolving living database on new Lego ideas?

Lego Life, launching today, isn't that. But it's something in the middle, maybe: a fledgling Lego social network for kids. What that means is that it's an app for kids to share Lego ideas (in the form of photos), try Lego quizzes, and participate in Lego challenges. But it's also an attempt to make a safe kid place in online Lego-land. Making this social network into a truly safe and moderated place is a challenge Lego says it's ready to tackle.

Lego Life has been available in beta in the UK since the end of 2016, but arrives today as an app for people to download and try for free. I got to look at it briefly in beta form at the CNET office, and it looks a bit like Pinterest for Lego fans.

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What a typical day in Lego Life will look like.

Lego

Everything is moderated

Designed for kids between 8 and 12, the app serves up photos (which can be submitted from other users), plus Lego-created videos and challenges that fit into themes. Kids can search for their interests via hashtag categories that Lego generates. Fans will be able to share photos of their creations as well as join in on Lego challenges each week that will be judged by Lego-side moderators (make something orange with Lego bricks, for instance).

According to Lego, moderators will be operating throughout Lego Life, both to help make sure uploaded content is safe and to engage with the network, giving feedback and encouragement. Lego moderators (in the guise of characters like Lego Batman) will comment on kid creations. Kids are restricted in the photos that can be uploaded: They can't be selfies, for instance (AI filters, plus moderators, are supposed to block them), and the photos have to involve Lego toys. Photos of Legos in a living room? Hard to tell if it would be blocked or allowed.

Anyone over 13 can sign up with their own email address, but kids 13 and under need to be signed up via a parent's email. How Lego is going to determine which is which wasn't entirely clear, but it was suggested that credit cards, passports, or other forms of ID would be used.

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Lego Minifigure avatars can be customized (to a degree).

Lego

No one in Lego Life has a real ID, and no personal information is shared. User names are assigned randomly out of three words, so your user name could be DukeCharmingShrimp (or, something else if you choose to randomly generate an alternative). Avatars are Lego Minifigures, made with a preset bunch of assets in-app. (The avatars will feature brands like Marvel, but licensing restrictions means don't expect funky DC/Marvel avatar mashups.)

How does this all work in practice? I have my doubts, as a parent, and I was told that the beta version of the app has been a learning process (sometimes kids try to post selfies with Lego Minifigure stickers covering the face, temporarily bypassing moderation).

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The Lego Emoji keyboard is real (and the only way people will be able to communicate with each other).

Lego

All the kids will be talking in emoji

Maybe the most interesting part of Lego Life is that it avoids written language entirely, for the most part.

Uploaded pics can be commented on, but no one in Lego Life will be able to communicate to each other with anything other than emoji and stickers.

Lego's making its own emoji-style keyboard for the app, and it's also available to download separately in Apple's iMessage as a sticker pack. It's a clever way to restrain bad behavior, but it will also help overcome international language barriers.

Lego Life's login and network is designed to carry over to games as well, acting as a safer online network for kids to play Lego games with each other on platforms, like PlayStation and Xbox, that parents might otherwise want to restrict online behavior in. Eventually, it'll also enabling sharing screenshots in Lego games.

One thing Lego Life isn't, unfortunately, is a master database for building and crafting Lego. That may come down the line, built on top of Lego Life. Imagine a database for all the bricks you have, and recommendations on what to build from Lego-friend master builders. That's not happening now, but when it does, Lego Life could make a leap from an app that feels like brand-boosting to something I'd be more likely to let my kid explore.

Lego Life arrives in the US, UK, France, Germany and Lego's home country of Denmark first, with Spain and Italy next. Lego plans to reach 90 percent of the worldwide audience by the end of 2017.

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