How Zwinky Works

Zwinky is a online service that allows users to create their own personal avatars.
Zwinky is a online service that allows users to create their own personal avatars. See more pictures of popular web sites.
Mark Von Holden/Stringer/Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to try out a new personality? Since we're stuck with ourselves, day-in and day-out, our own personalities might sometimes feel a little tired from time to time. As Jesse, the character played by Ethan Hawke in the 1995 film "Before Sunrise," says: "I have never been anywhere where I haven't been. … I've never been out bowling, if I wasn't there, you know, making some stupid joke."

So what can we do about this? There are, of course, costumes, which are probably the reason so many people look forward to Halloween -- they can be their favorite superhero for a night and revel in a little creativity. But not all of us are willing to play dress up throughout the calendar year, mainly because doing so violates generally held social norms.


But maybe this is why social networking has become so popular at the beginning of the 21st century. After all, most Web sites that offer some kind of online community allow their users to create avatars, an electronic image that represents the person controlling it. Generally, members can be as creative as they like with their avatar, either fashioning it as close to their appearance and personality as possible or creating an entirely different personality.

One of these social networking services is Zwinky, a service launched in 2006 and owned by InterActiveCorp (IAC). Zwinky lets its members create their own cartoonish, large-headed and big-eyed avatars, which they can use in several different ways.

One thing to keep in mind: Zwinky is open to anyone age 13 and older. If you're younger than 13, you won't be allowed to make your own account, not even with parental permission. Zwinky profiles can also be set to "private" if you're 18 or older, but profiles of Zwinky users younger than 18 are automatically set to private.

So how does Zwinky work? What can someone with a Zwinky avatar do? And what kind of place is Zwinktopia, anyway?


Using Zwinky

Zwinky members actually download a toolbar application to run the service.
Zwinky members actually download a toolbar application to run the service.
Ron Levine/Getty Images

To start off on Zwinky, users will need to download a small installation program onto their computers. This may be a slightly unfamiliar approach for members of other social networking sites -- most simply request that you create a username and password and fill in some personal information, including e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Zwinky, however, requires you to download a Zwinky icon onto your Web browser, which users click on to access the program's interface.

When you've successfully installed the Zwinky program and opened up the program window, it's time to customize your Zwinky character. Every Zwinky has a personal wardrobe, which users can access by clicking on the "Open Wardrobe" button near the bottom of the screen. You can manipulate a Zwinky's appearance to make it look however you want, and users choose traits including gender, skin tone, hair style and color, and more.


Zwinky avatars can move around their own virtual universe, and the main purpose of the site is for users to interact with other Zwinkies, play games and purchase digital goods. To move a Zwinky from one place to the next in a specific area, members simply use the mouse to point and click. You can make new friends or see a list of the ones you already have by clicking on the "View/Add Friends" button at the bottom of the interface. This button allows you to either send an e-mail to a fellow Zwinky requesting friendship or to see where in Zwinky's world your friends are. If a friend is online, clicking on your friend can bring you straight to him or her, call up that person's profile or let you send that person a Znote.

Of course, if another Zwinky bothers you or makes you uncomfortable, you have the option of blocking him or her from chatting with you. By clicking on that person's avatar and selecting "Block," that Zwinky will no longer be able to communicate with you or see your profile.



Zwinktopia is the virtual world in which Zwinky avatars move around.
Zwinktopia is the virtual world in which Zwinky avatars move around.
Brian Milne/Getty Images

Originally, was a site that allowed you to create your own customized avatar. After choosing outfits, accessories and physical features for your Zwinky, you'd embed the avatar into other social networking sites like MySpace.

However, on the previous page we talked about moving your Zwinky avatar around. If you embed your Zwinky into a Web page, isn't it just stuck there, with nowhere to go?


In 2007, InterActiveCorp (IAC), the company that owns and runs Zwinky, created a virtual world for Zwinky fans in which to move around and interact with other Zwinky avatars. The name of the location is, of course, Zwinktopia. Similar to other virtual worlds like Second Life and Club Penguin, Zwinktopia allows you to take your personal Zwinky avatar into an animated, video-game-like realm to roam, chat and play games. Many of the locations are based on real-life establishments -- everything including arcades, coffee shops and dance halls are fair game in Zwinktopia. Here are the major places in Zwinktopia users can visit:

  • The Zwinchester is Zwinktopia's mall, big enough to have a West Mall and an East Mall. You can either chat with fellow Zwinkies or enter one of the boutiques -- the West Mall has The Castle, University Club and Like Dat, while the East Mall has The Lair and The Surf Shop. There's also a pizzeria where you can eat fake online pizza.
  • Zarcadia is Zwinktopia's arcade, where Zwinkies go to play games and earn ZBucks (more on those later). There's also Kingpin Korner, Zwinktopia's bowling alley.
  • ZSU is Zwinktopia's university-like campus, where the main focus is the ZSU Quad, an area that comprises all of the four main dorms: the End Zone, the Omegaad, the Dungeon and the Abacus. Zwinkies can gather in the common rooms to chat or spend time in their dorm rooms, which they can purchase with enough ZBucks.
  • The Caf is a campus cafeteria at ZSU, where digital burgers and sodas are sold. There's also Java Jolt, a coffee house that has games inside.

You can access any of these places by clicking on them from the main Zwinktopia map.

In some of these locations you'll spend ZBucks, in others you'll earn them. But, how do ZBucks and the Zwinky Zcard work?


Zwinky Zcard

A Zcard account, which users can add ZBucks to with real money, lets Zwinky members purchase goods and services in Zwinktopia.
A Zcard account, which users can add ZBucks to with real money, lets Zwinky members purchase goods and services in Zwinktopia.
DreamPictures/Getty Images

Most civilizations develop their own currencies, and Zwinktopia is no different. ZBucks are the preferred virtual tender used by Zwinky users, and people use them to purchase goods and services around the Zwinktopia virtual world.

All Zwinky users start off with 100 ZBucks, and these funds can be put on a Zcard account. The Zcard is somewhat like a debit card in the real world -- it's used to buy any item in Zwinktopia, along with special premium items that users can get only with the Zcard.


So how do Zwinkies earn ZBucks? Well, there's more than one way. For instance, simply walking around and exploring Zwinktopia is one way to earn ZBucks. For each different place you visit, whether it's a single building or a larger, general area, you can earn one ZBuck, and you can collect up to 30 ZBucks per day. Playing games, however, is where the real cash is found. After finishing a game, you have the option of cashing in your score, which turns your performance into cold, hard ZBucks. The average game generates between 15 and 30 ZBucks for players, and Zwinkies can earn up to 300 ZBucks per day playing games.

Members also get 10 ZBucks for every friend they invite to join Zwinky -- there's a maximum of 10 invitations and 100 ZBucks per month. However, you'll also get an extra 50 ZBucks for every person who actually joins the service -- again, there's a maximum of 10 joins and 500 ZBucks. If members simply want to take the easy path to ZBucks, they can purchase them and add them to their Zcards by using a major credit card or PayPal account.

Zwinky users can use Zbucks to purchase clothing items, which they can acquire at the Zwinchester mall in Zwinktopia by adding clothes to their virtual shopping bags. But there's more to buy with Zbucks than just clothes. Users can also buy food and drinks at The Caf or at Java Jolt. And don't forget that you can also purchase and decorate a dorm room at ZSU. Dorm rooms are particularly expensive -- they'll cost Zwinkies 1,250 ZBucks -- and they're located in the ZSU Quad.


Benefits of Zwinky

Zwinky aims to be more than just a place for members to talk.
Zwinky aims to be more than just a place for members to talk.
Ableimages/Getty Images

Like most social networking Web sites, Zwinky allows its users to make friends, chat and socialize from their desktop or laptop computers. But it's a little bit more than a place to gather and talk. The portable aspect of Zwinktopia -- the option of importing Zwinky avatars onto other Web sites -- has made it both flexible and popular for users. The introduction of Zwinktopia has added a completely different virtual aspect to the service.

Speaking of Zwinktopia, Zwinky is similar in fashion to Club Penguin, the Disney-owned social networking world where users create and control their own penguin avatars. Club Penguin is aimed more at a younger demographic -- generally children between the ages of 6 and 12 -- while Zwinky's age group has to be older than 13 to join, but the features and objectives of both sites are nearly the same. Both sites require users to make their own personal avatars. Both services also exist in an imaginary virtual world in which users can move around: Club Penguin members roam around a chilly island, while Zwinky users move from place to place inside Zwinktopia. And on top of making friends and chatting, there's also a big focus on game playing. By playing these games, members of Club Penguin and Zwinky earn their own special kind of currency, which players can cash in for virtual goods.


In a press release, spokespeople for Zwinky pointed out the ability to create a new personality, try out new fashion trends or "make themselves hipper, trendier or more glamorous" as a positive aspect of the service. The release was also very straightforward about the fact that users could create Zwinkies that looked nothing like themselves in real life. Critics, on the other hand, point out that sites like Zwinky place too much emphasis on consumerism and attempt to suck users in instead of teaching them real world values. Regardless of that debate, Zwinky had 16 million unique members as of August 2008, and the service has added Zwinky Cuties, another virtual world marketed toward younger girls, to its roster.

For more information about social networking and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Arrington, Michael. "IAC Launches Zwinktopia At Peak of Virtual World Hype." April 29, 2007. (July 13, 2009)
  • Navarro, Mireya. "Pay Up, Kid, or Your Igloo Melts." The New York Times. Oct. 28, 2007. (July 13, 2009)
  • "Zwinky Goes for the Younger Set with Zwinky Cuties." Aug. 27, 2008. (July 13, 2009)
  • "IAC Debuts Zwinky Avatar Service." Dec. 11, 2006. (July 13, 2009)
  • "General Zwinky FAQs." (July 13, 2009)