Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Social media full circle miracle

Fifteen years ago, when my career was just getting off the ground (read: I had no idea what I was doing) I somehow landed a job at a sexy Internet start up, one of those destined-for-greatness, ultimately positioned to fail ventures buoyed by Microsoft stock options and guys under 30 with Really Great Ideas. I was assigned to spearhead the editorial efforts of, "the world's first safe online community for kids and teens." We had an online magazine. We had games. We had a homepage builder. And we had a monitored chat. This is all back in 1995 - 2000, which I guess makes me a sort of an Internet Grandma, but whatever. I loved my job at the time and was passionate about creating a safe and fun destination for kids all over the world. But then we got bought and moved everything to Chicago and then we got sold again and I jumped ship to go to work for Fox Kids (only to get sold to Disney two years later). And then, inevitably, there was this:

March 26, 2001

CHICAGO-- After five years of awards and accolades as the safest and most fun community for kids on the Internet, ( announced today that it is closing its doors. The final day of operation will be March 30, 2001.

I figured FreeZone and its mission were gone for good, along with the rest of the failed start ups of the 1990s. Maybe we were ahead of our time. Maybe we had the wrong business model. Maybe we just didn't "get it." But then I had other jobs - also in youth marketing and children's media - and found myself asking the same questions when ventures failed or changed direction. Is it possible to make money in the kid business and do the right thing at the same time? More importantly, do the children we're trying to serve even notice or care?

Last week, completely out of the blue, I received an e-mail, a social media full-circle moment if there ever was one:

Hello there,

I found your e-mail address on a couple of networking websites after looking up FreeZone (linkedin, scbwi), but this isn't a business related e-mail - instead I come to you just to send a simple thanks.

To give the creepiness of this e-mail some context, I was going through old boxes this weekend and came across a big one of letters when I was growing up and I had one from you. When you had your website, Freezone, operating I was a frequent (addicted is probably a better term) chatter there.

Even though it has been so many years since then, it really made an impact on me (both your letter, and my hours and hours of time in chat). I was a completely isolated kid and it was great to have a safe place to 'go'. I also met great people in the chat who I do continue to have periodic contact with after all these years. So, for whatever it may be worth to you now I wanted to extend again my thanks for really having an impact on who I am today even though we don't even know each other. I'm working towards doing things in my own career that I can only hope make the same kinds of difference.

All the best,
(aka "Burn")

"Burn" and I have since corresponded via e-mail and we're now connected via the latest social media sites. She's 28!!! Which makes me feel very old - it's the same age that I was when I was running FreeZone. That time feels light years away yet fresh in my mind. Her note serves as a wonderful reminder that well-intentioned acts do make a difference, and that we have a tremendous responsibility as content providers and marketers in how we ultimately shape the lives of kids and teens who consume our products.

How is your children's media business impacting the lives of real kids? I'd love to hear your stories.

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