What I found shocked me. It's conspicuous consumption taken to a whole new (disgusting) level.
A Sense of Belonging Among Belongings
BAXTER C., 13, owns a Yamaha dirt bike. Hayley J., 19, has pink Converse sneakers. Laurie H., 16, amassed a sizable Pez dispenser collection.
All of them have profiles on Zebo.com, a new Web site devoted to lists of everyday possessions of young consumers, with postings from the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland and as far across the globe as the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.
If the Internet encourages people to share with the world the contents of their souls, Zebo encourages them to share the contents of their homes. It is “MTV Cribs” for the masses. Minimalists need not log in.
“It was so different and interesting,” said Kara Valeriano, 19, a student at the University of San Francisco, who is a member. “It was kind of fun just listing your own things.”
Zebo.com, which went live last Tuesday, is neither salacious nor gossipy. The lists of strangers’ possessions is about as interesting as a FreshDirect order. Yet some four million people have joined the free site since January, during its private beta test, according to Roy de Souza, Zebo’s founder and chief executive. Most of them are 16 to 25, he said.
“The older generation find it a bit odd,” said Mr. de Souza, who is based in San Francisco. “The younger people are very keen to display this stuff for their friends.”
But why? People don’t normally compile a list of their possessions for reasons other than to file an insurance claim or to compose a rap song — unless they are extreme materialists on the level of Veruca Salt, the spoiled rich girl in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
The youngest generations of consumers are going even further and making those lists public. It is almost a declaration of the maxim “He who has the most toys wins.”
Mr. de Souza, though, sees it somewhat differently.
“For the youth, you are what you own,” he said. “They list these things because it defines them.”
Compare it to gleaning something about someone’s personality by reviewing their book or music collection.
Some Zebo members said they like to list what they own because they enjoy maintaining an evolving inventory of what they have and what they crave; the site allows users to do both. Karly Mossberg, 18, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, said she likes to make notes in her online profile about the things she desires. “I’m obsessed with shopping and I’m also really organized,” she said. “It’s like my daily planner.”
But even more interesting for this first crop of site users is seeing what other people list and want. And because of that, Zebo is in many ways a social networking site, with several of the same features as MySpace. There are member profiles that include each user’s relationship status, interests and location, along with photographs and links to their friends. Members can also fill in blanks on their profiles about their “celebrity style” and the shopping areas in which they feel they need improvement.
But while visitors to MySpace are greeted with the saccharine “a place for friends” tagline, visitors to Zebo are greeted with a brusque: “Hi. What do you own?”
That is to be expected, as Zebo, after all, is also a business. While billing itself as “the world’s largest repository of what people own,” it is designed to be a shopping community and e-commerce site. Mr. de Souza plans to add more product links, sell advertising and regularly publish data about the habits and preferences of the young people who use the site.
But the first goal was to build an online community, said Mr. de Souza, who has put his marketing and advertising expertise to use for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Charles Schwab. And in doing that, he is preparing for the future. Zebo’s profiles already have spaces for members to describe how they like to shop. (There is a box for them to blog about shopping, too.) And the site enables them to search for items they want and to solicit advice from one another.
Kris Browning, 26, of Jackson, Mich., said she likes to check out whether her friends have purchased anything new and to peruse their wish lists. “It’s great,” she said. “You can see what your friends like and you can get them birthday presents or Christmas presents.”
One member, Julianna E., 17, wants an engagement ring (“eventually”), a greenhouse full of orchids and rooms of Crate & Barrel furniture. Hector E., 18, wants an Xbox 360. Michael B., 20, wants hydraulics for his car so it will bounce.
Some people just want a girlfriend. And perhaps one day Zebo will give Match.com a run for its money. A man with a 42-inch plasma television could fall for a woman with a Panasonic DVD recorder and live materialistically ever after.
Of course, there’s no way to verify — and Zebo’s members are not asked to prove — the lists of possessions. Any Zebo member posing as a shopaholic teenager could actually be the next version of Lonelygirl15, whose YouTube.com videos were definitively outed this week as a phony promotion campaign.
Zebo members already seem to understand what they can get away with. A member known as Dino D. gave his age as 15 and said he is the divorced owner of a strip club. Sarah T., whose age is listed as 14, said she has a private beach, a jet and a nail salon. Some member profiles are not filled in at all.
Zebo (the name was chosen in part because it is a short, catchy Web address) is owned by Zedo Inc., an Internet and advertising technology company based in San Francisco. The site’s first members were enlisted by advertisements on Google and invitations that members of a former e-commerce Web site sent to their friends.
In their profiles, many users explain why they joined. Some were attracted by Zebo’s theme, citing “product advice” — or, as 11-year-old Reina G. put it, “Shopping duhh!” But many said they joined Zebo for the same reasons a person might join MySpace: making friends and networking.
So far, Zebo is almost wholesome. Its members’ primary vice is coveting. It is like MySpace, Ms. Mossberg said, but “without the creepy part.”