Stefan and I have been following an interesting phenomenon: SuperPoke!Pets. SuperPoke, for those of you down on Earth, is a Facebook application you use to not only "poke" your friends, but to tickle, hug, wave at them. You can trow sheep at them, buy drinks for them, hate Monday with them, and so on. There is also a section for good causes, thus you can "fight global poverty with," "go green with," and "save water, shower with" etc.
These messages come with little pictures of pets, sheep, pigs, penguins, kittens. Everybody please: Oh, how cute. This application also exists for other social networking sites.
Since last year you can "adopt" a SuperPoke pet. It's somewhat like a Tamagotchi and it's for free. You get a website with a flash application showing your pet in some background, called a "habitat." You can feed, tickle, wash and play with your pet. If you don't do that regularly, it will look dirty, hungry and unhappy, the poor thing. If you play with your pet, you get "coins." You also get coins if you play with friend's pets or if these play with your pet.
With the coins you go to the "Pet Shop" and buy things to decorate your habitat with. That might be pictures of flowers, or clouds, or toys. You can also buy a new habitat, e.g. different rooms, a playground, a beach, a fitness room, and stuff for these.
Let me then introduce you to my pet, Fury, the sheep, on a picnic:
Cute, eh? Some of the gifs are animated, thus the butterflies are fluttering. Here is Fury's website (you'll have to get a pet yourself to play with it).
There is also a member-forum where pet owners can ask questions like if their pet will die if they go on a trip and can't feed it (it won't), where you can suggest items for the Pet Shop, enter habitat contests, and so on. Further you can get all kinds of rewards for being a good pet owner and community member, there's "Pet Levels" and "Pet Fame" and all kinds of badges you can earn for being a good friend, having trendy accessories and so on. I haven't really figured it all out. After some weeks I started finding the flash animations somewhat annoying and repetitive.
Besides buying stuff with the coins you get from playing with the pets, you can buy "Gold" and go shopping in the "Gold Shop". The gold you buy 10:1 for US$ and charge it on your credit card. Needless to say, the "Gold Items" are fancier than the other ones. They are larger, they are animated, they are the Want-have-stuff. Every Monday, there's new items, and they are sold out really fast. That's right. I find this quite amazing. People buy little cartoon pictures of furniture to combine with a picture of a pet in a flash application. With real money.
The stuff doesn't look remotely realistic btw, the items are all 2-dimensional and you can't even scale them, meaning perspectives often don't fit together. Neither can you move your pet or get it to sit on a chair or play with a toy.
But here is the interesting part.
You can give "gifts" to other pet owners. Since many items in the Pet Shop are meanwhile sold out, it didn't take long for the forum to develop a trading post where people were arranging exchange of items, while others made "garage sales" on their habitats using the possibility to make mutual gifts. Since this was quite clumsy, you can now set up a "Have list" and a "Want list" on your profile. Together with the possibility to exchange messages this works quite well. Since one can't make a simultaneous exchange though there is some trust involved. For all I can tell though, cheating is virtually absent. If a trade has been successful, you can give a "reliable trader" compliment.
You can however only give items as gift, you can not transfer coins. So we have a barter economy! One that is cleanly separated from all other world markets. It is a quite centralized market though since pet owners can't produce any items themselves. Nevertheless, you'll notice some distinct features.
For example rare items are under high demand, because even if you don't want them, you can trade them on. (Since the community has been growing, older items are generally becoming rare.) Once items are sold out, their value becomes basically totally decoupled from the original price. One could argue they tend towards their "true value."
Other items are fairly frequently stocked up, like some food and furniture items. Their prices never change though. This strikes me as a great opportunity to find out how demand depends on the price and, if there was a way to provide supply, if prices reach equilibrium and under which circumstances. I also wonder whether the barter economy will eventually discover some suitable item that can take the place of money.
All together we seem to be witnessing the birth of a new market economy. It's itching in my fingers to see some data about consumer's behavior...
And finally, here is Stefan's pet: Struppi the puppy