Network: Fancy being Pamela Anderson today?

Forget the faceless chat room, now you can choose a character and step into a cartoon world, or live out your fantasies.

Encountering outrageous people in an Internet chat room is to be expected, and the Dobedo site doesn't disappoint. Within minutes of logging on to the fantasy island site, its rules, history and locations are explained by Dr Fjordahl and I am invited to my first online party by Danny C, a fly guy rapper, and his funky eco-warrior girlfriend Priss.

The characters are in fact editorial staff, employed to welcome new chat members. When the members are in the chat rooms on the Dobedo site, these characters can join in. Danny C and the six other staff characters are online celebrities. And the fantasy world described by Dr Fjordahl is a visual backdrop for the chat.

It has everything you would expect in the real world - different locations, shops and homes. Having selected a face and a name, each new guest gets his or her own chat room, or rather bedroom, which they can decorate in the style of their choice. Inhabitants speak to each other in cartoon speech bubbles. When you chat, the expression on your cartoon face changes, and the speech bubble alters too, to look as if you are thinking, shouting or whispering.

The idea for Dobedo came about two years ago. A Swedish Web design company wrote a story about Dr Fjordahl discovering a new land, sending out messages in a bottle declaring independence and inviting people to join him and build a better place for all human beings. The saga was e-mailed out to the Internet community in Stockholm.

Its popularity led to the company's launching it as a free chat site last October and it has since attracted a quarter of all 16-26-year-olds in Sweden to register. On average 3,000 new people sign up every day.

The Web design company has since terminated all other contracts, and devotes itself to the site. The initial staff of five has risen to 25. And since it launched in Britain two months ago it has acquired nearly 20,000 registered users.

A new chat engine developed in-house enables a person to move around in two dimensions and talk in real time interactively with other people, through a speech bubble. Unlike other chat sites, which are usually text- based, the Dobedo chat members live in a glorious, sun-drenched world.

The bottom line of Dobedo is content by the users for the users. So they build their own clans. There are lots of locations to party in, secret party venues, a personal online diary and calendar, 70 characters to choose from and the chance to become involved in the UK's first online "chat" soap opera. More experienced users also have a chance to upload their own images to the site.

So you can live out a fantasy existence as Pamela Anderson, for instance. The chat is generally about what young people are interested in - shopping, fashion, sports, music, film and movie stars. There are fan clubs. The main reason why people go there is to communicate with other people - what its designers call the "chat flirt element".

Martin Osterdahl, Dobedo's director of international operations, explains that they wanted Dobedo to counter the argument that the Internet isolates people. "You go in there and make new friends, and move a certain part of social life into the Internet. And it's a new type of social life where you can interact with people you wouldn't normally be able to meet, because they live far away from you."

Everyone using the site is considered a "loyal user", but there are a couple of thousand "regulars" who use it every day - the average chat time is 25 minutes. The regular users help to monitor the site alongside the various official Dobedo characters, written by editorial staff. Some users are upgraded to sheriffs, and they have the power to "zap" anyone who's behaving badly, which means that their character turns into a cloud and they are chucked off the site.

"In these chat rooms people come in for first time and go, `fuckyoufuckyou'," Osterdahl says. "We avoid this by using our regulars as sheriffs. There isn't a Big Brother feeling - young people don't like that because they believe the Internet is all about freedom of speech. It is. But, at the same time, Dobedo is another world and it has a constitution that you must follow if you want to play the game.

"Hopefully it will be a starting-point for young people surfing the Net. We want to be the first big youth entertainment brand for the Internet. This is new, and it's virgin territory. We believe that just as Disney is for this century, Dobedo will be for the next. We aim to be a bit like MTV for the next generation; to be the European youth and lifestyle brand on the Internet."

There are already plans for a Dobedo animated film. And, of course, the strong graphics and appealing characteristics offer enormous brand potential for merchandising and spin-off marketing. Dobedo is funded by The Wallenberg group (Ericsson/SAAB), via their venture capital arm Novare Kapital, making it their first Internet entertainment venture.

Revenue comes from traditional banner advertising. And there are some innovative ideas, such as co-branding events. A company can have a chat room within Dobedo. There is also sponsorship; at a party in the Swedish Dobedo, 300 bags of crisps were handed out by the biggest crisp manufacturer in Sweden; users can pick them up within the chat room.

"We will never do commercial activity that interferes with the community experience," Osterdahl says. He points out that there are advertising banners in real cities, which justifies the inclusion of neon lights and billboards in the Dobedo island. He describes these parts of the site as "shop-u-entertainment". "It's the borderline between shopping and entertainment; you walk down the avenue of Trumpford and there is bound to be a Dixons, for instance, although we will not call it that. But its equipment can be purchased there."

It's already Europe's fastest-growing chat community. The British site is now up and running, with many mad events going on in the next few weeks. You need only log on to the Dobedo website to get the hottest ticket in town.


Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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