Even in a virtual world on the Internet, teens long to be cool. And what can be cooler than a Ramones T-shirt on your self-styled Web persona?

Zwinktopia, the fashion-conscious virtual community from IAC/InterActiveCorp., is letting major musicians set up shop in its universe, with deals for a boutique from rapper 50 Cent to tout an upcoming album and virtual merchandise from rock bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Slipknot.

The deals mark a first for both the musicians and the growing Zwinktopia community, home to more than 6.5 million registered "Zwinky" users who create and dress Web characters, then use them to interact with friends online.
What started as a game mimicking a child's play with baby dolls has burgeoned into a new business opportunity for entertainment and brands, the next frontier for Web growth after social networks like News Corp.'s MySpace.

Executives involved in the deals said they were still working out the financial model for the business.

"It's the equivalent of sending a marketing team to a new country where there is a new economy," said Chris "Broadway" Romero, creative director of digital media for 50 Cent. The rapper's virtual store will allow Zwinky members to dress up characters in 50 Cent gear for free and provide a chance to listen to his next album "Curtis," due in September.

A separate locale for bands represented by merchandiser Bravado International Group will charge users for a Ramones T-shirt, or other goods, in the virtual Zwinky currency, known as Zbucks.

Users can win Zbucks by playing online games, but down the road the Web site is expected to offer the opportunity to buy Zbucks with money as well.
Ultimately, Zwinktopia aims to create a marketplace for virtual and real merchandise among one of the most sought-after audiences for advertisers -- teenagers and young adults.

"Our users have asked for everything from fashion brands like Prada and Juicy Couture, as well as more entertainment entities," said Scott Garell, chief executive of IAC's consumer applications and portals division.

"All of this fits into our roadmap where we're going to position ourselves around fashion and lifestyle, with all the clothes and accessories," Garell told Reuters.

Zwinktopia tends to attract teenage girls and young adults. If that seems like an unlikely target for rappers and hard rock bands, frequent Zwinky user Camille Fleury puts such doubts to rest. "Everyone online is usually into this punk style, so I have to talk more about that stuff and get more in touch with it," Fleury, 14, said by phone from her home in Lakewood, Colorado.

Fleury "works" at an Internet coffee shop and a pizza joint that exists only in Zwinky-land, and has designed uniforms for her Web avatar to wear.
The success of Second Life, one of the most popular virtual worlds for adults that boasts its own commerce system, has helped raise interest for younger-skewing sites like Stardoll, Doppelganger and Club Penguin.

ComScore measurement data show over 4.5 million unique visitors went to the site to create Zwinkies in April. The data have yet to be updated since the launch of virtual world Zwinktopia on April 30, but Garell estimates as many as 1.5 million of its members have joined in that time.

Just as crucial to potential media partners and advertisers, the average amount of time a user spends on the Zwinky site has doubled to 50 minutes in the past month. With such growth already apparent, IAC hopes to see Zwinktopia expand to as many as 10 million users in the next nine months, Garell said.
Fleury says she can spend several hours a day in Zwinky land. Much of that time is devoted to dissecting teenage woes with her online friends, who "are always talking about boyfriends and girlfriends."

"There's a lot of flirting going on," she said. While her real-world self might giggle over the latest cartoon movie with schoolmates, online "it's all serious and you have to watch R-rated movies a lot to know what everyone is talking about."