MAGINE a pill that could make you cool.
Ned Vizzini did, and the squip - a tiny ingestible supercomputer
that gives you social advice on the spot ("Be jaded and profane" or
"Keep looking her in the face") - became the centerpiece of his
novel for teenagers, "Be More Chill" (Miramax, 2004). To market the
book, Mr. Vizzini, 23, asked a friend who is a Web designer, Adam
Collett, to help him build a tongue-in-cheek Web site promoting
squips as if they were real.
"Adam said, 'One Web site?! Why not create a world of Web sites?'
" Mr. Vizzini recalls.
So with $13,500 from Miramax - along with contributions by a
growing number of online followers - Mr. Vizzini and Mr. Collett
built the Squipiverse (iwanttobecool.org), a constellation of 14 Web
sites devoted to all fictional things squip: squip news, squip
viruses, even squip detractors. And while the teenagers involved
control their computers - as opposed to vice versa - there's a sense
in which the creativity and community of the Squipiverse makes them,
Since launching the Squipiverse in June, Mr. Vizzini has received
nearly 2,000 pieces of e-mail from the squip-curious. Some have
simply followed the "squip: Google
it" exhortation at the end of his book; others have wandered onto
squip sites through links or banner ads. About half believe,
initially, that squips are real. (One Israeli teenager inquired, "I
wondered if the squip will talk to me in English or it will talk to
me in Hebrew?")
But Mr. Vizzini's aim was to create a hook, not a hoax. "When we
reply, we don't tell people it's not real in a 'Ha ha, we fooled
you' kind of way. We say, 'It's not real, and we're sure you don't
need a squip anyway, but we'd love for you to be a part of this,' "
he says. "Then it's like, 'Ooh, now I'm on the inside.' That's what
gets people interested: flipping from outsider to insider." Mr.
Vizzini sends fans squip stickers and T-shirts , and invites them to
post on the squip discussion board or add content to squip
Several squip sites encourage readers to contribute or
collaborate. Squip News (squipnews.com), for example, offers
breaking stories ("New Virus Makes Squipsters Act Like Dorks") and
service articles that answer questions like, "What happens if you
modify the programming of a squip or the hardware itself?"
Ave (rhymes with "Dave") Hutcheson, 17, of Needham, Mass., wrote
a glossary of squip terms as well as her own cautionary tale of a
squip gone bad. She's also a regular on the discussion board. "I
like that there's a way to find out on every page that it's not
real," she says. "Everyone knows it's marketing, but you're entering
this community and meeting these people and getting to submit your
own stuff. It engages you in a way that you can actually participate
Kathryn Okstad, 14, a ninth grader from Los Angeles, wrote an
article for celebritysquip.com - a site devoted to musings about
stars who can't be that cool on their own - about Jessica Simpson's
purchase of a used - "not that functional," she says - squip. Of the
other squippers she meets online, Kathryn says: "We have the same
weirdness. We talk about life and music and anything weird happening
in the news." (She's referring in particular to the medical implant
chip recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration - a
harbinger, board posters half-jokingly say, of squips to come.)
The Squipiverse is not the first fictional miniworld created
online to market a product. The makers of "The Blair Witch Project"
used the Internet to disseminate an elaborate back story for the
movie, making it look even more like a real documentary. The film
"A.I." was promoted through a Web-based murder mystery and scavenger
Mr. Vizzini and Mr. Collett have also capitalized on the success
of the Squipiverse to form an "interactive contextual advertising"
firm called the Brain Bridge. Their next project is promoting a book
about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that will immerse Web visitors in
1911 New York.
But according to its denizens, it's the Squipiverse that does, in
a sense, offer precisely what its fictional product claims to. Brian
Heim, 14, a ninth grader who spends several hours nightly overseeing
the squip message board, is a self-described dork. "I'm stuck in
this place called Dudley, N.C., which is really anti-reading and
pro-hunting, so I'm lucky if I find friends who are readers," he
says. Brian says his involvement with the Squipiverse has changed
him and his outlook: "I've kind of learned that cool is whatever you
make cool to be."