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At a Click, a Clique of the Uncool

By LYNN HARRIS

Published: October 21, 2004


Julien Jourdes for The New York Times
DR. FRANKENSQUIP - Ned Vizzini, left, and Adam Collett created a world of tongue-in-cheek Web sites to promote Mr. Vizzini's creation. He says they wanted a hook, not a hoax.

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IMAGINE 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, well, cool.

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 sites.

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 in."

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 hunt.

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."


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