Formspring forges out of awkward adolescence

Like many a teenager, the question-and-answer service grew like a weed and got a questionable reputation. A funding round and new media-friendly feature are designed to help clean up its act.

It's been a volatile year for Formspring, a question-and-answer service that saw lightning-fast growth in the wake of its November 2009 launch but also controversy and scorn as it was criticized for harboring high levels of spam and nasty anonymous bullying. Slightly over a year later, it was unclear whether Formspring would be able to turn this traffic and interest into something positive, sustainable, and eventually profitable.

The company, predictably, says that it can. On Tuesday night, Formspring made a set of announcements that collectively spell out a desire to grow up: the company has raised $11.5 million in a Series A venture round. And it's launched an ambitious new feature, the "Respond" button, which lets site owners use Formspring to solicit input or answers from their audiences as a more distributed sort of take on Internet commenting.

With the Respond button, which anyone with a Web site will be able to embed, Formspring users can post their reactions and responses to their own Formspring pages and other social networks where they can be syndicated. They will in turn link back to the site or publication that originally posted the question or request for responses. The goal, founder and CEO Ade Olonoh says, is to "reach a broader audience and extend the Formspring experience."

At launch, a number of partner sites like AskMen.com, The Huffington Post, and IGN, have already integrated the Formspring Respond button. Like the Facebook "like" button--which seems to have been an inspiration to Formspring--it's free to install.

Responses aren't aggregated on a participating publisher's site, nor does the publisher have any privileges to moderate them--they're the property of the Formspring user answering the question. That's in line with Formspring's existence as a distributed network of inquiries and reaction. Unlike Quora, another question-and-answer site that's been generating plenty of chatter in Silicon Valley, it doesn't aim to create a searchable trove of questions and answers; Formspring is distributed rather than centralized. Until the introduction of the Respond button, users could only ask questions directly to other individual users.

This single-feature model gave Formspring extraordinary pull among young people, who propelled the service's growth from zero to 20 million users in only a year. Nearly 2 billion answers to questions have been posted, and the domain has 3.5 million unique visitors daily. The problem is that along with this came the bad press: Highlighting how teens could use it to harass one another anonymously, Formspring became a central scapegoat in the fight against cyberbullying and an instant red flag for many parents. To make matters worse, spammers on Formspring became a big problem as well, and the service did not appear to be doing much about it or introducing new features that could improve the experience.

The announcement of the Respond button, giving Formspring a foot in the door with professional publishers (and perhaps brand marketers) for the first time, is the company's first public move toward becoming more than that site where kids ask one another insidery and often mean questions (to be fair to Formspring, it says only 22 percent of its user base is under the age of 18). There is not yet a business model to go along with it, and Olonoh says the company has not yet figured that out.

The venture funding should help keep them afloat for a while: The $11.5 million led by Redpoint Ventures and Baseline Ventures means that Formspring has raised a total of $14 million. It has 19 employees and hopes to double this year, and along with the personnel expansion says it's working hard to tackle both the cyberbullying stigma and the spam problem ("we've been doing a lot of work behind the scenes," Olonoh said on that note). Currently, it's working with MIT researchers on a project to analyze teen cyberbullying that may also lead to the creation of new tools to prevent and address it.

But while Formspring's situation may be unusual, Olonoh's central mantra for what the company is doing right now is a familiar Valley tagline. "Today, we're just focusing on user growth," he said.

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Tech Culture
About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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