Teens abuse, find comfort in anonymity on Formspring.me

Teenagers are flocking to Formspring.me, a social media tool that allows users to anonymously ask questions for others to publicly answer.

Every user has this box, which allows any visitor to ask a question or relay an opinion. Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Teenagers are flocking to Formspring.me, a social media tool that allows users to anonymously ask questions for others to publicly answer. Users get a unique URL that points their friends (or foes) to a simple form that reads, "Ask me anything." But, of course, the simplest things can sometimes be the most problematic.

A police department in Suffolk County, N.Y., investigating the suicide of Alexis Pilkington, 17, might consider Formspring.me as a factor in her death. According to the Associated Press, Alexis was receiving harassing messages before her death last March 21. Her family insists she was troubled before the cyber bullying, but authorities are looking into how the anonymously delivered messages influenced her suicide.

Formspring.me launched in November 2009 and immediately made its way into Tumblr blogs as an integrated feature. Subscribers use the Formspring box to ask blog publishers questions about themselves or the content they publish.

Since then, it went viral, attracting 50 million unique visitors last month, according to the company. Thanks to the service's success, the company is now bringing its offices to San Francisco after receiving $2.5 million from a group of Silicon Valley investors. Among the investors are Digg founder Kevin Rose and former Facebook executive Dave Morin.

The Web site is currently in its infancy; it has no revenue model or API. However, it does have the elements needed to attract, engage, and retain users around the globe, especially Generation Y.

Jolie O'Dell of ReadWriteWeb attributes one of the reasons for widespread adoption to "our deep and insatiable love of self-reference." It's one of the biggest reasons for the success of Facebook, and now it's what Formspring is based on: me, me, me, me...me.

Self-reference can be found in the foundation of many social media, like status updates, blog entries, and Tweets. These all form our online identity, but when we publish those things, it's because we consciously choose to. On Formspring, users don't decide when to share their thoughts; they wait for their peers to demand it. It's an opportunity to reveal things about yourself that you want people to know, but would likely not volunteer.

Besides self-reference, it's the actual element of demand that retains users. For most using Facebook, there's only one little thing that brings us back: the notifications. Users know that the more they interact with their Facebook network, the more notifications they'll get. On Formspring, there's a similar anxiety for feedback; the answerers constantly check back for questions, and the askers want their answers yesterday. Because users invest time into the service, they expect to get something in return. It's a strategic rewards system commonly used in successful RPG games like World of Warcraft.

Self-reference and gaming elements are what engage and retain those who answer questions. But what attracts the askers? Anonymity. Users can anonymously tell someone how they feel about them, or something they feel they should know. They can ask questions they'd be otherwise too embarrassed to ask. But, worse, they can also fill a user's in-box with hate mail, harassment, or other inappropriate statements.

After browsing Formspring.me, it seems as though teenagers are doing exactly that.

I used Twitter to find Gen Ys using Formspring and asked them questions in their Formspring boxes.

Why did you start a Formspring? What's in it for you? And, how do you choose which questions to answer?

AimeeBrock: "I really don't know why I joined. I guess curiosity? I'm incredibly shy and, as creepy as it sounds, would find comfort in the anonymity. Just figured I'd give others a venue to ask or say whatever they want to me. As far as questions go, I delete the pervy or gross ones first. After that, there's no real rhyme or reason to what I decide to answer. Just whatever tickles my fancy, I suppose."

Heyitstorii: "I started a formspring because I thought it was interesting! I like the idea.There isn't much in it for me. I just enjoy answering people's questions. It's cool to find out what people are interested in knowing about you. I don't really pick out questions. I answer almost everything unless I get one that I feel is inappropriate or too personal to post on the internet."

You get a lot of insensitive comments on here...why do you choose to keep your account open?

greaserforlife: "bc i don't really care. they can't say it to my face, then why should i care? it honestly just makes me laugh how much someone thinks they can 'hurt' me through this. they're stupid."

What these teens and many other don't know is that all questions and answers are indexed. A job candidate that uses Formspring has made his or her reputation, opinions, background, and other information available publicly to employers willing Google them. Though it's hard to keep up with social media activity, parents should warn their children of these risks.

Since the case of Alexis Pilkington, Formspring now lets users choose whether or not to accept anonymously submitted questions.

About the author

Sharon Profis is a CNET How To expert who cooks up DIY projects, in-depth guides, and little-known tricks that help you get the most out of your tech. During her four years at CNET, she's covered social media, funky gadgets, and has shared her tech knowledge on CBS and other news outlets.

 

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