Teens Abuse, Find Comfort in Anonymity on Formspring.me

Jim Liebelt | Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University | Friday, April 2, 2010

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. 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 attracted 50 million unique visitors last month, according to the company.

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.

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.

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.

Source: CNET News