Have you heard of Formspring.me? It only came to my attention last week , but suddenly, in the way the internet does, I am tripping over articles about it. For those as yet blissfully unaware, Formspring.me, founded in Nov 2009 by survey company Formstack, is a site which enables questions to be posted to members, with the choice of anonymity. Members have an in-box, choose which questions to answer, and post the Q&A. Only when they are answered do the questions become public. Formsping (now of course a verb – “Hey, let’s formspring Alice!”) links with your Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook account to invite questions and publish answers among a wider audience.
I guess predictably, the site has proved virally popular amongst teens. As danah boyd and Anne Collier point out in their thoughtful articles on the topic, quizzes and questionnaires have long been a rite of adolescent passage – Jackie magazine c. 1976: “Are you a faithful friend? Take this test to find out”, 90’s email chainletters with ’10 Things you Didn’t Know about Me’.
And equally predictably, Formspring has become a hub of cyberbullying, allegedly contributing to one teen suicide and with a host of shocked and anguished parents calling out for the site to be banned from school networks.
“Social banter isn’t what makes Formspring particularly interesting or controversial. There are also plenty of anonymous sexual innuendos like “you’re cute” or “will you go out with me” questions, followed by “who is this?” as the answer. There are also many more explicit versions of this, with some bordering on sexual harassment. There are also anonymous posts that ring of bullying or harassment, from the relatively painless “you’re fat” to the more crass “fuck you slut.” Finally, there are the ones that invite the participant to talk about a third party, often by full name (e.g., “don’t you hate Kristen?”). Now, keep in mind that only questions that are answered are posted and participants have a choice in what they decide to answer. So when you see crass questions followed by answers, the participant chose to answer the question and post it. I don’t even want to imagine the questions that they receive and don’t answer…” (danah boyd)
Teens are posting obscene or offensive questions, and they are being answered: self-humiliating Q&As posted to a publicly visible page associated with their real name. Some of the answers to the anonymous questions suggest that the respondents actually know who is asking them. Why are the young people participating? Why are they replying?
danah boyd speculates that it may be a ‘truth or dare’ scenario:
“Teen girls engaged in responding to crass questions are using Formspring to prove that they’re tough to their peers. Teen boys and girls are throwing curve balls at their peers to see how much they can handle, primarily using mean-spirited and sexualized language. While staying tough is clearly part of the game, it’s also clear from my informants that the harassment is playing a psychological toll.”
My take out from the Formspring craze is less outrage at the site’s existence, or even danah’s distressed question of why teens feel they have to act tough and ‘take it on the chin’ (I was a teen: nothing has changed), but the question of the rise in young people’s tolerance towards crass, bullying and abusive behaviour online, which Anne Collier mentions in her article in NetFamilyNews :
“I recently heard from a friend and middle school teacher about the school principal thoughtfully sending a letter of warning about Formspring out to parents. The teacher emailed me, “I’m struck by the fact that adults still see this largely as a ’site’ issue and not a behavior issue. We can ’tilt at windmills’ and try to take on all the ‘offensive sites’ offline, or we can educate our students on how to advocate for themselves as well as develop citizenship skills that address both their own and others’ behavior.”
How can we help young people to understand that, contrary to what they witnessing in the media, civility is (or should be) actually the social norm?