Formspring.me-eh?

If you’re like me, you hadn’t paid too much attention to social networking site formspring.me until high school soccer star, Alexis Pilkington, 17, took her life in what could be another cyberbullying-related tragedy.  Although Alexis’ parents have downplayed the role the Internet played in the suicide, the vicious nature of the comments on Alexis’ formspring.me account have led police to dig deeper.

So what is Formspring.me?

Formspring.me, is a new social networking site that allows you to “ask questions, give answers and learn more about your friends.”  The site also allows you to create anonymous question boxes for all of your social networks, similar in form and function to the Honesty Box feature on MySpace and Facebook.

The Positives

On the upside, as Tech Crunch writer Jason Kincaid details, the site “lets you invite anyone on the web to ask you questions and gives you a platform to answer them.  It’s your own personal information.  You invite people to ask you any question they want, and then the next time you log into the site, you’re shown a list of pending questions in your inbox.  You select which questions you want to answer and delete the ones you don’t.  The result is a stream of questions and answers that let your friends and fans learn about you—think of it as an ongoing interview, where you get to act as both the interview’s subject and moderator.”

So that sounds kinda cool, right?

The Negatives (My Review)

I decided to investigate. Creating an account is remarkably simple, and connecting with anyone-from friends to strangers is also an easy process.  To check out the content on users’ profiles, I entered 50 common names (Amy, Katie, Sam, Kristin, Chris, Donna, Lillian, Julie, Tyler, Bob, etc.) and clicked on the first picture profile that came up and that included content in English.  Of the fifty profiles I viewed, 16 were not active users (they had not used the site in months), 5 were moderate users (they used the site 1-2 times per week), and 30 were active users (they had recent posts and used the site more than 2 times per week).  Unfortunately, I encountered crude behavior, harassment, and content that could easily be interpreted as cyberbullying on both the moderate and active users’ profiles, 25 out of 35 profiles, or 71%.

The majority of users profiles I viewed said they were teenagers (How did I know?  Anonymous users asked them how old they were and they replied).  Many of the profiles had sexual solicitations or sexual content of some sort (anonymous comments asking what their bra size was, whether they were virgins, whether they could suck body parts, commenting on and critiquing the size of their body parts, gossip about who they have slept with, etc.).  Expletives also saturated the site, usually accompanied by some type of bullying or crude sexual comments.

Here are some examples of exchanges:

__________________

Bit#$, don’t come and give me hugs anymore, I don’t f*&^ing want them from you.

Wht?! Who is this?

Bitc# u know who this is. F$#% off u skankbag

Well if I knew who this was, I wouldn’t be asking now would i? please stop being a puss# and just say who you are.

__________________

One girl added a status to her profile that said: “R.I.P. Alexis Pilkington; Live free”, and in response, users posted vicious posts like the following:

Alexis Pilkington’s suicide was fu%$ing hilarious.  I’m glad that piece of sh#t killed herself.  REST IN PIECE, WHORE!

________________

You are so fat.  Why don’t you take your fat lesbo self to the fu#king mall and buy yourself some shi#y clothes to cover up your stupid fat body.

_________________

Everyone is talking about how u r such a fu$#ing WHORE.  Why the FU$# did you sleep with alex you SHI$face?!!!! You are such a SLUT and everyone knooooooows everything you did.

_________________

Fortunately, some teens did not answer the personal questions or respond to the comments, but unfortunately, many did.  From my brief review, the potential dangers and emotional costs seem to far outweigh the benefits of letting your child on this site, and I would recommend blocking this site through your parental controls (see our listing here).  Although this is a fairly simple site, it does not have many of the privacy settings that are on other social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

If you do allow your teen to use this site, create your own profile and become familiar with the site’s structure and applications.  Understand that users must be 13 years of age to use the site, so if your children are younger, then they shouldn’t be using this site.  As a parent, also check your teens profile regularly and use our Internet Safety 101 Rules ‘N Tools® to protect your children.

Instruct your teen to:

  1. Limit personally identifiable information, including your profile picture, your username and your location.
  2. Disallow anonymous questions.
  3. Avoid answering or asking questions that are personal or inappropriate.
  4. Block users who are asking questions of posting statements that are personal or inappropriate.
  5. Treat others as they would like to be treated.
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5 Comments

  1. Gary Rush

    Interesting analysis and especially the stats your observed. But what I found curiously absent from your report is that the account holder gets to review all questions and decide which to respond to and which to throw away. So all the examples you gave would only have been available for your viewing if the account holder “published” them. So your advice should have included discarding any inappropriate or hurtful questions. Also, I think this full control by the owner mitigates quite a bit the risk of the site.

    • Gary~
      Great addition, and yes, this is an important point! I thought that was covered in point 3, but it is worth noting for parents and teens that you can choose to review and publish the questions, although I am a bit uncertain about the functionality of that potential safety mechanism, as in the case of Alexis Pilkington’s profile, upon which comments continued to appear on her site after her suicide. But thank you for bringing this up! Kids should use discretion as they are publishing and answering questions in this very pubic space. ~CCL

  2. John Smith

    While I agree that some kids are becoming too mean just because it is anonymous, I believe the lack of anonymity would cause the site to fail. The idea is that you can ask a friend a question that you would otherwise be too shy to ask. I would say that many of these questions have become of a sexual nature but they dont have to be. If I was going to ask a friend a question than I would send a message or text to that person. The whole idea is that it IS anonymous. The site has put in place ways to block users (even if they are anonymous) and this is the best option. If someone does not like getting personal questions than what do they expect from such a site? If someone starts to bully you or say crude things then you should block that person.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. I do think there can be benefits to anonymity in some situations, mainly for at-risk kids, adults or individuals seeking out sensitive information, but in this context, it seems as though a lot of teens are exploiting the anonymity rather than using it for something constructive. While sites like these can be fun, a parent should pause before allowing their children to use this type of site since children haven’t fully developed their critical thinking skills and often lack the judgement and maturity to use the site appropriately. Although it is true that you can block a user or simply not respond to a question, many kids feel a social pressure to respond and remain on the site, even when communication becomes unhealthy, so from my perspective, this isn’t necessarily a site I would want my children on.

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