Guest Blogger

Why Formspring.me is Damaging to Our LGBT Youth and How it Became the Perfect Platform for Cyber-Bullying

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 22, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bullying, Facebook, Formspring.me, LGBT youth, social networking, Twitter

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Leone Kraus is the voice behind the LGBT social media blog krausnotes.com. From volunteering, to lobbying, and now blogging, Leone-Kraus.jpgLeone has continuously played an active role in the fight for LGBT equality for the past 16 years. Leone is currently obtaining her Master's degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from New York University.

What is Formspring.me?

Every so often, a new player hits the Internet scene with the intent to do something innovative in the social media space. On November 25, 2009, the winner was Formspring.me. Since its launch, Formspring.me has grown rapidly, attracting more than 28 million visits per month.

Formspring.me took the micro-blogging functionality of Twitter and the anonymity of Facebook's 'Honesty Box' and created a platform that allows anonymous posting to friends' accounts in the form of updates or questions, or answers to questions that people post on their own accounts. It sounds cool, and can definitely be a lot of fun.

The Perfect Platform for Cyber-Bullying

The reality is that Formspring.me is the perfect platform for cyber-bullying, the act of intending to embarrass, harass, or hurt someone via the Internet or electronic device. Because of the anonymity that Formspring.me provides, adolescents have been provided with a venue in which they have no immediate consequences. For example, they can't see the reaction of the person they hurt, nor do they run the risk of being punished for it, making it easy for them to ask their peers offensive questions that they would never ask to their face.

On March 22,2010, Alexis Pilkington, a 17 year old teen from West Islip, New York committed suicide which some believe was due in part to consistent threats made by her peers on her Formspring.me account. The screen grab below illustrates this and is still available to view when you Google search 'Alexis Pilkington + Formspring.me'.

Alexis Pilkington's Formspring.me Page

Since Alexis' death, Formspring.me added a functionality to allow users to choose whether or not they will accept anonymous questions. In addition, 'Community Guidelines' are posted on their page to limit the act of using the site as a platform to threaten their peers. One example of an added guideline is below,

"Be respectful. Using formspring.me to bully, attack, harass or threaten others will not be tolerated in our community. Cyber-bullying is a criminal offense in many places, and we will work with local authorities to track down abusive accounts through IP addresses or other means if harassment is found."

Why Formspring.me is Dangerous for Our LGBT Youth

Although it is not proven, it is likely that Formspring.me attracts adolescents because of its anonymous posting functionality. In addition, a large number of LGBT youth turn to Formspring.me, as well as other social media platforms, as a way to connect with others, share their stories, and to be open about their sexuality in order to connect and meet like-minded peers.

According to a recent study done at Iowa State University, respondents who identify as being LGBT reported feeling depressed, embarrassed and scared to go to school as a result from being a victim of cyber-bullying.

The study shows that,

"45 percent report feeling depressed as a result of being bullied, 38 percent embarrassed, and 28 percent anxious about simply going to school. One in four report having suicidal thoughts."

To illustrate the destruction this site has on our LGBT youth, below are some screen grabs I took when I Google searched “faggot+formspring.me” and “fag+formspring.me”. I understand a lot of adolescent teens use the word ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’ loosely (if we could stop – that would be awesome), but intermixed in this search are inappropriate questions about whether or not someone is gay.

Google search terms: 'Formspring.me + Faggot'

Google search terms: 'Formspring.me + Fag'

Do We Really Need an Anonymous Q & A Site?

Brad Stone, a reporter from the New York Times, posted the question "Is there room for yet another socially oriented question and answer service on the Internet?" to Ade Olonoh, co-founder of Formspring.me.

A portion of Olonoh's response is below but you can read the entire response here.

"With formspring.me, the intent is to be a communication platform that enables conversations with friends. You ask questions to specific people that you probably already know…"

##

In a sense, I agree with Olonoh because social media sites are excellent tools to spark conversations and encourage dialogue and discussions that may otherwise never have occurred. However, I strongly disagree with Olonoh on part of his purpose for the site.

Olonoh states in his response, "You ask specific questions to people you already know..."

While the idea behind this site is well-intentioned, the reality, expanded to teens, is not. While anonymity may provide a comfortable environment for someone to ask a personal question or spark controversial dialogue, this begs the question of whether the comment or question should be made at all, and certainly should not be made on the Internet. This leads me to question why this site needs to have the anonymity function in the first place if it is that its mission is to encourage conversations with your friends.

According to Kevin Hurt, blogger for Edumacation and teacher in Washington State states in one of his posts on Formspring.me,

"Here's the dilemma: anyone who works with young people can quickly point out that anonymity nearly always breeds irresponsibility"

I understand significant changes have been made. Formspring.me now allows users to choose whether or not they want to accept anonymous questions from their peers. This an excellent step forward for the site in its attempt to control the cyber-bullying that occurs on its pages, but what I would continue to question is whether teens are willing to check this new box. Going back to Hurt's point that "anonymity breeds irresponsibility", I feel chances are likely that kids will not check this box.

As much as I would like it to, I don't think Formspring.me is going away any time soon. In the interim, we need to make sure that we as parents, teachers, concerned adults, are using our influential voices to connect with our youth to ensure they are using social media appropriately. I encourage you to talk to your children or the youth around you about their Formspring.me, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social media accounts. Try to gauge how they are using them and what types of conversations they are having with their peers. Perhaps you'll get snapped at for breaching their privacy but isn't your child's well-being worth it?

In remembrance of Alexis Pilkington, here's a video that one of her peers put together.

For additional reading on cyber-bullying I encourage you to check out:

Internet and the American Life Project's Cyberbullying 2010: What the Research Tells Us

"Harassment by Q&A: Initial Thoughts on Formspring.me” by dannah boyd


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I see your concern, and share it with you. But there's a lot here that's decidedly more complicated than the impression given by this post.

To start with, if you've been on Bilerico or any other sites (and I have no doubt you have), you know - or should know - that cyberbullying is not an adolescent act. I know you know that, but by and large this piece - and other pieces on cyberbullying in general - tends to locate annoying, dangerous, and threatening behaviour among youth. The truth, as anyone who visits my blog posts can tell you, is that the internet provides a screen for a lot of people who would have trouble putting together a sentence in real life or saying boo to a kitten but who are comfortable lobbing some incredibly nasty invectives at bloggers in cyberspace (and some of these bullies are barely anonymous). And I won't even go into the phenomenon of people who try desperately to pass themselves off as multi-millionaires or social scientists with 16 degrees.

The point is: it's not so much the social network that's a problem as much as the anonymity itself. And we need to figure out what's going on in society at large that so many - youth and adults - are more comfortable in anonymous cyberspaces than in real life. It's true that the web provides a place for LGBT youth, but that's also true for adults. It so happens that youth may be more vulnerable. And, as someone who fiercely advocates for the right of people to have (often anonymous) sex in public, let me be clear: I'm not advocating that wanting to be anonymous in specific or many instances is in itself a bad thing. The problem begins when we configure public discourse around anonymity.

My second problem here is that it's not at all clear that Alexis committed suicide because of the cyberbullying. In fact, even the parents don't believe so, judging from the article to which you linked: "Alexis' parents downplayed the Internet role, saying their daughter was in counseling before she ever signed up with formspring.me, a new social site, where many of the attacks appeared. "I believe in my heart that cyberbullying wasn't the cause of Lexi's death," said her mother, Paula Pilkington. "This is a mistake." I'm dismayed that you didn't emphasise this more. Often, parents are too ready to blame the web or other external factors for their child's death. But here you have parents who are clearly saying that their child faced other issues, and are *not* taking the easy way out, which is commendable. They deserved to have their say in your piece.

It's currently the fashion to blame the web for teen suicides, and there's no doubt that cyberbullying might well push an already emotionally overwrought teen over the edge. But if we insist on drawing such clear connections even when they cannot be proven, we run a great risk of ignoring all the other and multiple reasons that teens, especially LGBT teens, commit in the first place. Those reasons have to do with societal pressures, violence, and contradictions that thrive quite well, unfortunately, without the web. We also run the risk of buying into the greater surveillance and policing of the internet that the state would like to push for and consequently end up contributing to the even great attrition of our civil liberties on the web. The police aren't out there investigating "Cybecrimes" because the state actually gives a damn about our safety - much of this has to do with facilitating an increase in regulation of the web.

This doesn't invalidate the case for greater caution on the part of teachers, parents, and peers, or the vulnerability of LGBT teens, but erasing the non-web-based components of what makes life particularly hard for many LGBT youth only puts them at greater risk because we spend too much blaming the web rather than building stronger social connections and support systems.

Thank you Yasmin for taking the time to view this post and to comment. You bring up a great point, cyberbullying for youth and adults is a real issue and one that should be looked at for both groups. For this particular piece, I did choose to focus on the youth audience and the platform of Formspring.me. I personally find the platform of Formspring.me to be distasteful and a danger to youth, but you are correct, so are many of the other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Formspring.me jumps out at me as being worse due to its anonymous commenting but again, this is my opinion.

In regards to why Alexis took her life, I don't believe Formspring.me was the sole cause by any means but I do think that the consistent torment of her peers did play a role in making her life miserable.

Perhaps Formspring.me, and all social media sites for that matter, can set up the technology to flag certain keywords, phrases, (much like Google) and alert the staff at Formspring.me that this account is experiencing abusive language. I am no tech expert but I wonder if something like this would be possible. Perhaps something like this could decrease the threat of cyberbullying overall.

I don't think it's either reasonable or perhaps even legal to demand that companies take on so many guardianship roles. Do we really want to go down that slippery slope? FB and Youtube, for instance, have flagging functions and as we know from Alex Blaze's posts about a trans man who posted videos about his post-op recovery, those can be badly misused.

Besides, I think all these social media networks are already set up to mine our data and keywords - FB is free for a reason.

I'm no free-market apologist and neither am I a libertarian, but it strikes me that we need to be cautious about the demands and expectations we place on technology. I love my facebook account, and the idea of social media but such sites can only do so much in the long run. Alexis may well have been tormented in real life as well - and I'd like to see us focusing on reducing those kinds of circumstances.

That doesn't mean *no* oversight of social media, but there's a difference between social media deliberately causing harm (and here I'd be more perturnbed at the way my personal data is being mined) and social media being used to cause harm. Perhaps it's time for the educational system to stop pretending that these media are peripheral to school life. If we start treating them as an integral part of youths' lives, and caution them accordingly from the start, we might see different results. As it is, it seems to me, we just keep waiting for cyber-bullying to happen before making a hue and cry. And then start working on expanding policing and surveillance, which is a dangerous route to take.

I'd also like to suggest that we not attribute quite such an important function to social media (and that in itself might help in dulling the sting of comments made by cowards). But that's another conversation to be had.

As Formspring's Communications Director, I wanted to add a very important point to your portrayal of our rapidly growing service. As you took quotes from our CEO out of context, an important point we would add to this conversation in particular is the power and importance of anonymity for people of all ages exploring questions about themselves, the world and their friends. We see great examples of this daily.

As in any community, unfortunately you will find people breaking the rules and even crossing the line. However, the great majority of our 14 million plus users are on our site having fun, learning about each other and expressing themselves in a new way. We invite you to join our community and share your opinions and ask questions that matter to you.

Thanks SJ for taking the time to comment on this post. I'm glad that Formspring.me has seen great success. If you have specific examples that you would like to share with Bilerico readers, I welcome you to do so.

Here is the full quote that I took the wording from so that Bilerico readers to make their own call about whether the comment was taken out of context. They can also click on the link above to connect to the NYTs interview.

“With formspring.me, the intent is to be a communication platform that enables conversations with friends,” Mr. Olonoh wrote, responding to the question I had left on his Formspring page. “You ask questions to specific people that you probably already know. There are certainly experts on formspring.me that can answer questions, but you already know them because you’re friends with them, you read their blog, follow them on Twitter, or similar.”

I'm 14 and I have formspring. It started off alright, with just questions about things like my hobbies and interests. Then I got more sex related ones, and some really harsh ones about stupid things like my hair cut. A few months ago, there was a rumour around school that I had kissed my bisexual best friend, who's also female, which lead to loads of people asking me if I was also bi. I'm a lesbian, and I was only out to one or two friends at that time, so I decided to tell them that. This obviously equaled a ton of abuse, everything from questions about fancying my friends and lesbian sex, to homophobic comments. And, surprise surprise, so many people read my answers that within a week the entire school (including the new 11 year olds!) seemed to know that I was a lesbian, and so the abuse spread from the internet to face to face. Sure, it was an effective way to come out to people, but I would definately not recommend it to anyone else.