Note from Bil:With the recent news that Buffalo, New York teenager Jamey Rodermeyer recently took his own life after enduring anti-gay bullying for months - especially online and specifically Formspring.me - I thought it would be appropriate to re-run this post from July 2010. It's important to know what tools are being used against our community if we plan on combatting it. Jamey also created his own "It Gets Better" video.
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'.
"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.
"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: