Formspring.me and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Youth Specialties
May 6th, 2010

Formspring.meLast fall some folks started to notice an interesting use of their product, FormspringPeople were creating Formspring accounts and sharing the link with their friends, allowing them to post anonymous questions and even share the link. It was a lot of fun and it quickly grew.

Then the number grew. They grew crazy fast! When 30,000 people signed up to create such accounts this small web form company realized they had a 500 pound gorilla on their hands. What was once a nice way to virally market their freemium service to potential clients had begun to take on a life of its own. It had turned into a pseudo-social network tool. So, being a smart company and recognizing that they are a web application company and not a social media company they spun it off. Formspring.com became Formstack.com (a service we use at Youth Specialties) and the technology which allowed people to create and share a way for friends to anonymously ask questions became Formspring.me

In March, Formspring.me received $2.5 million in venture capitalism to help them handle the growth as well as grow their business with more functionality and apps for the Andriod and iPhone. 

While that's an interesting story from a venture capitalism standpoint, what is concerning for someone who works with teenagers is how they are growing. 

Formspring.me is growing as teenagers use the site for a variety of purposes, including some that are benign and some that are quite mean. Here's a recent New York Times piece called, “Teenage Insults Scawled on Web, Not on Walls.” 

“Nice stuff is not why you get it,” said Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City. “I think it’s interesting to find out what people really think that they don’t have the guts to say to you. If it’s hurtful, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t really mean anything.”
Ariane, who has more than 100 posts on her site, said she had not been terribly bothered by anything she has read so far, but she acknowledged that after one comment about a certain pair of leggings, she stopped wearing them.link
For youth workers the phrase in that statement that jumps off the page is likely, “I think it's interesting to find out what people really think that they don't the guts to say to you.” Adults understand intuitively that if you allow people to ask things anonymously, most of the stuff you ask will be insincere. This is a core reason why blind research (filling out web forms) is so skewed… people lie, exaggerate, and otherwise say things they would never say when they know its anonymous! Adults get that but sadly kids don't. 
Rather than say that I think Formspring.me is a bad site for teens, I'm going to say this: Formspring.me is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences when working with teenagers. 
The site, all by itself, is harmless. The intended use of the site is fairly neutral. All the while I'm confident that Formspring.me is fully aware that their growth is tied to the same low-brow type of stuff that has made the creators of Cheezburger NetworkF My Life, and Texts From Last Night  millions in advertising revenue. In fact, it will not be long before Formspring.me realizes that they can make a lot of money by publishing some of these anonymous questions in a meme-styled site. 
This isn't a trend worth getting worked up about. But it is certainly a trend you should keep on your radar and ask your middle schoolers about. 
If there's anything to be concerned about, it's the advertisers who are chasing this stuff and funding it's popularity.
Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.