Nobody’s completely sure – even social-media researchers who talk to teens a lot – but it is clear that the Formspring phenomenon didn’t come out of nowhere. Remember those personality tests and fashion-sense quizzes in teen magazines? In the digital-age versions, danah boyd writes in DMLcentral.net, teens would – through questions and answers in pre-Web public online spaces like Usenet; “chain emails about friends’ favorite movies, most embarrassing moments, and food peculiarities”; guestbooks added to Web pages, bulletins in social network sites – create spaces “to talk about themselves” with their peers. With the chain emails, boyd writes, “the task was to erase the content written by my friend, fill in my own content, send it to my friend and forward it to 10 more friends. With every new genre of social media, surveys and quizzes keep coming back as popular ways to get to know the people around you” and maybe do some identity exploration in the process.
Enter Formspring, the site that’s all about little personal quizzes and Q&As. Its users mystify adults who know about teen uses of the site because they seem to just ask for it, when they post questions like those mentioned in a New York Times piece on the subject: “Are you still friends with julia? Why wasn’t sam invited to lauren’s party? … Do you wear a d cup?” Not all kids take it to that level of gossip and “self-examination.” I recently asked a 7th-grade user about her experience on the site, and she said that, for her and her friends, “it’s just fun.” “A good chunk of it is relatively mundane,” writes boyd.
But more than the Q&A content, Formspring seems in some ways, or to some teens, to be a digital “Truth or Dare” challenge game. First, as boyd points out in a post in her own blog, the questions aren’t as anonymous as they seem to adults coming upon a question cold. Second, consider this insightful comment at the bottom of boyd’s article: what not answering a question does is act as some sort of tacit admission of weakness to the person who did pose it, someone who knows them and has other channels of communication within a teen’s social world. Teens may be, at some level, concerned about the consequences of not answering, [which] … breaks the rules of the ‘game,’ and your friends will know you did it.” Above it, boyd wrote, “While staying tough is clearly part of the game, it’s also clear from my informants that the harassment is playing a psychological toll.”
Meanwhile, beyond the wild and wooly worlds of middle and high school, Formspring is a social utility that builds on other social utilities people use, so basic that it becomes whatever anybody wants it to be, kind of a reflection of you, your friends, and your social intentions. At DMLcentral, boyd writes that it was “created by Formstack, a company dedicated to creating extensible online forms, like surveys, contact forms, event registrations, etc. So a question-answer service was a natural extension. To popularize Formspring.me, they hooked it up to Facebook so that participants could spread new answers to, and invite questions from, their network.”
As for the bullying on it, that part – not the fascination with quizzes and Q&As – may be less enduring, both boyd and New York Times sources suggest. “In some schools, the Formspring craze may already be burning out,” but even if it is, probably not without creating some scars. Here, importantly, are students’ own views on, if not Formspring, bullying in general. Adults definitely have more questions than answers. Boyd asks an important question: “How has the ethos of ‘suck it up, kid’ and ‘fight back’ become so commonplace amongst our youth while parents purportedly want to curtail bullying?”
Maybe we adults have said that to our kids too much, for too many generations, and now – when cruel comments and comebacks can be so conveniently and instantly conveyed – this “be tough” approach is turning into the very bullying behavior we’ve been trying to “fight.” Maybe now we’re seeing the impacts of fighting fire with fire so instantaneously, publicly, hurtfully, and collectively that we’re also finally seeing that it just doesn’t work.
* What does work: helping young people see that civility is actually – statistically – the “social norm”
* The next Formspring? 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.” Hours later, I heard about Society.me (described here), which seems a little like a Formspring clone, or a cross between Formspring and the old free Ning (build-your-own network), but more the former. Who knows? – it just could be the next Formspring for kids who have Formspring blocked at their house or school.
* Bullying in context: Insightful advice from Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth on “Using Kid Lit to Read the Right Message About Bullying,” including a couple of thoughts about sites where it’s rampant
* A college student’s view: “New site shows us for what we are: a bunch of creeps and weirdos” in The Pipe Dream at Binghamton University
* A bit of the Formspring business story at Vator.tv: “Formspring.me takes off with $2.5M and a hoax: Online Q&A site attracts heavy-hitting investors, millions of users in under 4 months”