Ask.com, which is owned by IAC/InteractiveCorp., has acquired Ask.fm, a Latvia-based question and answer site that has come under criticism because of past incidences of bullying. The site, which allows people to anonymously ask questions of others, is widely used by teenagers who — in some cases — have been known to be less than civil.
As part of the acquisition, Ask.fm’s founders are leaving the company and it will now be managed by Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds. Ask also reached an agreement with the Attorneys General of New York and Maryland to establish a safety center and hire a chief trust and safety officer. That person is Catherine Teitelbaum, former director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo, and a well respected advocate for online child safety. The company is also working with former federal prosecutor and former MySpace chief safety officer Hemanshu Nigam, who currently heads up SSP Blue – a safety, privacy and security consulting firm.
As part of the agreement with the attorneys general, IAC has also pledged to maintain a user-initiated reporting mechanism on the site for reporting concerns about misuse, harassment, inappropriate content and misuse by children under 13. They will also remove users that have been the subject of three complaints and take “reasonable steps to block those users from creating new accounts under different user names.” The company also plans to work with non-profits to address issues such as suicide prevention and online safety and register with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (whose board I sit on) “and comply with all reporting requirements of sexual exploitation images.”
Safety is good business
In an interview, Leeds said that safety is not just the right thing to do, but also a good business decision. “In order for this site to become something bigger than it is today and hold a significant place in the pantheon of accepted social media sites, it had to put safety and the perception of safety as one of the very first things that it cares about.” Nigam agrees. “People who go to engage in interaction with others in a social media setting are not going there to be hurt, not going there to be bullied, they’re not going there to experience an unsafe environment. They’re going there to enjoy themselves, to learn and grow.”
Leeds said that he reached to the Attorneys General because he wanted their input before taking over the company.
Social media ‘flipped on its head’
Ask.fm., which was launched in 2010, has 180 million registered users and 42% of them are under 18. In describing the site, Leeds said, “It was flipping on its head” the push model of social media where people post that they think might interest others and instead “created this pull model where you post those things that other people want to know about you.” In other words, instead of my posting something that you might not care about, you would ask me a question that you do care about and I would answer it.
Anonymity isn’t necessarily bad
The site does allow anonymity, which means it’s possible for someone to ask questions without revealing their identity. The good news is that only the subject of that question will see it unless he or she chooses to post it, but it can still lead to some very hurtful interactions if people ask things like “why are you so ugly.” Although the site’s new administration will strive to reduce these types of hurtful questions, they do plan to maintain the ability for people to post anonymously. Teitelbaum said that “the option to ask questions anonymously is super important.” She pointed out that anonymity is not new to social media. There are numerous historical examples of anonymous authors and social benefit from other anonymous interactions such as tips to law enforcement. “It has an important role particularly for teens as they explore their identities and who they are going to grow up to be,” added Teitelbaum. As I wrote on a CNET post in April, Anonymous isn’t synonymous with ominous, there are lots of legitimate reasons for people to post anonymously ranging from whisteblowing, to exploring sexual identity to simply not wanting to forever be held accountable for what you’re thinking at the moment.
Ask.com’s efforts – and those of attorneys general and other law enforcement agencies – can help make things safer and more pleasant for users of all ages, but no matter how hard companies and cops work to protect users, the ultimate responsibility for safety remains with the user online just as it does in the physical world. People need to be aware that what they post affects others and themselves. Self-respect and respect for others along with engaging people in a civil manner (even while disagreeing) goes a long way towards creating a social media environment that we can all enjoy. The non-profit that I co-direct, ConnectSafely.org, has plenty of tips and advice on how to safety navigate social media and mobile services but — at the end of the day — it’s pretty simple. Be nice, respect others and remember that there is no such thing as an “eraser button” when it comes to online media.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com