Teens bullied through an anonymous question-and-answer site. A spate of suicides among the young people who used it. Growing outrage, sensational headlines, and eventual government intervention. This is the story of the quickly expanding Ask.fm over the past month — but just a couple years earlier, it was also the story of Formspring.
The fast-growing social network Ask.fm came under fire last month after the suicide of British teenager Hannah Smith, whose father attributed her death in part to bullying she endured from anonymous users. British prime minister David Cameron called for a boycott, calling the website “vile.” Advertisers pulled out, and Ask.fm introduced a host of changes, including a site-wide button for reporting abuse and the ability to opt out of receiving anonymous messages.
Founders of tech companies pride themselves on their ability to rapidly iterate, learning from others’ mistakes and their own in the pursuit of perpetual progress. Yet in this case, one social network’s trajectory followed another’s so closely it appeared to be working from a script. Interviews with former Formspring executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve business relationships, suggest that Ask.fm should have seen it coming.
An early success
A quintessential fad of the Web 2.0 era, Formspring created the genre of the anonymous online Q&A and rocketed to early success. It began as a side project of Formstack, an online form builder. Founder Ade Olonoh noticed that most of his customers were using the product to build “ask me anything” forms. Formspring launched as a standalone product in 2009; within 45 days, it already had 1 million users.
One million users in 45 days
At first, Formspring had all the makings of a social networking success story. Spun out into a separate company, the team moved from Formstack’s home in Indianapolis to San Francisco, where it raised $14 million over two years from some of the most prominent investors in Silicon Valley. It courted celebrity users, and gave them Twitter-like verified accounts. It partnered with media companies to let them ask questions of their fans. On June 28th, 2011, Formspring announced 25 million registered users.
It also attracted copycats. Tumblr and the youth-focused social network MyYearbook implemented "ask" features of their own. In June 2010, brothers Mark and Ilja Terebin launched Ask.fm in Riga, Latvia. The site was an unabashed clone of its competitor — and Ask.fm went directly after Formspring’s users. One employee said that a network of bots began spamming Formspring users with invitations to join Ask.fm, resulting in Formspring eventually sending its rival a cease and desist letter. (Ask.fm denied spamming users.) But to Formspring employees, the bots were an early sign that the Terebins prized growth above all.
As Formspring grew, online interactions led to offline conflicts, fueled by the anonymous nature of the communication. Users did not have to register to send messages to one another, a privilege they often abused. In Pennsylvania, students at a Harrisburg high school brawled after nasty messages were exchanged on the service. Because most of the communications were never posted publicly, Formspring was slow to recognize the bullying that was taking place. “Along the way it became very obvious that teenagers were using the site in pretty horrific ways,” a former executive said.
A series of deaths
In March 2010, a 17-year-old girl from Long Island committed suicide after receiving taunts on Formspring. Her parents said they believed cyberbullying did not lead directly to their daughter’s death, but thousands launched a boycott anyway. The following year, a 15-year-old British girl stepped in front of a train after being bullied on the service. “We seek to understand the motivation of those who choose to send spiteful and vindictive messages to their peers,” her family said in a statement at the time. "We can only hope that lessons have been learned."
"We can only hope that lessons have been learned."
Under growing pressure, Formspring began working with MIT's famed Media Lab to redesign its interface to discourage bullying. It participated in a White House anti-bullying campaign. But later that year, a 14-year-old boy from New York committed suicide after recording a video for the “It Gets Better” project in which he describes being bullied on Formspring.
In retrospect, some former employees wish the site had placed less emphasis on anonymity. “We protected anonymous content to a fault,” former Formspring designer Cap Watkins wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “On the one hand, anonymity was a really popular feature (duh). On the other hand, we saw a lot of bad and abusive content come through that channel (double duh). A fact that we wound up being pretty infamous for.”
Watkins declined to be interviewed about his time at Formspring. The company eventually added features to the site designed to discourage anonymity and bullying.
When safety stymies growth
Like Formspring, Ask.fm also grew quickly. Its founders also raised venture capital, though they have declined to say how much, from Latvian venture capital firm Rubylight. Aija Perta, the Rubylight partner who works with Ask.fm, declined an interview request. But the company’s success in attracting users was impressive. More than Formspring, Ask.fm focused on international expansion, establishing successful presences in Turkey, Argentina, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Spain, according to a 2012 interview with Ilja Terebin in TechCrunch. By June of that year, Ask.fm had declared victory over its onetime inspiration, eclipsing Formspring in monthly visitors.
But just as on Formspring, allowing people to message others without so much as registering with an email address led to high-profile bullying incidents. Four suicides in Britain and Ireland have been linked to Ask.fm, and the company has figured in US bullying cases as well. In the wake of Hannah Smith’s death, the site added “bullying” and “harassment” categories to its safety report form, and made its “report” button more visible around the site. Ask.fm also promised to respond to all safety reports within 24 hours, effective this month.
"When you took out the nasty, salacious, anonymous part of Formspring, it became a lot less interesting."
So why didn’t Ask.fm learn from Formspring’s lesson? They may have run into the same issue Formspring did: curtailing anonymous messages drives teens away. "We slowly created features that would eliminate anonymous questions coming into your inbox," one ex-Formspring employee recalled. "But on the other hand, that hurts growth. It’s a very fine line. And those are really tough product decisions to make."
Ask.fm, which is based in Latvia, declined to answer questions about what they might have gleaned from Formspring’s experience, saying the company is focused on improving its own service. “What is absolutely important to them is that people come to the site, they have fun, they share information, and that all of that happens in a safe environment,” a spokesman said.
But Formspring’s experience should give the company pause, and not just because of the outcry surrounding the suicides. Changes that Formspring made to enhance its users’ safety wound up hurting its own business prospects, former executives said. User growth, which had been explosive, rapidly cooled as it began to de-emphasize anonymity. “When you took out the nasty, salacious, anonymous part of Formspring, it became a lot less interesting to people,” one former executive said.
By the end of 2011, interest in Formspring had collapsed, according to data from Google Trends. It felt all but inevitable when Olonoh made an announcement in March that the service would be shutting down. (An effort to revive the site under the name Spring.me is now underway.)
Teen users grew bored of Q&A
Safety features weren’t the only reason for Formspring’s failure. Changes to Facebook’s developer policies meant that fewer Q&A posts showed up in the news feed, for one thing. For another, teen users grew up and grew bored of Q&A. Reduced anonymity “definitely played some role” in the company’s collapse, another former employee said. “But there was all kinds of stuff. I’m sure it’s a combination of everything.”
Suicides, too, usually result from more than one cause. It’s only natural that grieving parents seek to blame something for the loss of their children, even when longer-term issues lurked in the background. But it’s also true that for two young companies, products emphasizing anonymous Q&A played a role in the deaths of teens around the globe. Ask.fm is now twice the size that Formspring was at its peak, with 65 million registered users. It has belatedly taken an interest in those users’ safety, promising a newfound vigilance when it comes to bullying. And yet it’s hard not to wonder how much suffering could have been prevented had they merely followed Formspring’s lead in 2011 and begun disabling anonymity features at the expense of slower growth. Even if it’s an impossible question to answer, it’s at least one worth asking.