My Instagram followers want to know whether I like veggie chips and how many push-ups I can do in a row. The answer is no and one. On this week’s Why’d You Push That Button, Vox.com’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I discuss anonymous question-and-answer apps — why do people use them, both to ask and receive questions?
First, I chat with my pal Vanessa about how they use Instagram’s question and answer feature to build community. Then, Kaitlyn chats with a minor Tumblr celebrity, Klaudia, about how she handles questions she’s asked and how she guides the youth of today through their lives. And finally, I interview Janis Grivins, the COO of Ask.fm, about why people ask anonymous questions and what purpose a masked identity can serve.
As always, you can listen to the episode below, and follow along with Grivin’s interview, too. While you’re at it, subscribe to the show anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends and family, too! Steal their phones and sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ashley Carman: So we are back and we are here with Janis Grivins, the COO at a company called Ask.fm.
Janis Grivins, COO at Ask.fm: Hey.
Can you tell us what Ask.fm is and give us a little bit of history about the company?
Sure. Ask.fm is probably the biggest social network in the world for questions and answers for young people. Every month, 600 million questions get exchanged on Ask.fm. We have been around for eight years and are present worldwide. The core of our audience is 13 to 25 years old.
So it’s a young crew.
Yes. I believe that we have accumulated quite some knowledge about the so-called Gen Z. Part of our audience is also older, but I think that we are pretty comfortable and pretty united, I could say, with the needs of our young audience.
What are the needs of the younger users? Why do they, and people in general, want to use question apps?
I believe that question-and-answer apps, and we in particular at Ask.fm, are providing three important layers of discovering the world. So basically, the first layer is discovering the world around you. For example, you want to know why the Sun sets, and you send a question, and somebody answers. That’s the knowing something — getting to know something about the world.
Then there’s the second layer, which is, I would say, more focused. It is to know something about your friends. This means that I want to find out something about a friend of mine, and I send him or her a message, and in order to make that easier, we allow a person to do it anonymously. Of course, at the same time, moderating it rigorously.
Then there is the third layer, which, personally, I find the most interesting. It’s getting to know something about yourself. I have myself received quite a lot of questions on Ask.fm, which have helped me to learn something about myself and understand myself better. I think the toughest question I received in 2018, which I still remember, it was whom do I love more — my mom or my dad?
I had never thought about it.
Dang, they want to stir the pot. Hopefully your mom and dad don’t read your answers.
No. I believe that one of the reasons why we are popular with a young audience is that the parents stay out because they don’t really get the concept. If you have been to some party, for example, where you have families meeting, and those families have teenagers, you must have noticed that one of the first thing that happens is that the teenagers just quietly disappear, so you don’t see them anymore. And in social media, it’s pretty much the same. Teenagers and youngsters, they’re not really hanging out and being sincere in places where their parents are looking at them. So there are quite a lot of examples when teenagers have several social media profiles on global social media, just one, which is to connect with their parents and family and teachers and so on, and the other one which is for the friends. Now we at Ask.fm are for friends only, and I think that’s why the answers are more sincere. The teenagers can talk and interact about topics that are important to them on a more sincere level.
So when you say it’s for friends only, you have to friend the person before you ask a question? I can’t go on your profile and ask a question, for example.
That is actually for our users to choose because on one hand, you can ask your friends directly, on the other hand, you can send the question to the community. And I think there are two ways for you to define which way you choose. On one hand, it’s something that you want to ask personally to your friends. On the other hand, it’s something that you want to ask whoever could give you an answer.
But there is also another layer. That is, the younger our audience is, the more they prefer to communicate with a close circle of friends, and as they grow up, they become more open-minded, brave, and also they are more interested in expanding their horizons, so they start engaging with more and more people on wider distances. And we have even observed this phenomenon. We have looked at the data of the distance between anonymized users, and we see that the older the users get, the wider the span of distance between the people who interact with each other.
Are the questions really oriented around learning things? I always thought it’d be more trivia about you as a person.
On platforms like ours, people can actually feel free to be whoever they are because if they are not sure about the content they are about to produce, they can easily ask it anonymously and find out the right answer and find out how to blend in better socially. So for example, there is this young girl, and she is not sure what would be appropriate makeup for the prom, for example, and what she can do is actually make two options, put them on our platform, and ask her peers or her friends to give her advice on which one is better.
Now this does not work anonymously, of course, because it’s her face. But if we’re talking about anonymous, for example, a guy who is about to invite a girl he really likes to movies, he can send a question to the community asking what would be an appropriate movie to offer for a girl that I really like.
And he would get some really valuable feedback. This is not something he would post on on the global, universal social media because it’s something quite personal for him and something quite important.
Do you find that people use the platform to bully, and if so, how do you deal with that?
We have been investing a lot of effort and also a lot of money into developing multi-layer solutions for the safety of our users, which range from automated patterns, safety by design, live moderation, and many more.
Unfortunately, I cannot really give you a particular examples because a part of how such procedures and such solutions can work is because the users don’t know them. Because as you know, if you know how a safety procedure works, it’s much easier for you to find a way around it. But I can assure you that this is something that we are taking very seriously. It’s one of the top priorities of the company.
If you’re asking me about the trends, is it getting better or worse content-wise? I don’t think it’s really going anywhere. I mean this is something that people have discovered a while ago that you can actually use social media to pressure someone, or to send inappropriate content, and I think it’s an ongoing struggle between the safety officers who are developing their platforms, developing their themes, developing their procedures, in order to make the community safer. And then there are some, we can call them predators, on the other side, who are also trying new ways on how to get through. And I think we are doing really as much as possible to minimize this risk and make it as close to zero as possible that somebody in our community gets harassed.
What are the main questions you see asked? Are there specific questions that you see over and over again?
Absolutely. However, I would like to point out one trend, which I really find amusing because every Monday morning at 9AM, I receive a list of the most popular questions from the last week — most popular meaning those that received the most likes, most shares, most views, and so on. I’m often amused that the most popular question / answer pair is something like, “Hi how are you?” “I’m doing great, thanks. Here’s my new selfie.” And that one gets like thousands and thousands of likes. So despite the fact that there is this mantra that content is king, I think content is probably queen, but the king is actually the content creator, and once you are very popular, you have a lot of followers, who have a lot of admirers, you can really post very generic content, and you will still be getting a lot of attention.
However, if we move away from this phenomenon, just look at the main topics that are being discussed, I can certainly reveal that the universal topic for young people is that of music. And equally important is discussing one’s relations, and I don’t even necessarily mean that that’s relationship between a couple, but it can be relationship with your friends, with your schoolmates, with the society. Again, it is not just about what you think about me, or what I think about you, it is more about what do I wear to blend into a particular event, or what is better as a phone if I want to be good at photography and then sharing those pictures in social media. What should I also like to point out here is that it is not rare that somebody asks an anonymous question to him or herself.
This is actually a very interesting phenomena, but what we have noticed is that it’s actually a pretty significant percentage of questions that people send to themselves.
Now the pretty cheeky example would be, let’s say there is this girl who has new sneakers, and she would really like to show them to the world. But how should anyone know that she has new sneakers? So she sends herself an anonymous question: “Post a picture of your shoes.” And nobody else will ask that, but it’s actually herself. And then she posts the picture and says, “Hey, I have these new sneakers. I’m glad that you asked this question.” So this is a very cute way to use the anonymous questioning interface.
So for a final question, where do you see the platform going in the future? Do you see anonymous question apps developing? Do you see this as a huge social media opportunity?
The thing is that what we noticed is that the users we have are getting older. They’re getting more grown up, and I think it can be explained the following way: when you are 13 to 16, you are curious about everything. So there is not really a positioning. It’s more about learning about the world as such, about your friends, about yourself. But as you turn 17, 18, 19, or 20-plus, you are not that curious about the world as such anymore. But there are certainly topics which are of your interest, and I’m not talking about professional topics. I’m talking about social. I’m talking about the social group that you belong to. I’m talking about your hobbies. I’m talking about something that is important to you. For somebody, it’s music. For somebody, it might be tattoos. For somebody, it’s sport. What we see is that the older our users are, the more they are looking for interest groups where they want to discuss questions which are important for that. And there are many of those questions that people prefer to ask anonymously because I think all of us know by now, that whatever you post in global social media, whatever you post in Google search engine, it gets saved, it gets profiled, some marketers somewhere are making decisions based on all the content you have produced. So on anonymous question / answer platform, you still can feel very safe about the interests that you are sharing, about the questions you are asking. So this is one of the things that we are actually sure about. The question / answer user is getting older, and that he or she is more after quality content, more after niche content, and more about something that is important for him or her.
But what we are also looking into is the ability to reward people who are giving really good answers because still, one thing is that you get the mass of people who are curious about a particular topic, but it is equally important that you have somebody who can give some really good answers, and in order to incentivize those people, who are ready to give really good answers, we are actually developing different mechanics how they can be rewarded. Starting from some premium functionality, and ending with currencies, points that people can exchange to remunerate each other for quality content. So I would say, on one side, it is the demand of the users that is getting higher because those users are getting more and more mature. On the other side, it is the mechanics to incentivize great content and this is where we basically see our segment of social media developing.
Why’d You Push That Button /
A podcast about the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make.