By Marsha Sutton
Free speech and First Amendment rights are top on my list of sacred democratic principles, but a new social networking site called Formspring is testing my tolerance level.
Offering the ability to pose anonymous questions and comments to anyone, Formspring has become a depository for hateful and pornographic conversations that sink to unimagined levels of depravity.
Even more alarming is that middle school kids are finding Formspring in record numbers and are using the site in the worst possible ways.
Freedom of speech be damned – authorities should shut this down. What comes to mind is the famous quote by former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said that hard-core pornography was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”
Formspring venture capitalists should be prosecuted for investing in a site that contains pruriently explicit pornography read by children. The site will certainly become a magnet for sexual predators, a pedophile paradise – if it’s not already. It’s clearly an obsession for gossipy children, many of whom take pleasure in demeaning others, revealing drug and alcohol abuse, and boasting about sexual conquests, real or imagined.
Parents, these are our children. I found kids on the site who attend Carmel Valley Middle School and Earl Warren Middle School. High schools too are represented, but the users (at least the ones I’ve found) seem to be mostly in ninth grade, giving me hope that kids really do get smarter as they grow older. Even if your children do not have an account, they may be mentioned on other kids’ pages, and not always in the nicest of ways.
Whether these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children are really engaging in oral sex behind the Highlands movie theater (believable), or having full-on sexual intercourse on the beach (less believable), the point is they’re talking about it in the most vulgar of terms, and naming their partners.
The questions have quickly progressed from the innocuous “What is your favorite color?” and “Which movie star do you admire most?” to “Which boys have you serviced?” [not the expression used on the site] and “Rate these girls and say which ones you’ve done.”
If sex is the number one topic, hate is a close second. Kids throw vicious insults around as freely as confetti at a parade, calling one another fat, ugly, stupid, bitch, whore and other names even more, um, colorful – with careless abandon. The F-word? That’s tame, compared to the rest of the language used.
How it works
Formspring accounts are easy to get, but you don’t need an account to browse around and see what’s there. All you need is a way into one account and then you can see their list of followers whose accounts can be easily accessed.
Account holders receive questions and comments from others, some of them anonymous, and it’s this anonymity that gives the protection abusers need. It’s up to the account holders, though, whether to reply and make the comments public, leading many adults to wonder why kids post what they do when people write such hurtful or depraved things about them.
This one exchange between an asker and a local girl was revealing: “Do You Love Your Haters?” She responds: “Yes I love to see what people don't like about me.”
To say much of the content is pornographic really doesn’t do it justice. It’s well past Hustler-style porn. It’s crude, graphic, vulgar and tasteless. There’s really no way to convey the degeneracy by description, because the offensiveness just can’t be adequately communicated unless you read it for yourselves.
It’s just not sufficient to say there is cyber-bullying or comments with sexual overtones. Even if it’s described as shocking, which it most certainly is, that doesn’t convey the startling, loathsome nature of the remarks kids are passing back and forth.
I’ve been pondering for several weeks how Formspring can be accurately presented without my editor censoring this entire column. Although there’s really no way to adequately describe the nastiness going on here other than to share some of the content in its raw form, we are limited by what we can print in a community newspaper.
To give a sense of the level of discourse (if you can call it that) on Formspring, I’m only allowed to print a small sample of the dialogue, which centers mostly on the cyber-bullying aspect of the problem. The graphic sex, which seems to make up most of the content for middle-school Formspring users, is censored out of respect for readers’ sensibilities.
The comments shown here are from random Formspring accounts of local middle school students, a ninth-grader here and there, a few boys but almost all girls – and these are tame compared to the withheld comments. Here we go:
“who do u not like at cvms”
“too bad all the guys including me think your ugly and annoying. sorry to be blunt.”
“what size R yo b.... there so nice”
“spit or swallow?”
“[girl’s first and last name] is mean, trashy, and stuck up. you can find a better best friend than her. shes rude and immature. Also uglly as …. Get new friends hun.”
“Your legs look gross in tights.”
“isnt it fun leaving perverted anonymous comments on people's formsprings”
“your kind of the biggest b.... that ive ever encountered no wonder you say you have no friends … try being nice to people instead …”
“everyone hates [girl’s name] – [she is] really ugly …”
“you have changed and many people hate you behind your back”
“Im pretty sure [name] knows what shes doing when she smokes weed, or drinks a couple beers. just because shes in eighth grade doesnt mean she cant make good decisions for her self.”
“wat do u think of [name] and [name] drug prblum?”
“I hate you! You ugly B....!”
“Do Yu Cut Yuself?” [answer: “I used to, no regrets babe.”]
“Ever Tried PCP” [answer: “Yeah, of course.”]
“What’s your favorite drink?” [answer: “booze.”]
Discussions about oral sex are frequent and graphic, with several girls bragging (bragging?) that they have performed oral sex on dozens of boys, and then listing their first and last names. Comments on some sites are sometimes long, continuous descriptions of someone’s sexual fantasy involving the girl and what the anonymous asker would like to do to her. In many cases, the girl laughs or encourages the asker to continue the narrative. Anal and vaginal sex are described in explicit terms.
Whether these children, for that’s what they are, are really doing what they say they do is altogether questionable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make the dialogue and tone any more tolerable. This is not a case of “kids will be kids,” and any parent who thinks this is in complete denial.
To make matters more alarming, many of these conversations continue off Formspring when the account holder agrees to make contact on Facebook or even gives out a cell phone number (which is posted for all to see, not just the asker). So they’re not just being rude and crude but are potentially putting themselves in great danger by hooking up with people who may not be who they appear on Formspring, as if that’s not bad enough.
The company – Formspring.me, Inc. – was formed in Indianapolis in late November 2009 and is now based in San Francisco, employing 15 staff members. Co-founders are John Wechsler and Ade Olonoh, who is listed as the company’s CEO. His Formspring address is: http://www.formspring.me/ade, in case anyone wants to ask him a question. (I did, but so far he hasn’t responded to my inquiry about inappropriate use of the site.)
The press information on the site states that Formspring has been funded, with $2.5 million according to the New York Times, “by a group of Silicon Valley’s most sought-after VCs and angel investors including: Baseline Ventures, SV Angel, FLOODGATE, Freestyle Capital, Polaris Ventures, Chris Sacca, Kevin Rose, Dave Morin and Travis Kalanick.”
A recent press release states that Formspring, called a “high-engagement social network centered around conversational Q&A,” now has 17 million registered users and just topped one billion questions asked in only one year of operation. I don’t know if they count bullying insults and descriptions of sex fantasies as “questions asked.”
“Formspring is one of the Web’s fastest growing social networking sites,” according to the press release. “Formspring was created to give people a new way to express themselves and learn about the friends, celebrities and brands they care about. Formspring’s question and answer platform has fueled a rapidly growing community that reached 1 million users in its first 45 days.”
The site states that there are about 200,000 new sign-ups each week, and the company is expecting to exceed 20 million registered users by the end of the year. Users must be 13, but there seems to be no way to verify this. An address to provide feedback or get more information about the site is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The New York Times, in a May 5 story, describes Formspring as an “online version of the bathroom wall in school, the place to scrawl raw, anonymous gossip.”
Formspring defines itself as follows: “Formspring is a community of millions of people connected by one simple thing: curiosity about one another. This curiosity drives engaging, authentic conversations [italics added for emphasis] between our community members about everything from their personal insights about sports, music and comedy to their opinions on movies, faith and fashion. …
“Whether it’s a universal question like ‘Who was your favorite teacher?’ or a specific question about starting a business, Formspring provides a new, personal way to connect with the people who you want know better.”
It’s the anonymity that allows kids to write comments about each other without polite restraint. But this questionable feature seems to be the very key to Formspring’s popularity.
“Asking a question anonymously on Formspring hides your name from the person you're asking and from other users,” the site explains. “This can be useful if you're feeling shy or think the recipient would be more comfortable answering an anonymous question.”
But the site warns that asking questions anonymously “is a privilege and it must be used responsibly at all times. Anonymity should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful.” Nice words, but the policy has no teeth.
I recently reported a particularly abhorrent, lengthy passage of someone’s sexual fantasy involving an entire football team and the girl to whom he (or she, I suppose) was writing. It was taken down within hours. But it’s unclear whether monitoring is done by staffers or only after viewers report offending messages.
Commented CEO Ade Olonoh in an interview with GigaOM in July, “It’s interesting to see how people use Formspring in new and interesting ways that we couldn’t have foreseen.” Could they really not have foreseen how easily the questions and comments could degenerate? Or were they secretly counting on that?
The site gives users three options if they find a question or comment objectionable. They can delete the question, block the user, or report the abuse if the content is inappropriate. The Terms of Service page to report abuse is: http://formspringme.zendesk.com/requests/anonymous/new.
When problems with social networking sites like Formspring are brought to the attention of schools, many say they can do nothing because the school code violations are happening off school property.
Nevertheless, one reader of a national article on the dangers of Formspring offered the following comment: “At my school, people are getting suspended and expelled for things they have said on Formspring.”
Any reason why local schools can’t take similar action? Off-campus bullying affects on-campus safety and learning environments, and schools must be places where kids can feel safe if we expect them to learn anything besides how to defend themselves against hateful, pernicious cyber-attacks.
Law enforcement finds the problem both pervasive and unmanageable, overwhelmed as officials are with complaints and constrained by murky legalities.
As kids relax over winter break and take a rest from school and homework, look for many of them to increase their Formspring use. Parents need to be mindful of all that spare time and aware of what’s out there. A break for kids means no breaks for parents.
Formspring is new, just a year old, and has already made its mark by horrifying adults and captivating teens. What possible new lows are in store for Year Two?
Marsha Sutton can be reached at: SuttComm@san.rr.com