Formspring.me

Teenagers are flocking to Formspring.me, a social media tool that allows users to anonymously ask questions for others to publicly answer. Initally set up to engage users in at worst fun and light hearted banter and at best philosophical debate, formspringme has all the elements needed to attract, engage, and retain users around the globe, especially Generation Y.  There is a fascination with asking questions, with being asked them and with answering them.   

Formspring.me launched in the US in November 2009.  Since June 2010 teenagers in Australia have been signing up.  Users sign up to an individual page that points their friends to a simple box that reads, “Ask me anything.” Users ask any questions they like.  In the adult world questions might be, Should we have a carbon tax? or Who liked Hairspray? or  Is graffiti art? or What is love?  Stimulating but innocuous questions.

Part of the attraction of the site for both those who receive the questions and those who pose them is that the questioner can ask the question anonymously. It is the anonymous element that adds to the excitement and the mystery and some say encourages shy people to communicate but it is this very element that can also allow users to bully and abuse. 

It’s a Catch 22.  If you want to be part of the ‘game’ and of the excitement you need to allow others to ask you questions and to ask them anonymously but questioners can turn nasty and leave the teenager feeling isolated.  Consider the following set of questions:

Why does your hair look like a birdsnest? or Why are you fat?

One of the reasons for widespread adoption of these sorts of sites is “our deep and insatiable love of self-reference.” It’s one of the biggest reasons for the success of Facebook, and now it’s what Formspring is based on: me, me, me, me…me.

Self-reference can be found in the foundation of many social media, like status updates, blog entries, and Tweets. These all form our online identity, but when we publish those things, it’s because we consciously choose to. On Formspring, users don’t decide when to share their thoughts; they wait for their peers to demand it. It’s an opportunity to reveal things about yourself that you want people to know, but would likely not volunteer.

Besides self-reference, it’s the actual element of demand that retains users. For most using Facebook, there’s only one little thing that brings us back: the notifications. Users know that the more they interact with their Facebook network, the more notifications they’ll get. On Formspring, there’s a similar anxiety for feedback; the answerers constantly check back for questions, and the askers want their answers yesterday. Because users invest time into the service, they expect to get something in return.

Self-reference and gaming elements are what engage and retain those who answer questions. But what attracts the askers? Anonymity. Users can anonymously tell someone how they feel about them, or something they feel they should know. They can ask questions they’d be otherwise too embarrassed to ask. But, worse, they can also fill a user’s in-box with hate mail, harassment, or other inappropriate statements.

After browsing Formspring.me, it seems as though teenagers are doing exactly that.