Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

"The kids don't seem to be able to stop reading, even if people are saying terrible things about them," one adult told the Times for today's story on Formspring.me as a new front for cyberbullying. Why opt in for abuse?

Formspring, for the uninitiated, is a usually-anonymous question-and-answer site that can be linked to Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. Questions aren't posted to your Formspring site until they're answered, "leading parents and guidance counselors to wonder why so many young people make public so many nasty comments about their looks, friends and sexual habits," as the Times puts it. Good question!

The Times admits that it might be a little late to the Formspring.me party — it quotes some kids saying they're already over it — but that doesn't mean it isn't still being used to torment the younger generation. (I am trying to avoid the word "tweens" here, but it appears inevitable.) In March, Long Island teenager Alexis Pilkington committed suicide, and though her parents didn't rush to blame cyberbullying, there was plenty of evidence that she'd gotten abusive messages over Formspring.

We all know anonymity can be a prompt for cruelty, and a glancing acquaintance with the Internet reveals that a woman of any age often gets the worst of this — regardless of the substance of the engagement, anonymous comments easily turn to gendered namecalling (cunt, bitch), comments about her looks (approving or disapproving) or how often she gets laid. Are these comments coming from other girls or women, or are they the cliche of the angry, rejected guy typing with one hand? Hard to know.

Most of the examples in the story concern girls being bullied, but I wanted to find out for myself whether this was actually how the site trended. Formspring doesn't easily allow you to find active users, so I spent some time plugging common male and female names into the search function, trying to see all this in action.

If I looked hard enough, I could find stuff like this, on one girl's profile:

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Asparagus and virginity: the juxtapositions of adolescence. I could also find a guy subjected to sexual questions:

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Boys seemed marginally more likely to be asked questions like What's Your Favorite Video Game? or If You Had To Eat At Only One Restaurant What Would It Be? (Popular answers: Applebee's, Chipotle.)

The Times indicates that some kids deflect aggressively sexual questions with impressive aplomb — though of course, by answering them at all, they ensure that the topic will be on the table. I saw that with an example of that with a profile belonging to one 14-year-old girl, who had by far the most active page I saw, one that fulfilled all the cyberbullying prerequisites:

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

Teen Torture, Teen Exploration: The Lure Of Formspring

This young woman, whoever she is, may be testing boundaries of her sexuality, but she for one seems to have it under control.

She may be atypical in more ways than one. The vast majority of profiles — under names like Jessica, Jennifer, Michael, Matthew, and Chloe — were empty. No one had asked, and no one had answered. I did see one girl asked about when she'd first read Twilight. The response: "Someone asked me a question!! WOO HOO!"

Some of the adults quoted in the Times piece touch on this point: "It seems like even when it's inappropriate and vicious, the kids want the attention, so they post it," one says. And maybe that's the thing. Who even needs anonymous questions when everyone is already sharing so much of themselves? There are far more producers of personal media than there are consumers. There may be some untapped mysteries or taboos yet, but that would require someone else being curious about what they are for that particular person. Judging from all the question-free profiles, not that many people are.

So again, why is anyone, young girls especially, subjecting themselves to this? Because they want someone to care enough to ask about them, and to validate that they matter. And unfortunately, for young girls, too often mattering means whether or not boys want to fuck them, or how much girls think boys do. And there's not much out there in the world to tell them any differently.

On Formspring, An Evite To Insults And Crude Queries [NYT]