The parasites of the social media world are websites and applications that let users post anonymous messages about others. Formspring.me has been leading the pack. Untold thousands of teenagers have accounts on the site, which allows your audience –- almost always your classmates –- to write anything on your personal page without being identified.
Formspring's power lies in its offer of an answer to the question, "What do people think of me?" Most girls open accounts hoping to read positive comments about their looks, personality or talents. What they get is usually much worse:
Okay so I just thought id help you out a little bit, okay, so ium going to try and say things in the nicest possible way...your not hot s—t. Alright so stop acting like it. Okay no one f—king likes you, its fake. No guys would ever like you, I
b—ch to I of girls, and say some pretty shady s—t, so if I were you I would
f—king stop. Your f—king annoying. And if you haven't notest you I the hugest nose ever..i mean it what ever but yeah. & you made your self a formspring so don't except people to be nice on it. <3 bye b—ch.
Imagine walking the halls or sitting in class, never knowing if the person sitting next to you in math is the one pummeling you on Formspring. The site takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual: When you register for your account, you literally invite others to bash you with their "honest" opinions. Because it appears consensual, it no longer seems like cybercruelty at all.
Girls are especially vulnerable to Formspring for several reasons. For girls obsessed with what peers are saying about them, the site seems too good to be true. Here, finally -– girls believe -– I will discover my true social worth. For girls who define success as being liked by everyone, Formspring lets hope spring eternal: you can open an account and maybe, just maybe, you won't get a mean comment. Or perhaps others will rally to your defense. You'll be that girl who everyone really loves!
Needless to say, it is a toxic, self-reinforcing cycle: if you are that desperate to know what your peers think, you probably lack the self-esteem to define your own value. The more you look outside of yourself for self-worth, by visiting the website, the more personal authority and confidence you give up.
Girls live in a social universe where truth is shielded and conflict is avoided. They flock to Formspring because it appears to bring those feelings to the "surface." The site offers the illusion that users can do an end run around the girl underground. But Formspring invites people to be cruel without owning up, and users exaggerate, attack and lie just because they can. They experiment with others' feelings as a game, just to see how they react. When there is no cost and no consequence to speech, people take leave of their ethics and good sense.
Despite the breathtaking, casual cruelty that swarms the pages of Formspring, the girls who use it respond to their attackers with surprising indifference.
"I'd f*** you," posted one commenter.
"thanks I mean very blunt but still flattering," responded the account holder.
"YOU KNOW HOW YOUR ALLERGIC TO EVERYTHING . !! YOU SHOULD EAT A BUNCH OF PEANUTS AND HAVE AN ALLERGY ATTACK AND DIE…" said one poster. The account holder replied, "HAHA , you should eat some penis and choke on it and die! Take a HIKE KYKE."
"ur fat and hot and ur boobs r large," read one post.
"K," the page owner replied breezily.
How can girls be so blasé? It is not entirely clear. It is possible that aggression simply breeds more aggression: interpersonal norms online are radically different, with the bar for nastiness constantly being set, raised and reset. For many girls, having a Formspring page seems to be a point of pride, a sign that you can "handle" the haters. You are tough enough to face the truth of what others think. But the reality is that most girls are hoping for something else. With every flip response, account holders authorize others to continue berating them.
Formspring has had predecessors like Juicy Campus and the Honesty Box feature on Facebook. It will likely have descendents and already has many cousins. Facebook is flooded with applications that tempt girls to find out what their friends have said about them. On my own Facebook page, I get a note every few days that a former student has answered questions about me. To further entice, the application reveals a long list of anonymously answered questions for me to preview. "Do you think that Rachel Simmons is a wannabe?" reads one. "Yes," someone has apparently written. "Do you think Rachel Simmons is cute?" (yes) "Do you think Rachel Simmons smells?" (no). And on and on. To find out who is taking the time to size me up, I have to "earn coins" by downloading other applications. Today, in my thirties, I roll my eyes. As a middle schooler? I would have fought bears to get those coins.
Perhaps that is the point. These website developers seem to know they are sinking their teeth into a juicy developmental moment: the insatiable hunger for acceptance. It is a longing some girls will do anything to satisfy, no matter the cost.
This excerpt is from the newly revised and updated Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls published earlier this month. Republished with permission.