John Wechsler, the president and co-founder of Formspring.me, sounds like a man who uncorked a naughty genie from a bottle when discussing his wildly popular website.
"As a couple of married guys from the suburbs, Ade (Olonoh, the company's CEO and co-founder) and I are disappointed to see the depths people will go when they misuse our system," he says in an email.
Formspring.me (whose name is a pun coined by users to Formspring Me), is gaining popularity among teenagers and young adults lured by its freewheeling style, where people can ask anyone about anything, anonymously. According to comScore Inc. (SCOR), Formspring is one of the fastest-growing sites on the Web. In February it was the second-fastest-growing.
Formspring attracted 16.3 million unique users in March, up from 7.5 million in January. The company is so popular that someone spread a false story that its CEO was arrested. It's uncertain how Formspring, which has scored $2.5 million in venture capital funds, will ever make a profit.
Anonymity Breeds Irresponsibility
The problem, say Formspring's critics, is the site offers a perfect haven for cyberbulllying. As the "Edumacation" blog puts it: "Anyone who works with young people can quickly point out that anonymity nearly always breeds irresponsibility." The recent suicide of 15-year-old Pheobe Prince has drawn attention to the problem of bullying in cyberspace because victims often have no idea who is tormenting them. A Boycott Formspring Group on Facebook claims almost 7,300 members.
It's a criticism Formspring says it has taken to heart. Users can set their accounts not to receive anonymous messages if they are worried about being harassed.
"We think it's abhorrent that someone would use our system for cyberbullying," says Wechsler, who seems disappointed that teenagers would use anonymity unwisely. "Several states make cyberbullying a crime, and when we are asked, we fully cooperate with the authorities to bring criminals to justice."
Many of the questions asked and answered seem silly to onlookers, such as one posed to a young woman from "Dirty Jersey": "Why are you so amazingly fierce?" The individual, who appears to be a teenage girl, replies without a worry about spelling or punctuation: "i dont knoww! i dont try to be! thanks and i know who this isss."
Not Breaking Any Laws
A few users appear to be interested in using Formspring as a forum to proclaim their interest in smoking marijuana. One user -- a hippy-looking guy who calls himself the Weed Guru -- answered the question "how can I get high with leaves?" this way: "The easiest way is smoking them, obviously." He follows that up with various bits of advice including to "put them in space cakes!"
Sprinkled on the site are a fair number of profiles of escort services, both in the U.S. and overseas. Some online poker sites are trying to promote themselves, as is the operator of a poker coaching service. The site may incur the wrath of state attorneys general, who in 2008 forced Craigslist to crack down on ads for prostitution.
But as Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, points out, Formspring isn't breaking any laws. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, websites cannot be held responsible if all they do is provide a forum for users. Child pornography and copyright infringement are exceptions.
"I would say that for the most part, Formspring is in the clear," Bayard says in an interview.
Legitimate Businesses As Well
To be sure, legitimate businesses such as ticket sellers, fitness trainers and real estate brokers are also on the site. Formspring says that no potential advertisers have complained about the site's content and cautioned against drawing inferences about its users by the actions of a few.
"We don't review content that is generated on the site and look for help from the community to bring abusers to our attention," Wechsler says. "We receive inquiries on a very regular basis from leading brands desiring a business relationship with us. With over 450 million (and growing) questions answered via Formspring, the content you are referring to is a very small part of the equation."
"In a way, it's like watching the local news every night," Wechsler continues. "If you believe those people make up the totality of a community, you probably could not find a city in America that you would like to call home."
A similar website, JuicyCampus, closed last year because of a lack of revenue. The eight-person company that runs Formspring.me, which is currently hiring, won't discuss its business model, and like many start-ups, says it's focusing on building its product rather than generating revenue.
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