Francis had a big mouth and an abrasive personality.
She was wildly neurotic and moderately popular. She always had drugs because her parents were doctors.
One day, Francis made a profile on Formspring.
She would later regret that decision very much.
What is Formspring?
Formspring was a Q&A platform that launched in late 2009.
Users could go on to the platform and create a profile for free. Each profile included your username, a short bio, and a box where people could ask you questions.
Here’s how it worked:
- Katie goes on to Francis’s profile
- Katie asks Francis a question anonymously
- Francis sees this question in her private inbox
- Francis chooses if she wants to answer the question publicly
Answered questions were then displayed as a live feed on your profile that anyone could read.
What were the features of Formspring?
The platform was relatively simple from a product perspective. Formspring users could:
- Anonymously ask other people questions
- Follow others privately
- “Smile” (like) answers
Formspring is credited for popularizing the anonymous Q&A feature, the same feature that went on to inspire ask.fm and Tumblr shortly thereafter.
How did people use Formspring?
The founders of Formspring envisioned it as a thriving social network where people could connect with others in a deep and meaningful way.
Here’s how people really used it:
- To share sexually explicit messages
- To develop internet crushes on strangers
- To troll people they didn’t know
- To spy on their favorite celebrities
Above all, people used the platform to cyberbully the shit out of each other. Ask any high school girl in 2010 and she will tell you – that platform was rife with cyberbullying.
Even so, Formspring boasted over 30 million users at its peak before eventually going under in 2013.
Why was Formspring so popular?
What made Formspring so appealing was the ability to interact with people anonymously online, particularly people you knew in real life.
It really speaks to this fundamental human need to understand what other people think about us. I imagine this obsession stems from:
- Needing external validation: do people see me the way I want them to see me?
- Wanting to compare our thoughts to theirs: is my inner dialogue similar to everyone else’s?
- Wanting to feel connected to others: if we think the same way, then maybe we are the same
Here you have this platform that gives you the power to know exactly what other people think about you. That is incredibly powerful when you are an insecure 14-year-old girl in high school.
Francis was one such girl.
The complex issue of internet anonymity
For the record, most girls in our high school had Formspring accounts.
It was commonplace to come into school and talk about the messages left on each other’s profiles the night before. Some were sexually explicit. Some were adorable.
Some were borderline abusive.
Francis got the brunt of it. She whispered at the lunch table about the messages piling up in her inbox, the ones so vile she refused to answer them in public.
Which was baffling, considering how nice people were to her face.
And therein lies the problem with internet anonymity: it gives people the courage to act in egregious ways free of consequences.
Why does internet anonymity make people so mean?
Lots of people say terrible things on the internet. This doesn’t make them terrible people.
You could probably chalk their behavior up to a few things:
- They dislike themselves
- They are unhappy with their lives
- They feel the world is unfair and they want to hurt others
- They feel oppressed and are lashing out
- They are fundamentally unfulfilled
- They are looking for social clout
Some people are deeply unhappy in their personal lives. They hate their job. They get spoken down to. They have no power.
So they take to the internet and become someone they believe is better. They break people down to build themselves up. They get off on making other feels as unhappy as they do.
Internet anonymity is not the problem.
Social disconnection in the real world is the problem. Unfulfilling lives are the problem. Unhappiness, poverty, abuse, trauma, isolation, and all of the other things that eat away at the human psyche until we break under the weight of our own despair is the problem.
Not the internet.
Should people be allowed to be anonymous on the internet?
People should be able to hide their personal identity on the internet if they so choose. To take this away is to take away the freedom of self-expression.
The internet has always been a place where you can be anything you want to be. Many people choose the veil of anonymity to explore other aspects of themselves –
- To discover unconventional interests
- To explore sexual identities and preferences
- To express aspects of themselves they aren’t comfortable sharing in real life
- To create the version of themselves they can’t be in real life
The digital world is robust, colorful, and expressive. It is vast, but approachable. Safe, but mysterious. It is the only place in the world where you have complete control over how other people perceive you.
To exist in it anonymously is a fundamental right and an integral part of personal development in the digital age.
What lessons can we learn from Formspring?
The backlash to Formspring was that it should never have existed in the first place.
Extreme reactions are rarely the correct answer. Rather, we should be asking ourselves, how do we support people in the offline world so that they don’t feel compelled to behave in this way in the first place?
How do we instill in people a sense of kindness and integrity that extends to the digital world? And how do we eradicate internet culture that glorifies hurting others?
These issues are far more nuanced than shutting down a website.
The freedom of the internet is both its greatest blessing and its greatest curse.
Web3 and the new internet will only make these issues more complex. God speed.