Formspring and Cyber Bullying

My first interaction with Formspring (for those who don’t know: Formspring is a site where people can comment anonymously about eachother) occurred just this past year when a girl a year younger than me from a nearby school became relatively famous amongst local high schoolers because of her formspring. Other “anonymous” commenters (mostly girls from her school) began leaving notes implying (in a tone that could be called just about anything besides subtle) that they thought she was a slut. She announced via formspring that she would not be returning to that school next year.

I watched this incident with pretty fervent, yet detached, disgust. Almost every Formspring profile I’ve viewed was used to express hateful comments, some verging on actual threats. It seems that when one adds teens plus anonymity plus the internet, the result is cruelty. Therefore, it’s hard for me to understand how other teens could willingly put themselves out there. What is there to gain? But on the other hand, there’s clearly a bigger problem than teens not being able to look at what should be an innocent situation of social interaction - the site frames itself as a way to learn more about your friends - and see that they’re going to be verbally abused.

What is it about the internet that can bring out the absolute worse in us? It’s an argument that’s been rehashed over and over again in the debate about cyberbullying. Without actually having to face a person, it’s so much easier to be cruel. And with the ease and almost constant use of the internet, cyberbullying can easily blend into cyberstalking and create an environment that drives kids who have been targeted to feel depressed or even suicidal (or actually commit suicide in the cases of Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince). But Formspring is different. It seems that instead of bullies targeting specific kids they don’t like, it’s everybody voicing nasty insults about everybody else. Where cyberbullying is an instance of a bully targeting their prey through a more pervasive environment, Formspring seems to be the great equalizer of nastiness: everybody laying into everybody else.

So, are teens getting meaner, or have we always been bitches and now just have a way of expressing it? I think one of the main aspects of this that is often overlooked is that bullying like this has always existed. It’s just public now. Whereas before bullying took place in the halls at school, where everybody was too obsessed with themselves to really, truly notice it happening, or after school, bullying now takes place on the internet. While in cases of instant messaging or emails this can make its occurrence more private, facebook walls and Formspring can also make it public property, and what’s worse, public entertainment.

As I mentioned above, I experienced this with our now local Formspring supserstar. We’ll call her Sally. Sally’s formspring updates were passed around like wildfire on facebook. I was constantly updated about this girl's drama and I'd never even met her before. People watched this girl in pain as entertainment and I know of a few who added to it, not because they had any relationship with her, but rather just to keep the drama rolling. And in a way, Sally performed for her public. She could have easily deleted her formspring, but instead, she ANSWERED those questions and chose to make them public. While she complained about how mean people were being, she had the power to end at least the public nature of the bullying. I’m not trying to blame Sally for people bullying her – the sick people who chose to make her life hell are to blame. But Sally kept her formspring when she could have easily deleted it and she continued to respond to those who were bullying her. Maybe she couldn't see the way out in the midst of the tormenting...or maybe she was performing.

It’s the chicken or the egg argument: which came first, mean teenagers or the platform to exploit it? Who do we blame, the kids who are bullying or the access we have to bullying that makes it so much easier? I’d blame it on a combination of things: the internet, sure, but also this freaky culture of fame-mongering where people will do just about anything to get their 15 minutes. And even if nobody is paying attention, we perform online. We make profiles, we make ourselves public. So, maybe we shouldn’t be framing this as the one-sided issue of the internet and outlets like formspring making it easier for our generation to be cruel bullies. Maybe we should recognize that the internet is making it much easier to be a target, as well.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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