Formspring during the formative years

I spent a couple of hours today discussing the What, How, and Why of Formspring with 8th graders. While I knew of Formspring’s new-ish existence (it launched November, 2009), I only looked more deeply at the site at a parent’s request after that New York Times article hit the interwebs last week. Within minutes, I located (with little to no difficulty) a dozen students posting/fielding questions from accounts that listed their real name, location, and photograph. Lordy.

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What? Formspring‘s homepage offers the following: “Ask questions, give answers and learn more about your friends.”

How? Without even generating a username or logging in, you can search for names, locate profiles, read the questions that were posted to a user’s profile page (these can be posted anonymously or non-anonymously), and read the user’s answers to those posted questions.

Why? Because. This is not original or unique. Danah Boyd writes, “There’s something fascinating to people of all ages about answering questions about themselves.” Further, imagine the addictive thrill of posting whatever you want anonymously.

Today in class, we discussed the following items:

  • The danger of posting your name and any identifying information on a public site. Beyond creepy stalkers, these kids have to consider high school placement counselors, college admissions, and future employers.
  • It is within a user’s power to delete a question from their profile page. However a question posted to someone else’s page is at that other person’s mercy to delete. This is explicitly stated on Formspring’s FAQ Forum. (Many thanks to Arvind Grover for posting the link to this!)
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  • By responding to a question, you are legitimizing it. You are demonstrating that it meant something that was worthy of a response. One girl asked, “Why shouldn’t I defend myself when someone says something mean to me on my Formspring page? Isn’t that my right?” I reminded her that an answer is as public as a question. How is it effective to respond to a hateful, mispelled, sexualized, profanity-rich question in kind?
  • Students’ (and parents’) behavior outside of school reflects on our community. This is in the annual contract that accompanies tuition remittance:

…It is further understood that The School reserves the right to dismiss any student whose behavior or conduct or whose parents’ or guardians’ behavior or conduct, in or out of school, is determined by The School, in its sole judgment, to be lacking general civility or contrary, without limitation, to its rules, regulations, or standards.

  • Everything you do online is public, permanent, and traceable. I held out a sheaf of papers in which I said I’d printed the Formspring Q&As from a dozen students. The response was a mixture of embarrassment, outrage, and humor. One student asked why I would do this. I replied, “Because I can. It’s all public. And now it’s permanent in paper form as well as on Formspring’s server as well as from a Google search. And I can make a copy for the Head of School and your mother and your grandmother and your teachers and your high school transcript. And it’s all traceable from your username and from your friend’s profiles.” (At the end of the class, I confessed that the stack of paper was from the recycle bin, but I made my point.)

Later, when I was telling my Director of Technology about the talks, we went online to locate some of the more incendiary profiles. I was very gratified to see that many student accounts were disabled. But as I pointed out to the kids, you can disable your profile, but your name and face are still searchable. And as stated above, any questions left on another user’s page will persist.

Privacy, shmivacy.

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