On Formspring

I joined Formspring to examine the practices and implications of a particular social technology, as it falls generally inside the area of study I am focussing on with my PhD. Formspring seemed like a good opportunity to practice analysing the socio-technical structures of a budding social network.

I tried to come to Formspring with as few prejudices as possible, or at least being as aware of the ones I possessed as much as could be. I initially considered Formspring a “fad” and my assessment of it has almost gone full circle. At least having tried it out I feel rather more justified about making the following assessment. As things stand, I find that as a piece of social technology it’s remarkably asocial, though not quite anti-social, and at least fails to promote social connections to the extent other social media has.

The first effect or change I noticed Formspring engendering in me was probably reasonably predictable, but the strength of it surprised me. Immediately after finishing up answering a bunch of the first questions I was posed by anonymous questioners I tabbed back to Facebook and noticed a status update about a friend stranded in a car-park in Penrith with a flat tyre.

The “answer questions” mindset stuck with me outside of the Formspring page, and I began to “answer” the non-question that was this friend’s status. My instant reaction short-circuited rational thinking, causing me to volunteer actual assistance which I would not have been so forthcoming with otherwise since I didn’t know this person exceptionally well. Lets just say that venturing out into the cold night stretches only so far for even my best friends… somehow I was still in “proffer information” mode and it was persisting beyond the Formspring site.

After typing my super-helpful comment where I offered to come help this (rather recently acquired friend) in his predicament, I checked myself. Did I really want to go help this person? It was cold and late. Realistically… no, probably not. Being in the Formspring mode made me at least temporarily more inclined to offer something. The first question raised by this is one of motive – if I was on autopilot was I even motivated by a selfless desire? (Whether that really makes a difference is an ontological debate we’re skip for now)

Certainly some have accused the motivation behind setting up a Formspring account to be one of ego. Simon Ferrari tweeted recently, “So yeah I know I always said I wouldn’t do Twitter, then caved. But I’m never gonna make a fucking Formspring. Seriously.” In a similar vein Michel McBride added comment, saying first “I always just saw it as an ego thing, like people with Twitter accounts who never respond to replies” and then clarifying by adding, “I mean formspring is ABOUT responding to people, but creating one in the first place is pure ego. Sometimes deserved, sometimes not”.

When people say that Formspring is ‘narcissistic’, I presume they’re often expressing doubt at the worth of having a service that allows people to ask you questions – surely if you have a burning desire to ask a question, you just ask someone. There’s nothing inherently narcissistic about being asked or answering a question. A bit of a stigma is attached to Formspring however (as demonstrate above) because using it requires the creation of an account, which seems to say something about the user when they join. That their opinion of themselves includes either, a) thinking that people might want to ask them questions and b) that their answers are worth reading or caring about.

One aspect of the service the importance of which often gets minimised, however, is the ability to ask anonymous questions. This feature needs to be underscored because of the impact it has on both the questioner and the answerer. Allowing for anonymous questions seems to have the main benefit of eliminating the sign-up barrier that would turn a lot of people away from asking a question. Anyone on the internet who knows the users account name can ask an anonymous question, provided that the user has agreed to allow for this.

For the person receiving the questions this adds a lot of confusion in question and answering. Interestingly, of all the questions I was asked on the first evening, only one was by a fellow Formspring user (and even she remained anonymous at first!), the rest were all anonymous (or other Formspring users asking anonymously).

Anonymity means the user has no way of knowing ‘who was who’ in current and previous questions. My natural tendency however, was to guess or infer who was behind each question and it influenced my answers each time. Furthermore, the anonymity fragments any conversation that may happen, and the lack of an ability to “comment” or reply to specific answers felt like a shortcoming. Somewhat interestingly, some of the other users (and I myself on one occasion) found ways around this inability – either through referring back to earlier questions in their answers, or by turning the act of asking a user a question into a comment on a previous answer. But unless a user is signed into their account and poses a question visibly then conversations get fragmented fast. Users answering questions may as well treat every question as though it were from a completely different person, but this goes against our natural instincts to guess who the anonymous person is.

The ability to ask anonymously makes the John Gabriel Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory only completely applicable to Formspring. The percentage of people receiving (and answering!!) rude and downright abusive questions was very close to 100. I asked a few inappropriate questions anonymously myself, just because I could. The seductive nature of anonymity is indeed a near irresistable force.

And lastly, the most importantly thing for anyone interested in the composition and make-up of Formspring to realise is that it rolls out a decidedly Socratic (or rhetorical) method of persuasion. The aforementioned inability to comment on an answer, which would turn it into a threaded discussion, means that a question is posed and the user is charged with answering it in a decidedly rhetorical manner while a near-silent audience looks on. The Socratic method has it’s pro’s and con’s, but it’s hardly the manner that I want to employ on a social network. As an aside, this exercise has actually been extremely valuable as it has led me to discover that I greatly prefer a dialectical method, involving a back and forth between parties in an attempt to reconcile differences of position and opinion.

It’s important to note that this Socratic method I’ve identified here is being employed by Formspring as a conscious and deliberate choice. Formspring as a piece of technology was designed and that design did not just fall from the heavens. It behoves us to examine and question both the implications and the validity of this approach. For me, and in light of Formpsring’s perceived role as a piece of social software, it meant an unwillingness to continue using the service, and I have since deactivated my account in response. As I said on twitter, I may not have been the first on the bandwagon, but I can still be one of the first off it.