Pop-Culture | Posted by Julie Z on 08/4/2010

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.

Phoebe Prince: committed suicide after being cyberbullied

Phoebe Prince: committed suicide after being cyberbullied

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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  • Sasa @ at 5:36 pm, August 4th, 2010

    Great article… I think the fact that the internet is anonymous (unless you say who you are of course)gives people the confidence to say whatever they want. The fact that the bullying happens through a computer and not to the person’s face makes the comments/abuse OK… because you can’t see their reactions.

    I was a victim of cyber bullying when I joined my new secondary school. I was able to stop the posts from coming up on my website, but I still read them and they still hurt. It took me a few months to realise that they were actually coming from someone who I thought was my best friend, who I had leaned on for support. Everything I had told her was thrown in my face… and it took me a long time to recover from that.

    I was lucky; I was smart enough to print evidence that my “best friend” was responsible and give them into my school, who was a great help. The internet is partly responsible for this form of bullying, I agree… but the fact of the matter is bullying happens in all forms and it, sadly, appears to be human nature. If the internet wasn’t here, it would probably happen somewhere else.

  • Zoe @ at 6:43 pm, August 4th, 2010

    Somehow, I managed to get from 11th grade to college graduation while having a Myspace, then Facebook, then Tumblr, and never experiencing cyber bullying. I guess I’m lucky. And a little smart to never post something that I knew might attract negative attention.

    I’ve really realized this summer exactly how terrible cyber bullying can be for some people. If you haven’t heard the story of “Jessi Slaughter” just Google it.

    I think something about being a teenager tends to make people more likely to be nasty to each other. I mean that in the sense that, for some, maybe most kids, the ability to truly emphasize and understand the consequences of their actions. I’m 22 now and I realize that I am more empathetic and concerned for the feelings of others than I was at 15 or so (not that I ever bullied anyone).

    That is only my experience though. I can’t speak for everyone.

  • Samuel W. @ at 8:16 pm, August 4th, 2010

    I theorize that kids feel angry about something even they don’t know, and are taking it out on eachother. This is the generation raised under George Walker Bush’s eight-year reign of terror, with the resulting economic turmoil, conservative domination, atrocious health care system and, aside from what he did, we’ve put up with a bunch of garbage pop cultural obsessions for the whole decade. All we’ve been raised under is “Check out the latest celeb scandals!”, “Get this *insert incessantly advertised product here* to be popular!”, “We must embark on a pointless oil war to fend off ‘evildoers'”…some kids are smart enough to realize that, but others just swallow what they’ve been given. It’s a grossly inverted form of rebellion, which looks like rebellion, but is actually conforming to the sanitized, ultra-conservative & corporate-ruled America Generation Z has been raised in. Some kids know no other way to be.

  • Holly @ at 11:30 pm, August 4th, 2010

    So, are teens getting meaner, or have we always been bitches and now just have a way of expressing it?

    I don’t want to derail the actual conversation, but I do have to object to your use of the word “bitch.” It’s not a gender-neutral word, and it has a distinctly sexist history.

  • Steph @ at 12:00 pm, August 5th, 2010

    @Samuel W.: I think you’re making a mistake in assuming that everyone on this blog (and, for that matter, all the nasty teens on the ‘Net, are from the States. I’m no fan of W either, but I don’t think he’s to blame here. I think you’re on the money with the “garbage pop cultural obsessions”, though. Without models of positive behavior and net citizenship, it’s easier and easier for these “mean girls” to spread negativity. You can wish for a cake filled with rainbows, but if there’s no-one to help you bake it, it’s gonna get mighty lonely. I think that focusing on the negativity gives it a place to fester and multiply, but that sometimes it can be hard not to.


  • K8 AH @ at 4:44 pm, August 6th, 2010

    I don’t understand bully mentality… It is in my nature to try to build others up, not tear them down. I want to care for every hurting and wounded bird out there. It is so strange to me that everyone doesn’t feel that way.

  • Emily @ at 8:00 am, August 8th, 2010

    This was a really interesting, thought provoking article and a really awesome example of what this site is supposed to be (teen perspective on issues that affect girls, women, and the world at large) so great job Julie!

    I think a huge driving factor behind cyber bullying, as was mentioned, is that it’s not face to face. You don’t have to see the faces of the people you hurt or see them cry or read their body language or enconter a lot of things that would make you empathize with the person you’re bullying. I think that the anonymity of it and the lessened ability to empathize gives people the chance to view the victims as somehow less than themselves or their friends or other loved ones.

    As someone who was bullied earlier in her life, Sally’s actions make total sense to me. It obviously hurts to have stuff like this happen to you and so you react defensively. You try to fight back and I guess when it comes to cyberbullying the only way you feel you can fight back is by responding.

    Anyway, sorry this was so long! Just my opinion on the matter :)

  • Lucy @ at 1:37 pm, August 9th, 2010

    @Samuel W, I completely agree with Steph, cyberbullying is not just a problem in the States. I come from the UK and at my school we’ve recently had a case of bullying via Formspring with the bully compiling a ‘hate list’ of everyone in the year that they disliked.I think that as long as the anonymity of the internet is around, there will be continued cases of people ‘hiding behind their computor screens’ as a way of hurting others.

  • stop bullying @ at 3:16 pm, August 20th, 2010

    Who in their right mind thinks this is appropriate behavior?

  • A @ at 3:08 pm, November 23rd, 2010

    @ Steph- love the reference…

    In response to the article… There have always been some mean teens. Now there are more due to the fact that these people don’t have to take responsibility for their words.

  • anonymous @ at 10:40 pm, November 29th, 2010

    well, the other thing about anonymity on the web, is that it can feel like that one anonymous person is actually everyone you know. Kids who are bullied feel like they need to respond. I haven’t been bullied, but i have witnessed it, and when a kid is bullied through formspring, and then they disable it, it draws attention, and people start talking behind their backs. i think people would rather hear girls they don’t know talking about them in the bathroom, than know kids are talking but having no idea what they’re saying. and formspring is whispering in the bathroom without any risk of trouble.

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