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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Killjoy Cyberbullying Fears

Two posts in one night? Oh monsieur, with these Rocher you're really spoiling us!  Well, I can't go to the pub, since my wallet is probably in Glasgow.

Continuing the technology and social networking theme I seem to have inadvertently adopted this week with my coverage of the super-injunction leaks on Twitter and Microsoft's transparently desperate purchase of Skype, I have noticed that this thing I only found out about a few days ago has been attracting a bit of interest in the UK media.  Well, there was a brief thing about it in the Independent anyway, and that's good enough for me.

Formspring has apparently been popular among American teenagers for a few years now.  I only joined on Tuesday (, but I'm 28 and English so for my demographic I think that makes me an early adopter.  Oh yeah, I have my finger firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Not that the zeitgeist has a pulse, being a ghost and all, but you know what I mean.  In fact, the proof of this is in the fact that despite there being 23 million people signed up to the service (which is more than Facebook's entire UK membership), when I searched for Facebook friends to connect with on Formspring only four people came up.  One was American, and one was a teenager (I groom teenagers on the Facebook.  It's just the way I roll.  Not really of course, he's my best mate's little brother).  I have a lot more than four Facebook friends.  Even my dad has more than that.  But only four are on Formspring.  

This suggests either that a lot of UK adults haven't heard of Formspring, or they have heard of it and gone "Balls to that for a game of soldiers".  I strongly feel that it is the former, and I will tell you for why.  English people are really fucking nosey.  

I used to work with a woman called Jo, who would routinely interrogate everybody every day about the minutiae of their lives.  You wouldn't eat a sandwich near Jo, because she would need to know what was in the sandwich, where you bought it, how much it cost, and whether it was "nice".  She was like the CID of banal things.  In all other respects she was very nice, but the fear that you might get waterboarded so that Jo might know what time you went to bed last night made the whole experience of working with her a bit "edgy" 

There are Jo types everywhere. I'm sure you know some. But if you go to the North, everybody is fucking like it.  When I lived in the North, I deduced that the legendary Northern "friendliness" was basically the product of some deep seated need to be right into everybody's business.  Someone in a pub might ask you where you lived.  In the South, it would be sufficient to just say the area, or kind of near the station or the university or the brothel or whatever, and then you could move on to talking about something else.  Do that in the North and I will bet you all the money I've made off of Google AdSense (which is 2p, because they keep advertising things based on the words I use, and I only write about things that nobody likes... And until Google develops an engine that understands irony it will ever be thus.  And they're too busy working on ways to make us live forever as concious data files to look at that.  To be honest, I would rather live forever than have AdSense that wasn't weird, so you crack on, you crazy autistic genii) that the next question will be "Which 'owse?".  

It's like some kind of Tourette's.  They don't need to know.  You're never going to see this person again, let alone invite them round for one of your candlelight suppers.  They're not going to judge you on it, because that is what a Southerner would do.  There is absolutely no reason for it.  But they bloody have to know.  This made conversations a bit boring, because you basically felt like you were filling in a loan application.  

Formspring is perfect for Jo, and everybody in Northern England, because it invites you to ask people anything you want.  You can even do it anonymously without being a member.  You could sit there in your 'owse in 'uddersfield with 25 million people to ask about boring shit.  Or, given you are given free rein to ask anything you could just ask all 25 million for their card number and PIN.  Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it will stick, my grifting friends.

The idea and the site, like Twitter (follow me at is very simple.  No apps, no sharing of things, basic profiles for users.  You just ask questions, answer questions, read other people's answers to questions by following them or searching, and if you enjoy someone's answer you click a button that says "Smile" which works like a "like" on Facebook.  

I can see a lot of uses for this beyond satisfying your need to know which flavour of Kellogg's Nutri Grain bar someone who sits across the office from you was eating this morning if you are mental.  Serious applications, like perhaps MPs using it to respond to constituents' questions, business applications, like maybe it could be used in place of a "queries" form on your company's website, or for market research, and stuff that would just be a really good laugh.

It's the stuff that would be a really good laugh that is concerning people.  Or at least the few people that know about it.  Or at least, someone at the Independent.

Apparently, people have been using the Formspring to engage in a spot of cyberbullying, and that is bad.  We don't want that here, it's really bad.  Keep it in America, where at least the kid that's getting cyberbullied can gun down their antagonists.  What are they going to do here, pelt them with scones? 

Obviously not, they would stab them, I was just playing up to my American readers there.

The thing is, I just don't buy it.  On Facebook you could bully someone in a way that could be quite destructive, due to the ability to share all kinds of content.  If you are handy with Photoshop or you have access to something that would be embarrassing to them like a very personal email or some spectacularly bad poetry they wrote (and is there any other kind, written by 14 year olds?), sure, you could humiliate them and even if they deleted their own profile so you couldn't harrass them directly, you can still share whatever you like about them with other people.  You know, if you were a bit of a dick.  Or they had it coming.

Formspring does not offer anywhere near as many opportunities to systematically destroy the weak and the ginger.  Sure, you could ask some mean questions.  But those questions will just appear in their inbox, and they can delete them if they don't want to respond and nobody else will ever see them.  You can't comment on people's answers either, you can just read them, so there is actually no way I can see of really bullying anyone beyond just harrassing them with nasty questions, and you can do that with anything, even email.  And we had that when I was at school and none of us killed ourselves.

I think more people should give it a try.  But only interesting people.  Because nobody, not even the most bullied of teenagers, is that grateful for any glimmer of attention that they will keep returning to answer questions about chocolate.

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