Comments and questions go into a private mailbox, where the user can ignore, delete or answer them. Only the answered ones are posted publicly — leading parents and guidance counselors to wonder why so many young people make public so many nasty comments about their looks, friends and sexual habits.
“I’d never heard of Formspring until yesterday, but when I started asking kids, every seventh and eighth grader I asked said they used it,” said Christine Ruth, a middle school counselor in Linwood, N.J. “In seventh grade, especially, it’s a lot of ‘Everyone knows you’re a slut,’ or ‘You’re ugly.’ It seems like even when it’s inappropriate and vicious, the kids want the attention, so they post it. And who knows what they’re getting that’s so devastating that they don’t post it?”
Users can choose not to accept anonymous questions, but most young people seem to ignore that option. And some Formspring users say it is precisely the negative comments that interest them.
“Nice stuff is not why you get it,” said Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City. “I think it’s interesting to find out what people really think that they don’t have the guts to say to you. If it’s hurtful, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t really mean anything.”
Ariane, who has more than 100 posts on her site, said she had not been terribly bothered by anything she has read so far, but she acknowledged that after one comment about a certain pair of leggings, she stopped wearing them.
Her father, Larry Stern, who like most other parents interviewed had never heard of Formspring until a reporter’s call, was aghast.
“It’s just shocking that kids have access to all these things on the Internet and we don’t even know about it,” Mr. Stern said. “And it’s disturbing that what goes on there will influence how somebody behaves. How do you block it? How do you monitor it?”
Even teenagers who do not set up Formspring accounts can peruse their friends’ accounts to see if they are mentioned.
Many families on Long Island became aware of Formspring after the March suicide of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old West Islip soccer player who had received many nasty messages.
Since it began in late November, Formspring has caught on rapidly. More than 28 million people visit the site each month, 14 million of them in the United States, according to Quantcast, a service that analyzes Web traffic.
The company, started in Indianapolis by John Wechsler and Ade Olonoh, recently raised $2.5 million from a group of Silicon Valley investors and moved to San Francisco.
According to Formspring, more than three million questions have been asked and answered on the site. Mr. Olonoh said in an e-mail message that the company did not know what percentage of users were teenagers.
Formspring is not the first site to allow anonymous comments. Some schools say students have been demoralized by comments on Honesty Box, a Facebook add-on. And Juicy Campus, a college gossip site, caused so much grief that some colleges blocked it, and some state attorneys general began consumer-protection investigations. The site shut down last year.