I hadn't heard of Formspring.me until the weekend after New Year's, when the site's URL seemed to appear in 75 percent of the postings in my Twitter feed. A brief perusal made it seem like a Web site where you register to play a massive game of truth or dare—without the dare part—online. Internet acquaintances were answering questions like, "Don't you sometimes hate blogging?" and "What's the deal with your dog?" At first I thought it was just a passing enthusiasm among the New York blogging crowd, but during the short time it took me to scroll to the bottom of a Twitter search page for Formspring.me, 206 new entries had appeared.
Formspring.me provides a form to send and receive anonymous questions. You can sync the form up so that the questions and your answers automatically appear on Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook. The answers are not exactly the unfiltered truth you get from a late-night slumber party, since you are able to pick and choose which questions to answer. You could refuse to respond to someone asking about how much money you make or how many people you've slept with, even though those are things that everyone really wants to know about.
Gawker's Foster Kamer called Formspring.me "The Sociopathic Crack Cocaine of Oversharing." Why would anyone want to ask me, or anyone else, questions anonymously? Though my areas of expertise include the Real Housewives of many cities and the dating history of Winona Ryder, information on these topics can be found through a creative Google search. And why would I want to ask other people questions anonymously? Why do strangers, or even my friends, owe me a public answer?
With Twitter and blogging (and Facebook to a lesser extent) the user is constructing his or her own narrative without much input from others. Sure, there is a certain amount of crowd-sourcing—@ replies to various questions asked by the Twitter nation—but the conversation and the image are very much driven by the user. Followers of the supposedly most influential Twitterer Kim Kardashian might be reading her Tweets because they actually want to learn about her inner life, not because they want to know about how she lost 15 pounds. The rise in popularity of something like Formspring.me may be from a desire for celebrities and noncelebrities alike to give their audiences something resembling honesty rather than constant self-promotion and shill.
For bloggers, something like Formspring.me is attractive because it's a direct way to hear what your most devoted fans want to read about. Mediabistro concurred, saying it could be a powerful new tool for authors to communicate with readers. According to John Wechsler, the president of Formspring, the data collection company that created Formspring.me, the site is averaging about 1 million new questions a day, and they've had more than a quarter of a billion page views since the site launched on Nov. 25. Just last week, Tumblr launched its own Q and A feature called "Ask Me." Semi-convinced, I started really reading the responses of some of my peers and found them marginally interesting. I had no idea Dana spent a year in Thailand! Who knew that this random dude I met once loves George Harrison above all other Beatles!
Because it's in my interest to make the readership of the site I work for stronger and because I didn't want to be left behind the way I was with Twitter (my first thought on Twitter: This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of), I decided to start my own Formspring.me account. Maybe I would learn something about myself, I thought. Or maybe I would learn something about the people who follow me on various social media, since I told all my Twitter and Facebook followers about Formspring.me/jessgrose.
The first thing I learned about my social media pals is that they are perverts. After a few innocuous questions that I found out were from coworkers (i.e., How much do you tip a mover?), someone asked me, "Would you consider giving a hard-working cleaning-servant, or houseboy, to provide free, thorough housework for you?" Thinking that this was a joke from one of my friends, I responded, "Hm, depends. If I had a pool house or cabana, maybe. But since I don't, I'm going to have to pass." I had a good chuckle and then forgot about the query until later that day when I was looking at the @ responses in my Twitter feed. A Twitter user who goes by the charming handle "2Ugly4daOrgy" replied to me, "Ha. That was my question. I think you've got me hooked on formspring. And thanks for the reply, even if disappointing."
A few hours later, I got a marriage proposal, probably from 2Ugly4daOrgy. That, combined with the bugginess of Formspring—several friends told me they tried to submit questions and were given an error message—made me almost quit the experiment entirely. Luckily, a few hours later, questions started coming in that made me realize why someone might find the site worthwhile.
"Should the editors of books that are a collection of items submitted by strangers pay the strangers for their work?" someone asked. Since I co-wrote a book that relied heavily on unpaid, user-generated content, this is something I've always felt a little sleazy about. I considered dodging the question, but I realized that would be deliberately missing out on what makes Formspring.me—and social networking in general—so appealing. As Tumblr founder David Karp puts it, "With these types of Q&As, [the questions are coming from] fans of people they've read online, and they want to have a meaningful dialogue with them." If I'm dishonest, or refuse to answer a semi-difficult question, there's no point in participating.
Of the 17 questions I received during my one week on Formspring.me, I answered 13. Of those 13, I'd say four provoked worthwhile responses. Ultimately, I agree with Mediabistro's assessment: If you have a book or any other media project and you want to engage your readers, using a tool like Formspring.me could be very useful. Gawker—despite Foster Kamer's loathing—has set up its own Formspring.me to field questions. For the average, nonmedia person, though, I think Formspring.me has limited appeal. That is, unless you're looking for a cleaning-servant or houseboy.