What Is Formspring and Why Was Anthony Weiner Playing With It?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 23 2013 5:28 PM

What Is Formspring and Why Was Anthony Weiner Playing With It?

Formspring was all the rage among tweens in 2010.
Formspring was all the rage among tweens in 2010.

Screenshot / Formspring.me

When gossip site the Dirty published raunchy exchanges on Formspring between Anthony Weiner and an unnamed 22-year-old woman, the first question on everyone’s mind was: “When, exactly, did this happen?” The second question was: “His screen name was Carlos Danger?!” And the third question was: “Formspring?!?

Unless you happened to be in junior high in the winter of 2010–11, the name may not ring a bell. But for a few heady months, Formspring was among the world’s fastest-growing social networks, reportedly signing up 1 million registered users in its first 45 days. The premise: a sort of “ask me anything” platform in which people could pose personal questions—sometimes anonymously—and you’d reply publicly, with the option of posting your answers to other sites like Twitter as well. Like an online game of Truth or Dare, this was catnip for teens and tweens, who joined en masse, and the site at one point counted 30 million registered users. “The questions end up being mostly sexual,” a UCLA undergrad told Forbes in a 2010 profile of the site.

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It was also controversial, since the anonymity gave cover to bullies whose “questions” amounted to thinly veiled abuse. In 2011, Formspring was linked in the media to at least two teen suicides.

From a business perspective, the site’s real problem was that it offered little lasting value beyond the initial frisson of sharing revealing tidbits about oneself with a group of faceless followers. It raised upward of $10 million in venture capital in 2010, from investors that included Chris Sacca, Dave Morin, and Kevin Rose. But as other sites like Ask.fm and Tumblr copied its core features, its appeal waned, and a pivot to a more anodyne, “interest-based” networking model fizzled.

In March 2013, founder and CEO Ade Olonoh announced the site’s closure, though it was apparently resurrected under new management shortly afterward. An email to its press team was not immediately returned. Former Formspringer Cap Watkins, now at Etsy, wrote a postmortem in March blaming the site’s downfall on the same thing that made it go viral in the first place: the anonymity.

None of that really explains why Anthony Weiner would have been using the site for sex chats, let alone allegedly as late as 2012, after he had already been caught with his pants down on Twitter. Perhaps he assumed no one he knew would find him on Formspring, given the site’s demographics. Or perhaps the site’s demographics were part of what attracted him.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.