Ask.fm: friends, trolls and why I closed my account.

Ask.fm is described by Wikipedia as being “social networking website where users can ask other users questions, with the option of anonymity.” When I first heard about and noticed people using it on my Twitter feed I was immediately dubious. I had had a little experience with Formspring – a predecessor with a very similar format – and although I hadn’t used it very often, I hadn’t enjoyed it. Over time, people on my feed – who tend to be people that hold political or social views that challenge the status quo – began singing Ask.fm’s praises as a platform through which people could begin engaging with activism and politics, asking those with greater knowledge and experience potentially embarrassing questions without having to worry about looking like an idiot. Gradually I came round to the idea. Eventually I set up my own account.

My use of Twitter is pretty varied. Followers of mine are treated to daily doses of complaining about public transport, kitten pictures and – occasionally – politics and current affairs. I wouldn’t call myself an activist. I’m an armchair activist or a keyboard warrior at best. I use Twitter to vent my rage at journalists, companies and politicians grossly abusing their position of power, and have acquired a little following of a few hundred like minded people. I knew that some of the women I looked up to and admired used it regularly and found it extremely useful so (grudgingly) I set up an account.

At first, my Ask.fm experience was surprisingly positive. People asked my thoughts on current affairs, whatever Twitterstorm was currently blowing its course, things about my life that I had eluded to on Twitter but which people wanted more details on. Mostly my boyfriend, who is a talented jazz guitarist on the London circuit, and make-up. It all started going downhill when somebody asked my opinion on abortion. Without going in to detail, it transpired that the askers views were wildly different to my own. I tried to remain calm so I could respond in an articulate and thought out manner. I posted my answer.

A feeding frenzy ensued. I was set upon by pro-lifers telling me I was advocating murder and that by doing so I was “murdering whore.” I was also set upon by pro-choicers claiming I hadn’t been harsh enough on the asker. I stared at my screen in bemusement. However I had answered, somebody would have been angry. I dealt with the criticism as best I could, blocking the worst of the pro-lifers and eventually turning my phone off so I could get some sleep. The next day, the frenzy had dulled. I breathed a sigh of relief. 

About a week later, I received another horrible post. This one wasn’t even a question. The “asker” had contacted me anonymously to inform me that they had a theory – that I did not love or cherish my partner, but was rather dating him to further my “textbook leftist agenda.” The reason for this theory – my boyfriend is Asian. I snorted with derision. The assertion didn’t even warrant a response. What worried me the most was the fact that this person was using Ask.fm – a platform that I understood was to ask questions of people that you didn’t want to ask in person – not to ask me anything, but rather to send me thinly veiled racist abuse because of my partners ethnic origin. They were using it to attack me and the person I hold most dear. It also concerned me that, as far as I was aware, I had never tweeted about my boyfriends ethnic background. I sank in to a sea of paranoia. Tweeting that I was receiving horrible “questions” on Ask, I was flushed with friends posting me positive messages. But, again, in amongst the care was abuse. Name calling. The worst thing about it is that, because of the very nature of Ask.fm, you have no idea who is posting it. You don’t know whether it’s somebody you otherwise trust and cherish, or whether it’s somebody you’ve never met. Again, the furore died down, I blocked the sender and everything went back to normal.

This morning, as I was sitting in Costa Coffee in Croydon drying off from the rain, a man sat down at my table. I hadn’t seen him come in or approach me, but he leaned forward and asked “Hey sexy. Do you mind if I sit here?” I looked around. It was 9.30am and there were plenty of vacant spots. “Why?” I asked. “There are loads of free tables.” I was frightened. Costa was virtually empty and the staff were busy doing something behind the till. “I just wanna look at you beautiful!” he explained, leaning forward over the table. By this point, I could feel my heartbeat inside my head. I had a burst of adrenaline, as all my instincts told me to run. “No,” I replied, “go away.” I tried to look as steadfast and fearless as possible. He stood up with a start. “Fine! Fuck you, whore.” he said, turning and walking in the other direction. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The woman on the next table asked me if I was okay. I nodded, although I was actually pretty shaken.  
When I was calm, I tweeted about it.

I was met with an outpouring of kindness and support from the people of Twitter. Later, I received as Ask.fm question, accusing me of exaggerating what had happened to get attention. Again, I sank in to paranoia. Was this a person from inside Costa that had witnessed what had happened? If it were then they would have seen that of course I’m not exaggerating. Why would somebody send me this? Why is Ask.fm being used in this way, so far from its intended purpose? Are there any safe guard in place, to protect people from malicious abusers on the site?

When I got home, I did a little research. Ask.fm has been at the centre of scandal recently, surrounding the subject of cyber bullying. The site has been linked to a number of suicides, mostly of teenagers who have been bullied anonymously. I think the most worrying thing about Ask.fm is the lack of regulation: although they claim that they have monitors, comments are never deleted and as such the website has come under heavy criticism. They claim that users troll themselves so that their peers will protect them (see this interview) and that the problem of cyberbullying is vast and not restricted solely to Ask.fm. This is certainly true. Cyberbullying trascends platforms. However, I feel that the format of Ask.fm is particularly problematic, what with the anonymous nature of posts and the potentially vulnerable nature of their predominantly teenager users. I have found through my experiences of Ask.fm that my initial fears were entirely well-founded. Ask.fm is abused by people who want to fire hate at people that they dislike. They are cowards, who do not want to fight a fair fight or let the person know who it is that is sending them these accusations. 

I closed my Ask.fm account today permanently and I don’t intend to reopen it. As a platform it is far to open to abuse from cowardly individuals with nothing better to do that send anonymous abuse. With greater regulation, Ask.fm could be a brilliant site serving a useful service. As it is, it is a way for people to hide behind a veil of anonymity, saying things to people that they would never have said if they didn’t have that anonymity. I concede that cyber bullying goes beyond Ask.fm, but argue that as a format it is particularly useful to abusers and unhelpful to the abused. Stay away from Ask.fm folks. It has a dark underside that I don’t want to re-explore.

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