Self-Esteem in the World of Formspring

07/09/2010 03:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Everyone knows about Formspring now. It's a site that allows people to leave anonymous questions and comments about you. That way people can tell you they've secretly loved you forever. Or ask you what kind of deodorant you wear, since you smell so good. Well, they could do that, and some of them do. But a lot of them just ask really crude sexual questions and tell you how ugly and pathetic you are. That's not the most horrible thing ever or anything. Definitely not. Because the most horrible thing ever is... Watching everyone you love being lowered into a tank of ravenous space piranhas by a merciless robot from a terrifying volcanic world in the Andromeda galaxy. But the anonymous comments on Formspring thing is a close second.

I've been having conversations about technology a lot lately. A bunch of research and reports came out not too long ago about how lonely and isolating the modern computerized world is. You get the image of all of us, hunched over our glowing screens, our faces wan and sickly, locked in darkened rooms, hiding from our neighbors as we search for flat, fleeting, and expressionless connection through chat rooms. We flip our phones open to text meaningless lines like "yea but idk wtf is up w him gtg," and none of us have the slightest need to spell out complete words or use any form of punctuation. We watch porn instead of having actual sex. After all, we don't know how to move our bodies anymore. And we definitely don't know how to convince anyone to have sex with us. Though occasionally we enjoy some sexting: "oo wat r u waring? Im nkd an I just snt u a pic of my boobs". Who could resist?

You know I don't believe all that. I write a blog. I met my fiance online. People create amazing communities online. They support each other, love each other, encourage each other to eat cake. It's all pretty empowering and awesome.

But with great power comes great responsibility, as I always say (what? I totally invented that saying! Peter Parker's uncle stole it from me!), and anonymity is very powerful. Blogging doesn't feel anonymous. People have real conversations. We get to know each other a little. But on Formspring, people don't even leave a name. And for some reason, being nameless allows them to say anything at all. But why do they want to say the meanest things they can think of?

I could maybe try to answer that, but it seems like it would take a really long time and involve some wild guessing. So I'll say this instead:

It's a new era for self-esteem. An article in the New York Times talks about how a lot of kids choose to stay on Formspring, even when people say incredibly cruel things to them. Maybe they're just used to seeing people write similar stuff underneath every youtube video they watch. Maybe they know that's what people tend to do. Maybe all the cruelty is just out there, in the open, and they can somehow manage to laugh it off and say, "That's the worst you can do? You didn't even spell that right!"

It's hard for me to imagine, but maybe at twenty-four I'm just too old. My self-esteem was shaped in a time when people mostly had to say it to my face. And people are a lot less likely to do that (not that they don't!).

Or maybe self-esteem is the same, and kids just have to pretend they don't care, because not caring about insults in any communication medium is critical to maintaining whatever identity they're always trying so hard to maintain. Maybe staying on Formspring is the equivalent of trying to shrug off the mean gossip that used to circulate by word of actual mouth. If so, then kids just have a lot more to deal with these days. And not just kids. Though I think the data is pretty conclusive that they are the meanest group of people alive.

So what is it? Are we adapting to anonymity by developing a thicker skin and recognizing the trolls for what they are (imaginary creatures who don't exist in the face to face world)? Or are we getting more hurt than ever?