When Billy Crawford learned in January that his friends were using Formspring.me, a new social-networking Web site, the senior at West Islip High School decided to check it out.
The platform gives users the option to send and receive questions anonymously. "Everybody's lured in by curiosity ... what do people think about me," said Crawford, 17.
The first few anonymous comments left on his page were positive ones, Crawford said, but it didn't take long before the comments turned nasty. "There were really negative comments about me and my girlfriend at the time," he said.
"You become obsessed with what people have to say about you. I don't know why," Crawford said. "Some people get really caught up in it."
The site gives users the option of deleting comments rather than sharing them with others, but some teens share them anyway. On Friday, the company announced new restrictions to allow users to block any anonymous postings.
Despite the negative comments, it took Crawford a while before he finally decided he'd had enough. That was earlier this month, when he received more anonymous postings attacking his character. While he didn't want to discuss the specifics, he said it was the final act that convinced him to close his account.
"I figured I really don't need this in my life," Crawford said.
Source of free expression
Although Michael Liegey doesn't use Formspring.me, the senior at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington said it would be wrong to shut down the social-networking Web site because some users are abusing it by posting cruel and mean-spirited comments anonymously.
While Liegey, 18, is sympathetic to a movement launched by friends of the late Alexis Pilkington to boycott the 4-month-old site she had been using, he said the company provides a service some people want.
"Formspring provides a vehicle to say certain things. The fact it allows people who say it anonymously is not a reason to ban it," Liegey said.
Liegey is concerned that if authorities impose restrictions on sites such as Formspring.me, it may have a chilling effect on individuals' freedom of expression.
Going onto Formspring.me is like visiting a public park or going to a movie theater, Liegey said. In a park, at the theater, or on Formspring.me, people should have the right to speak or communicate with anyone they wish, including strangers.
If someone on that or any other social networking site is violating the law or the company's policy, which includes the use of "offensive" language, then Liegey said the user should report to the authorities or to the company.
"Rules that apply in the physical world should apply in cyberspace," Liegey said.
Another way to stay connected
Chanelle Stracuzza likes it when people pay her compliments, even when she doesn't know the identity of the online speaker.
"When people say nice things about me, even anonymously, it makes me feel good," said Stracuzza, 18, a senior at West Islip High School.
Stracuzza discovered Formspring.me in February when she and her friends linked the site to their Facebook pages. She wanted to be in on the loop so she signed up for the service, which gives users the option of accepting personal questions anonymously.
"I got one because everybody got one and I was curious about what it was," she said.
Stracuzza said she did not send or answer comments anonymously and she did receive one negative comment left on her page by an unidentified person.
Stracuzza, who uses Facebook regularly, said Formspring.me provides another platform for her to stay connected to her friends.
"It's like calling someone on the phone, or texting or meeting up," she said. Like texting, she said, "I think it's less awkward than talking on the phone."
Social networking safety tips
The cyber-safety group Teenangels advises:
1- Keep your passwords private. You're entitled to privacy, and password abuse is at the root of much cyber mischief.
2- Hit "delete" instead of "forward." Break the cycle of sexting and harassment.
3- Think twice. Before you post that picture or send that message, think about the consequences it might have - today, next week or years from now.
4- Report abuse on Facebook if you see or are a victim of abusive behavior. Look for "Report" links throughout the site, such as the "Report This Photo" link underneath photos and the "Report" links in Inbox messages from people who aren't confirmed friends.
5- Check out MTV's survey on digital abuse at www.athinline.org.
Also, do not answer offensive questions on Formspring.me. Delete before answering, block repeat offenders.
Formspring.me announced new options Friday for use of the site:
New users signing on to Formspring.me must choose one of three options:
1. Decline any and all anonymous questions
2. Allow all anonymous questions
3. Allow only anonymous questions from users who are logged in to the system. This feature allows Formspring.me to track and identify abusers, according to a company spokeswoman.
If you chose to allow anonymous questions, you have four choices:
Delete the question, which means only you see it.
Block the question
Report it as spam.