Ask.fm: The Antisocial Network
Inside the dangerous online world kids can’t quit.
June 26, 2014
By Jack Dickey / Riga

On Jan. 10, 2014, 14-year-old Matthew Homyk, from the Cleveland Suburb of Brunswick, Ohio, killed himself. The news came tragically but only somewhat unexpectedly to Matthew’s father Ray Homyk. His son had been medicated and hospitalized for depression intermittently in the months prior to his death.

While Matthew had never been terribly at ease–he cut his arms, worried about his stutter and, along with his younger sister, struggled to cope with his parents’ divorce–he always had a pleasant way about him. He had a handful of good friends and a girlfriend. He liked lacrosse. But sometime around October 2013, Ray says, something went very wrong. Matthew had retreated inward further than ever before, and he asked his father for help.

Matthew, who had just started ninth grade, had found a problem online. He told his father people were saying terrible things about him and he couldn’t ignore them. He was tethered to his new iPhone and through it to a website, Ask.fm. Ray, 41, had never heard of it.

Many American teenagers have. Out of 120 million users worldwide–nearly half of whom are high school age–some 15 million reside in the U.S., according to Ask.fm. At one level, Ask.fm is a simple electronic bulletin board, a social network where members can publicly ask questions and post answers. But because members can interact anonymously, the reality is more complex. Despite safeguards that allow users to report abuse, people on the site believe they can say almost anything without fear or consequences–and they do.

The tension between transparency and secrecy has defined social interaction on the web since the medium’s earliest days, but right now anonymity as a business proposition is having a moment. The prominent secret-sharing site Formspring closed in 2013, but a new wave of websites and apps, such as Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak, have more than filled the void. And Ask.fm’s founders–two brothers who grew up in Latvia during the last days of Soviet rule and became passionate about free speech and self-expression–insist they are ready to expand to millions more users.

These prospectors of anonymity have understandably focused more on growing their businesses than worrying about bullying, which, after all, is an age-old problem. What’s new is the technology that makes instant personal feedback possible at all hours of the day and night. Combine Ask.fm-like sites and apps with the new prevalence of smartphones–37% of American 12-to-17-year-olds own one, according to a 2013 Pew study–and you get a homeroom that follows you home, a locker room you can never leave.

For parents, this requires facing a new reality: if your child uses an anonymous social-networking site, when her phone buzzes at the dinner table, she’s not just ignoring you; she’s joining a world that hums with cruelty and insecurity, two enduring features of adolescence newly turbocharged by changing technology. Recent findings in neuroscience have shown how the developing teen brain is ill equipped to override emotional reactions with cooler assessments. Now these fragile and self-destructive minds have a tool to indulge their worst tendencies. Since 2012, press reports have suggested that Ask.fm was a factor in at least 16 adolescent suicides in the U.S. and Europe. Internet researchers and mental-health experts say that no website alone can drive a healthy adolescent to harm himself. So what are the effects of anonymous, constant social networking, cruel or otherwise? This is a global experiment with adolescents as its central subjects. And the conditions are changing faster than the experiment can produce measurable results.

A Billion Questions
Ask.fm users go to the site to ask questions (over a billion are posed each month) and to read the answers that follow them. You can pose a question anonymously or under your name. The site is addictive, because you both wait for the answers to questions you asked and hope for someone to ask you one. Normally, the questions don’t concern matters of great import. And sometimes they’re not even questions. “Ur pic is so pretty!!!” “Do you like anyone?” “Do you want to go out with me?” read the questions on a typical ninth-grader’s page. Her responses hardly resolve the not-so-burning mysteries: “Thank youuuuu,” “Ha!” “Probably not.”

The standard operating procedure is to ask anonymously and answer personally, an unexpected blend of the Internet’s dueling impulses toward openness and secrecy. The Internet’s early growth saw message boards and chat rooms swell with new users; you could be yourself without a whit of tethering to your real-life identity. But then arose the massive data hubs of Google and Facebook. Indeed, Facebook’s designers intended their users to make digital replicas of their flesh-and-blood lives within a tightly regulated community. The second selves the Internet had once embraced and enabled now had little place on some of its most popular sites.

Yet anonymity has a persistent allure. It is gaining a new hold in the connected world inhabited by the teenagers of 2014, which is unrecognizable even to the teenagers of 2009, let alone their parents. The secret-sharing apps Secret and Whisper encourage users to post unsigned messages to those around them. The scene’s most recent debutante is Yik Yak, which can host a stream of anonymous posts for any location.

To hear Ask.fm-using adolescents tell it and to read their pages, the site has become a hotbed of gossip, yes, but banal gossip. When I sat down with a small group of ninth-graders from New York with Ask.fm profiles, they told me they were not sure exactly how the site had found a place in their lives. “It’s a way to fish for compliments.” “You want people to think you’re interesting.” “If you don’t have it, you feel like you’re missing out.”

Even idle locker-room chatter hurts, says Rosalind Wiseman, an author of well-known parenting books and the writer of TIME’s Dec. 2, 2013, feature “What Boys Want,” on boys’ emotional lives. “It creates a culture among kids that slander, backstabbing and libel are normal parts of human interaction. It normalizes the dehumanization of others.”

According to a 2011 Pew study (conducted before the rise of the latest set of anonymous apps), 88% of American teens have witnessed cruelty on social networks, and 13% have felt nervous about going to school the next day because of something that happened online. Justin Patchin, a cyberbullying researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, says he’s seen anecdotal evidence that online bullying affects victims differently from in-person bullying. He and another researcher plan to investigate further.

What we do know: teenagers are wired differently from their parents and even their older siblings. The teenage brain is a confounding organ. Recent neuroscientific research indicates that the brain’s quotient of gray matter–neuron-filled tissue responsible for cognitive and emotional functions, among other tasks–peaks in adolescence. But relative to adults, teenagers are short on white matter, the tissue that ensures efficient and steady coordination throughout the brain. The connections between the rest of the brain and the frontal lobe, which is charged with foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions and differentiating between good and bad, don’t fully form until one’s 20s. In the teenage years, the brain is all brawn.

Toss this brain into the social web, a sea so roiling that it sometimes proves unnavigable even for adults, and what do you get? The adolescent brain, says Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the child-psychiatry branch of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, is likelier to seek smaller, earlier rewards than larger, later ones. With adolescence also comes a shift in the usual source of a child’s counsel. Adolescents begin to rely more on their peers for support and less on their parents and teachers. The endless fast feedback on social sites like Ask.fm can nurture users’ worst tendencies.

Free Enterprise
Ask.fm’s creators, brothers Ilja and Mark Terebin, now 35 and 29, respectively, grew up in Latvia when it was an austere Soviet satellite. The two boys, their parents and a grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment in Jelgava, a town 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Riga, the capital, where both now reside. The brothers, who shared absolutely everything, including their ambitions, say they always had their eye on a profit.

When 9-year-old Ilja found out that he would be traveling to New York for a soccer tournament, he stocked up on Soviet kitsch, including badges, hats and rubles. He spent most of his trip selling the stuff to Americans. When his youth-soccer travels took him to Poland, he dragged along a sack of coffee grinders and sold every last one of them at a street market. He aspired to become an entrepreneur, even if he pronounced it “interpreter,” as he still does.

The Terebins decided to start Ask.fm in 2010. At the time, the only one of their many businesses showing any life was a crudely designed Bulgarian classified-ad site. Social networking–that was the future. They built a site that illustrates and evangelizes for the freedoms they never had when they were kids.

Today, with both firmly situated in independent adulthood, there’s not a lot of obvious difference between the brothers. They’re both tall, lean, dark-haired and handsome. Both favor black clothes and boots; they look like graduate students. And despite their business ambitions, they sound a little like that too. (The brothers quit eating meat two years ago after watching the 2005 documentary Earthlings. “This is the root of all evil in the world, people eating animals,” Ilja says at breakfast one morning, over beets and blintzes.)

The two run their business with 58 employees out of a small, spartan office in the center of Riga. In the style of American technology firms, a handful of long tables are set up in rows, with the largely male workforce seated in front of big computer monitors on either side of the tables.

Extension cords reach the tables in the front of the office, where the newly hired content moderators sit. They work around the clock in eight-hour shifts, plugging posts reported as abusive all over the world into Google Translate, averaging 25 minutes between a user’s complaint and the review process, according to Ask.fm. If something seems particularly abusive, they take the post down and warn or sometimes ban the user who sent it. The site has also installed software that scans reader comments for abusive language and thwarts them before they post.

“Stay Out of My Life”
If the Terebins or their employees had reviewed the comments in the fall of 2013 on the Ask.fm page of 14-year-old Matthew Homyk, they would have found, woven in among inside jokes and tributes from friends, targeted, hostile remarks that were posted anonymously.

“I hate you. Stay out of my life,” read one. Matthew’s girlfriend, someone wrote, “deserves so much better than you.” “Go date someone else. Damn boy [she] would be so much better without you.” “There aren’t other girls that want you.” “Leave [another girl] alone you had your chance with her and blew it for the whore … Stay away.”

When Matthew went to his father, Ray read his son’s page alongside him. He told Matthew that it was typical teenage nonsense, that he should step away from the site. Ray told his son too that he should stand up for himself in person the next day. Matthew knew which classmates were attacking him online. Ray says he assumed that before too long, the boy would realize how frivolous it all was.

Matthew managed to break away from Ask.fm for a few weeks, but it didn’t last. He was prone to following others, his father says. He couldn’t stop himself from logging on. “I can’t not know what people are saying about me,” he told his father, Ray says.

A few grim months passed, and they played out online as well. Matthew was hospitalized for periods in November and December after two suicide attempts. The nasty comments persisted. “No friends.” “R u a schizofranic?” “You’re a f-ggot.” Ray would read the page periodically with Matthew and worry. On Jan. 10, Matthew was released from the hospital, and he hanged himself that night.

There’s rarely any one obvious cause for a suicide. Ray knew his son had long struggled with his mental health, and he also knew that teenagers often fail to see past the rocky periods in their lives. To him, Matthew’s death was more a tragedy than a mystery.

After Matthew’s funeral, a parent in Brunswick went to visit Ray. She gave him a thick file of papers–the complete transcript of Matthew’s Ask.fm page. He forced himself to read the packet, poring over the remarks in a new light. It made him sick, he says.

“We Teach People to Bully”

Millions of people use Ask.fm every day without making headlines. While the stories of suicide by users may be exceptional, they remain indelible. The Terebins say their creation has a role to play in helping young people grow up. “On Ask.fm, young people become more open-minded. They’ll develop more freedom. It’s very important in the present society,” says Ilja. His brother says, “Older people, they’re f-cked up already. But children? They have a chance.” On their personal pages, the two tend to hold forth on weighty matters, like equality and resisting the power of institutions, trying to be the change they wish to see on their website.

In support of their broader argument, the Terebins say adolescents will learn from social-media sites if parents let them have freedom online. Kids will learn how to live with others and will understand the consequences of what they say, according to the brothers. Free, open discourse will lead to higher truth and a thriving global democracy.

The Terebins acknowledge the bullying that happens on their site but do not accept blame. That, Ilja says, falls on a complacent society with bad values. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

He continues, “People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?”

In the past year, the site has beefed up its monitoring team and retained the services of Annie Mullins, a leading cyberbullying expert in England. Ilja says these changes are not a response to the bad press the site has received all over Europe but simply what any company with a large spike in its user base needs to do.

Ilja says Ask.fm not only cooperates with law enforcement but also reads every page of every user whose suicide has been linked to Ask.fm in the press, including Matthew Homyk’s. He says he has not once found what he would characterize as genuine cyberbullying.

He points to the case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from Leicestershire, England, who hanged herself in August 2013 after receiving vicious messages on Ask.fm. The Smith case captivated the papers in a way none before it did.

The threats on her page cut deep: “drink bleach,” “get cancer,” “kill yourself.” The Smith case even prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to urge a boycott of Ask.fm. But an inquest this May confirmed what Ask.fm’s founders said all along: Smith almost certainly sent the dark messages to herself. Ask.fm and the Terebins were vindicated. There had apparently been no cyberbullying, just unanswered cries for help from a teenage girl. (After the inquest, Smith’s father told the Mirror that he didn’t believe she had sent all the messages to herself but would be unable to prove it as long as the police still had her computer.)

In Riga the Terebins’ business now sits in limbo. Ilja says they’re pitching a stake in the company to deep-pocketed Western tech investors who can help the company grow more quickly. But Ask.fm’s bad reputation, he says, has soured their sales pitch. The brothers are proud of what they’ve accomplished, but Ilja hopes Ask.fm will get much bigger. He wants to build the business he’s always dreamed of, spreading his gospel of openness and self-discovery to an office in New York City or London.

To those who want the site shut down, Ilja says, “Close down the website? You will get another website! Close McDonald’s! Close the Internet! Close the roads, and ban cars! Everyone wants to ask what’s wrong with us. No one wants to ask the important questions. Why is there selfishness? Why is there no laughter?”

Whether you agree with the site’s critics or not, they might be onto something. While selfie-loving millennials have been derided as narcissistic and puffed up, perhaps the generation following in their footsteps, which has to navigate this new, difficult climate during an already strained period of emotional development, will be restless and insecure, craving perpetual instant validation from a wide and mysterious sea of peers. These concerns apply equally to the popular and the bullied, to the jocks and the geeks. It’s a new world.

Ray Homyk agrees with the Terebins on one matter: the obligation to fix things does not rest with Ask.fm. It falls on parents, teachers and students themselves to forge a gentler society.

This spring, Ray raised over $1,000 for a scholarship fund in his son’s name. The Brunswick High boys’ lacrosse team played its season in his honor; his younger sister played too and wore his jersey number, 27.

“Matthew didn’t kill himself because of Ask.fm,” Ray says. “But I will say it didn’t help. It just didn’t help.”





米国のティーンエージャーにはすでに知れわたっていた。世界中で1億2千万人のユーザーを有し――ほぼ半数が高校生だ――約1500万人は米国在住だとAsk.fm は言う。ある意味ではAsk.fm は単なる電子掲示板で、会員が質問をしたり答えを投稿したりできるソーシャル・ネットワークだ。しかし会員は匿名でやり取りできるから、現実はもっと複雑だ。虐めがあればユーザーが報告できるという安全弁はあるものの、アクセスする人たちは、何の怖れや深刻さも考えずに、ほとんど何でも書けると思い、そして実際にそうしている。

公開と秘匿の間にある緊張関係が、ソーシャル・ネットワークが始まった時からネット上での交流を規定してきたが、今では企業が売りものにする匿名性が中心になっている。有名な秘密の交換サイト「Formspring」が2013年に閉鎖されたが、Secret、Whisper、Yik Yakのようなサイトやアプリの新たな波が、Formspringの空隙を埋めるどころかそれ以上に流行している。そしてAsk.fm の創設者は、ソ連邦支配が終焉しようとする時期をラトビアで育ち、言論の自由や自己表現に飢えていた2人の兄弟で、さらにユーザーを百万単位まで拡大できる、と強気だ。

彼等のような名もなき一発屋は、虐めを心配したりするよりも、事業を拡大することに傾注してきたのは道理だったし、結局のところ、昔ながらの問題なのだ。それに新たに加わった問題といえば、昼夜を問わずいつでも即座に個人的な反応が返されるテクノロジーだ。Ask.fm のようなサイトとスマートフォンの新たな普及で可能になったアプリが結びつくと――2013年ピュー研究によれば、12歳から17歳までの米国民の37%がスマートフォンを持っている――教室の出来事が家まで追いかけてきたり、ロッカールームから立ち去れなくなったりする。

両親は、このような初めての現実に向き合わざるを得なくなる。もし娘が匿名サイトを使っていれば、夕食の席で彼女のiPhoneが鳴っても、それは親を単に無視しているのではない。残酷さと不安を抱えながらお喋りするネットワークの世界に参加しているのだ。この思春期の永遠に続くような残酷さと不安は、日進月歩のテクノロジーによって加速された新しい姿だ。神経科学における最近の発見によると、成長過程にある10代の脳は、感情的反応を抑制するためのより冷静な判断力を十分に備えていない。今、このような傷つきやすく自己破壊的な精神が、最悪の方向へと突進してしまう道具を手に入れたのだ。2012年以降、Ask.fm が米国およびヨーロッパで、少なくとも思春期にある16人の自殺の引き金になった、とメディアは報じている。インターネット研究者や精神科医は、ウェブサイトだけが健全な青年を自虐的にするのではない、と言っている。ならば、匿名で絶え間なく繰り広げられるソーシャル・ネットワークは、一体どんな影響を与えるのだろうか、たとえそれが残酷なものであろうとなかろうと。これは、思春期にある若者をターゲットにした地球規模の実験だ。そしてその実験の条件は、明確な結果が得られるよりも早いスピードで変わってしまうのだ。



とはいっても匿名を使うことはやはり相変わらず魅力がある。匿名性は、2014年に生きるティーンエージャーが住む世界と繋がった場所で新しい影響力を持つようになったが、それは2009年のティーンエージャーにとってさえ未知の世界であり、ましてやティーンエージャーの親世代にとっては理解できない世界だ。秘密を打ち明け合うアプリのSecret and Whisper(秘密と囁き)は、周囲の人たちに無署名でメッセージを投稿するようにユーザーに呼びかける。この世界に最近登場したYik Yakは、どんな場所でも匿名で投稿を受け付ける。

思春期のユーザーがAsk.fm について語るのを聞いたり読んだりすると、サイトはゴシップの温床となっているといえるが、くだらないゴシップばかりだ。ニューヨークからやって来たAsk.fm にプロフィールを持っている中学3年生のグループと話してみたが、どうしてサイトが自分の生活に場所を閉めたのか、実際のところはわからない、と彼らは言う。「認めて欲しかったのかも」「面白い人だと思われたいから」「Ask.fm に入っていなかったら、置いてきぼりにされているような感じ」

たまり場のロッカールームでのお喋りでさえ傷つくことがある、と有名な子育て本を書き、タイム誌2013年12月号のカバー記事「What Boys Want(男子がやりたいこと)」を書いたロサリンド・ワイズマンは「悪口、裏切り、中傷は人間が付き合う上で普通のことだという文化を子ども達の間に創りだします」と言う。「他者に対する非人道的な仕打ちを当たり前のものにするのです」



このような脳をソーシャル・ネットワークの中に投げ入れてみるとどうなるだろうか。そこはまるで荒れ狂った海のようで、大人ですら時として方向を見失ってしまうほどだ。精神衛生米国立研究所小児精神科の神経学者ジェイ・ギード博士が言うには、思春期の脳は、より大きく時間がかかるものよりも、些細で性急なものを追い求めがちだ。また思春期には、迷った時に相談できる身近な人が子供の頃とは違ってくる。友人に悩みを相談するようになり、親や教師には頼らなくなる。Ask.fm のようなサイトでの果てしのない性急なやり取りは、ユーザーの最悪の性向を育んでしまう。

Ask.fm の設立者はテレビン兄弟、イルジャ(35歳)とマーク(29歳)で、2人は厳しいソビエト共和国のラトビアで育った。2人の少年と両親そして祖母は、首都リガから南西に40km離れたエルガワで、2部屋しかないアパートで身を寄せ合って暮らしたが、2人は今もその地で暮らしている。文字通りすべてを、野望さえも、分かち合った2人は、いつも金になるものを捜していた、と言う。


テレビン兄弟は2010年にAsk.fm をはじめようと決めた。当時多くのビジネスに手を出したが、望みがあったのは稚拙なデザインのブルガリア語による広告サイトだけだった。ソーシャル・ネットワーク、それはまだ先の話だった。子どもの頃、決して味わうことがなかった自由というものを説き、発信するサイトを作った。



延長コードが事務所前方のテーブルに伸び、新たに雇い入れた投稿チェック係りが座っている。8時間交替で24時間監視し、世界各地から虐め的な投稿が報告されれば、書き込み文をグーグル翻訳にかける。Ask.fm によれば、ユーザーの申告から処理完了まで平均25分だという。特にひどい内容があれば投稿を抹消し、そのユーザーに警告し、投稿禁止にする場合もある。Ask.fm は読者コメントの中に虐め的な言葉があるかどうかをスキャンするソフトをインストールしていて、見つけると投稿する前に禁止措置をとる。




マシューは何週間かAsk.fm から辛うじて遠ざかっていられたが、長くは続かなかった。彼は他に追随する傾向があった、と父は言う。サイトを覗かずにはいられなかった。「自分のことを人が何と言っているかわからないだろ」そう自分に言った、とレイは言う。



マシューの葬儀の後、ブランズウィックに住む一人の親がレイを訪れて、彼に分厚いファイルを渡した。それはAsk.fm のマシューのページの完全なコピーだった。自分に強いて、違った目で投稿をじっくりと読みとおした。胸が悪くなった、と言う。

毎日何百万という人たちがAsk.fm を使い、トップニュースになることもない。ユーザーの自殺話は例外だとしても、抹消できないで存在し続ける。自分たちのサイトは、若い人たちの成長を助ける役割をする、とテレビン兄弟は言う。「Ask.fmで、若者は心をより開くようになり、自由をもっと満喫できるでしょう。現代社会ではとても大事なことです」とイルジャは言う。「大人はすでにおかしくなってしまっている。でも子供たちは違う。まだチャンスがある」と弟は言う。自分たちのページで、平等や権力への抵抗など、大事なことについて弁舌をふるい、Ask.fm のサイト上で自分たちが実現したいと願う変革者になろうとしている。





Ask.fm は警察に協力しているだけでなく、Ask.fm関連の記事に書かれたすべての自殺者の書き込みを読んでいて、勿論マシュー・ホミックの事件も含んでいる、とイルジャは言う。本当にネット虐めだと思えるものは今まで一度も見つかっていない、と言う。







「マシューはAsk.fmのせいで自殺したのではありません」とレイは言う。「でもAsk.fm が助けてくれなかったのは間違いありません。何の助けにもならなかったのです」

inserted by FC2 system