Ask.fm, the Latvian startup that’s been left carrying the personal Q&A torch after its inspiration, Formspring, pivoted to pastures new, is continuing to grow at an absolute clip. It’s now at 65 million registered users, up from 8 million in June last year, and is adding about 300,000 new users per-day, seeing it garner 190 million unique visitors last month. User sessions sit at a highly engaged 15 minutes on average, too. But this growth isn’t without cost.
In a media backlash reminiscent of some of the reporting around MySpace in its heyday, and to a lesser degree Facebook, Ask.fm has recently faced claims in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere that the site isn’t doing enough to protect its predominantly teen user-base, not least because questions can be posted anonymously. This, say its critics, has created an environment rife with cyber bullying and other inappropriate behaviour, as well as reports that this has led to some users taking their own lives. Frankly, it makes for grim and rather depressing reading.
The charge that the company isn’t doing enough or that Ask.fm is inherently bad is one that Ask.fm’s CEO and founder Ilja Terebin refutes, of course, though he isn’t insensitive to the issues being raised. Despite being told by another journalist that the company is on somewhat of a PR lock-down, I was able to speak to Terebin earlier today and got the sense that he was still coming to terms with the turn of events. Even though Ask.fm knew it was on the path to growth, claiming to have overtaken Formspring this time last year, that the site has continued to grow at such a clip has clearly caught its founders off-guard. Not necessarily in terms of pure traffic — that’s what the cloud is for — but how to scale the startup’s community and customer support, and in turn its relationship with the media.
Terebin says there has been some fundamental media misconceptions about the way Ask.fm works. Firstly, the ability to accept questions anonymously, although on by default, can be switched off. However, based on anecdotal evidence, lots of teens using the service, even after receiving unsavoury messages, choose to keep anonymous questions enabled. That’s part of the “fun” of a service like Ask.fm, concedes Terebin, though of course it’s also a feature that is open to trolling and further abuse. “Users want to attract attention to themselves,” he adds.
Secondly, although profiles on Ask.fm are public, questions sent to a user’s profile aren’t published until a user chooses to answer. Don’t like the tone or subject of a question, then don’t answer it, says Terebin.
Terebin also says that most of these systems were in place before the media backlash began, despite reports to the contrary, although he admits that it’s an area where the company is having to scale up. Once you have nearly 200 million monthly unique visitors, “you can’t control everything,” he adds understatedly.
Finally, Terebin says that although he doesn’t feel that Ask.fm has done anything wrong and he’s not sure what he could do differently in hindsight, “we understand we have to be responsible for our users”. Actions, of course, speak louder than words, although I’m inclined to take the Ask.fm CEO at his word. It’s also a message that, until now, appears to have got somewhat lost in translation. To that end, Terebin says that it was only two months ago that Ask.fm hired an outside PR firm. The lesson here is that there’s a lot more to scaling than code alone.