Ask.fm, a Riga-based social Q&A platform where users receive anonymous questions and constitute their feed by answering them, was acquired by Ask.com on Thursday. With 180 million members in 150 countries and 40 million mobile app downloads, Ask.fm is world’s biggest Q&A social network and may seem an attractive deal. However, the unflattering publicity that Ask.fm has accumulated due to notorious stories of teenage suicides caused by anonymous cyberbullies and the abuse of platform’s anonymity by extremist organizations, makes many question whether Ask.com has made the right decision.
With this controversy in mind, Ask.com has announced their purchase by also clearly articulating their commitment to put Ask.fm users’ safety first and rescue the disgraced brand. ‘We would not have becoming involved in this if we did not think there was a bunch, a bunch more things that we could do to make it significantly safer,’ assured Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds in his interview to BBC last week.
These claims can, indeed, be reasonable. Ask.fm was founded in Riga about 4 years ago by two brothers Mark and Ilja Terebin and as a startup it proved to lack the necessary competence and resources to handle the pubicity crisis. Ask.fm founder Mark Terebin posted his reply to the first wave of suicides in the end of 2012, where he, though expressing his condolence, did not assume any responsibility for the occurrences, did not offer any solutions to the problem and refused to ‘participate in the game played by mass media’. Afterwards Ask.fm has also tried to update the platform so as to encourage reporting and deletion of abusive content, however, the efforts did not seem to be sufficient. Several parents who lost their children launched petitions urging to shut down Ask.fm or demanding action from their government, while the mass media that Terebin despised so much, produced even more scandals and even more bad publicity for the platform.
Ask.com has pledged to invest millions, add new tools and more moderators to Ask.fm. They also have already taken several steps to assure they are serious about tackling the problems on the platform. Firstly, Ask.fm founders have ‘cashed out’ for an undisclosed amount and will no longer have any influence over the site. Secondly, the new owners have signed a safety agreement with the New York State attorney general and committed to update Ask.fm safety policies. Thirdly, the company has recruited a former member of the UK government's task force on child protection on the internet Annie Mullins, as well as Catherine Davis Teitelbaum, who previously worked on safety policy at Yahoo, to help improve the safety of Ask.fm users. So, even though there are still many questions and controversial discussions, Doug Leeds seems to make a genuine effort in addressing his newly acquired problems.
There is another side to the story, though. It will not be an easy task for the new Ask.fm to find the right balance between anonymity and safety, even with Catherine Davis Teitelbaum and Annie Mullins on board. One of the reasons why Ask.fm is different from conventional social media platforms and one of the reasons why it produces so much content, is the platform’s anonymity. It is easy for people to ask questions without the hassle of creating another online account and it is appealing for teenagers to play the mysterious guessing game. There are even users who ask the questions to themselves in order to appear popular. The key challenge to Doug Leeds now will be to revamp the platform enough to keep its vulnerable users safe, but not enough to scare the rest away.
Ask.com CEO says that he plans to ‘eliminate (the abusive content) from the site and still maintain the 99% of the good interaction that is happening there’. It is true that InterActivCorp (IAC), who is behind Ask.com, has significantly more resources than a small startup at the Baltic sea that Ask.fm once was. However, we still have to wait and see whether this is enough and whether the millions invested in Ask.fm will actually help Ask.com move into the highly desired social and mobile Q&A market as Doug Leeds ensured his employees when announcing the acquisition.
Marija Odineca is passionate about Baltic startup scene, visiting interesting Baltic startups and gathering their stories. She also coordinates the Global Entrepreneurship Week in Latvia.