When technologist-turned-entrepreneur Ade Olonoh announced the closure of Formspring in March, that had nothing to do with the fact that Anthony Weiner had allegedly used its forums to message and send lewd selfies to younger women. Olonoh isn't doing interviews, but other clues point to the idea that one of the reasons Weiner was drawn to the site is also what brought it down.

It's all in the anonymity.

While users could -- and were frequently prompted to -- create an account and user name, they were never actually required to do so. That anonymity was attractive to the site's main userbase -- tweens who wanted to ask and respond to questions in a forum setting without their peers, teachers, or parents knowing. As Will Oremus writes at Slate: "Like an online game of Truth or Dare, this was catnip for teens and tweens, who joined en masse, and the site at one point counted 30 million registered users."

From 2010 to 2011, the site grew massively popular. It had $14 million in venture capital from reputable firms such as SV Angels and Lowercase Capital and now-prominent entrepreneurs including Kevin Rose, Dave Morin, and Travis Kalanick.

But the little feature that made the site so popular also led its collapse. At least that's the message Formspring's former lead designer, Cap Watkins, sent in a post on his website upon the company's closure (it's since re-opened, or so claims a May 13 tweet by the company).

Here's what Watkins, who is now design lead at Etsy in New York City, had to say, with some advice for other start-ups that might find themselves pinched by similar features:

On the one hand, anonymity was a really popular feature (duh). On the other hand, we saw a lot of bad and abusive content come through that channel (double duh). A fact that we wound up being pretty infamous for.

But man was it hard to let go of anonymity as a core feature. We tried workaround after workaround. We prompted for sign-up after asking an anonymous question. We started pushing privacy settings for users into our on-boarding (which they never changed, of course). We started setting up elaborate filters to catch bad or abusive questions and put them behind a “Flagged Questions” link in users’ inboxes.

We spent a lot of time on anonymity. It was our sacred cow. Looking back, we should have spent that time finding ways to gracefully degrade that feature instead of finding ways to keep it alive. When you find yourself constantly giving a feature CPR, you should stop and consider whether or not it’s worth saving (or even possible to save).

Slate brings this back to Weiner's inexplicable use of the site.

None of that really explains why Anthony Weiner would have been using the site for sex chats, let alone allegedly as late as 2012, after he had already been caught with his pants down on Twitter. Perhaps he assumed no one he knew would find him on Formspring, given the site’s demographics. Or perhaps the site’s demographics were part of what attracted him.

It's impossible not to roll your eyes and think, Why wasn't he just on Snapchat? 

Published on: Jul 25, 2013