Home Anonymity, Self-Reference & Q&A: Formspring.me’s Winning Combination for the Social Web

Anonymity, Self-Reference & Q&A: Formspring.me’s Winning Combination for the Social Web

FormSpring.com is a data collection and management system with a particular emphasis in online forms, registrations and surveys. An enterprise-level system, FormSpring.com might seem rather dry to anyone but an online retailer or event coordinator.

FormSpring.me, on the other hand, has tapped the very essence of what makes the social web so addictive. This new application, a free and social-side project, nearly has all the requisite puzzle pieces to go completely viral.

It’s fun, engaging and slightly game-like, and it encourages the behaviors users love to indulge. It’s only missing one critical element:

A stable back end. But more about that in a moment. First, let me tell you what makes FormSpring.me so infinitely entertaining.

First, the site is user-to-user Q&A. This is the kind of formula that has populated the Web with masses of UGC on sites such as Yahoo! Answers and Wiki Answers. It’s also the basic formula behind such highly praised startups as Aardvark, which allows users to ping one another across networks to get answers about specific topics. Q&A between end users is a growing trend on the web, without a doubt.

Second, the site allows one user to anonymously ask questions of another user. Anonymity has bred some of the most interesting and varied experiments of the social web. Very often, a lack of links to users’ true identities leads to bathroom-wall-of-the-Internet content such as 4chan or YouTube comments. But while anonymity breeds trollism and is actually a dying phenomenon online, having a thin veil between the asker and the answerer of a question can act as a confessional booth in a way, allowing for more frank communication or the posing of some very interesting, controversial questions that might otherwise be considered impolite or risky.

Finally, one of the most enduring trends of the social web, from its inception to the present day, is our deep and insatiable love of self-reference. The provocative beginning question for the site is, “Ask me anything,” which users then tweet or post to Facebook. Answering questions all about you, your preferences, your past, your thoughts, your wishes and hopes, your regrets, what you eat and where you live – nothing is more intoxicating to the average social media user. From our first LiveJournal entries to mid-2000s MySpace chain surveys to our latest tweets, we clearly love talking about ourselves. The way that FormSpring.me caters to this inherently human attribute is by giving us the impression or illusion that someone, somewhere actually cares about what we think and do enough to ask us and expect an answer.

So, when you combine the power of a Q&A site with the magic of an anonymous commenting system and the addictive qualities of navel-gazing with the expectation of being noticed, you basically have on your hands the social web app of the year just waiting to happen.

And if it weren’t for back end – which is likely built on Ruby on Rails, according to a few sources we’ve consulted today – FormSpring would have not only a money-making enterprise app but also a blockbuster social app. [Note: Some commenters say the site is likely not built on Rails. If you’ve got programming experience, take a look at FormSpring.me and let us know what you think in the comments.]

Although the concept is fascinating, the implementation is transparently shoddy. It seems like a hastily put-together weekend project along the lines of a Startup Weekend or Rails Rumble one-off. In fact, several developers we consulted said the site bears all the marks of a Ruby on Rails product, including rampant database scalability errors. ActiveRecord is a Rails class for accessing databases, and it’s been shown in past applications to be unscalable. Concurrency issues mean that a small group of geeks or judges can have a grand time with your app, but the second it catches on with the social media crowd and then – god help you – general Internet users, the app’s database is unable to handle that volume of traffic over a period of seconds, and end users start seeing error messages and abandon ship like so many faithless rats.

And since FormSpring.me is in all likelihood a side project from a single staffer or a couple employees (the company blog doesn’t even mention the offshoot), it might not get the executive attention for further development or resource allocation. After all, without a revenue model, why would an enterprise-focused company waste time and energy on a social application?

Speculation aside, FormSpring.com support tech Ryan Dillman writes, “Eventually, we plan to rewrite the FormSpring.me code from the ground up using the same type of database as sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc., so that we can handle the load. In the meantime, the millions of calls to the database cause frequent issues during peak times.”

Many parts of Twitter are built on Scala, and Facebook’s database abstraction layer was developed in-house. If that kind of userbase – millions upon millions of users accessing the site around the clock – is what FormSpring is preparing for, they’re going to need a much more robust solution that’s much closer to bare metal than whatever they’re currently running.

And we do suggest they find one. FormSpring should consider monetizing and quickly scaling such an addictive little application before someone else does it next and better.

So, to take the site’s “Ask me anything” query and pose it to the site’s creators, do you plan to seriously devote resources to create a stunning and addictive social app, or is this experiment destined for the digital dustbin?

Ask us anything – or give us your frank opinions – in the comments.

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