monkeysEither Ask.com is lying to us, or lying to itself. Those are the only two possibilities after this morning’s announcement that IAC’s “not-the-same-since-Jeeves-was-fired” search site has acquired teen bullying platform, Ask.fm.

For those over the age of 15, Ask.fm is an anonymous question and answer platform, in the model of the now defunct Formspring. And like Formspring, it has been implicated in a string of teen suicides and attacked for its horrible response to them. (Not to mention being accused of helping terrorists to communicate.)

Unlike Formspring, however, Ask.fm hasn’t been allowed to die following a backlash from parents and child safety campaigners, rather it has been saved by Barry Diller’s IAC.

Good old Barry Diller.

Apparently mindful that they’ve purchased a suicide promotion site in a week when suicide is right at the top of the news, and amid a wider shitstorm around anonymity apps, IAC is assuring everyone who will listen that it’s making changes at Ask.fm.

In the internal memo sent to IAC staff, Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds wrote:

Ask-dot-WHAT?” some of you may be thinking. Though it’s not a household name, Ask.fm is actually huge. Today, 180 million users ask 20,000 questions per minute on the service – there are 670 posts on Ask.fm every second – which puts it on par with some of the biggest, most well-known social networks in the world.

Others of you may know full well what Ask.fm is – it has made plenty of unflattering headlines for safety issues, particularly cyberbullying among teens. The reality is, Ask.fm could have all the potential in the world to become the next big thing in social networking, but today that potential is crippled by its lack of important safety measures. We are steadfastly dedicated to changing that; in fact, this deal would not have happened if we didn’t think we could.

Pando has written before about the “wisdom” of buying and trying to rehab troubled properties like Napster or MySpace or Digg. At some point starting a new property is easier than overcoming the baggage of a damaged one, even with a widely-recognized brand. This is in a whole different league, though. None of those turnaround attempts — none of which, by the way, has seen a troubled brand return to its former glory — has anywhere near the baggage of Ask.fm.

So what changes does Leeds have planned for Ask.fm?

For one thing, founders Mark and Ilja Terebin have been removed from their roles and barred from any further involvement in the company: Acquifired, if you like.

Secondly Ask-dot-com-dot-fm has agreed to partner with New York State Attorney General: Eric Schneiderman and Maryland AG Doug Gansler to create a set of best practices to prevent the service being used for cyberbullying. Kids under 13 will be banned from using the site.

And there’s more. According to the Times

[A]s a result of the deal, Ask.com will attempt to curb nasty comments and users on Ask.fm, Mr. Leeds said, investing millions and adding new tools and moderators.

“We’re going to focus on turning around the philosophy of the company and putting trust and safety first,” Mr. Leeds said.

The company has also brought on Catherine Teitelbaum to work as Ask.fm’s chief trust and safety officer. Ms. Teitlebaum was previously a director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo.

This is all fine and dandy, and it’s hard to criticize Ask for saying, and hopefully doing, the right things about teen bullying when I’ve been attacking Secret’s David Byttow for doing the opposite.

And yet, someone is kidding someone here. Either Ask is kidding itself about what it bought, and why users stick around — or it’s kidding us about its intention to retain the service’s core functionality but make it safer.

To many of the 180m people who use Ask.fm, the platform’s potential for defamation and bullying isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Being a killer app is their killer app.

Removing the potential to drive one’s peers to suicide undermines the fundamental reason it’s so popular with high school kids. You might as well pledge to remove commerce from eBay or ball-gags from Kink.com.

Again, it’s veering towards disingenuous to criticize a company for trying to clean up the anonymity cesspool, but there’s a reason Conde Nast took such a hands-off role at Reddit, post-acquisition.

Leeds has a track record of shifting models when they’re not working — he shifted Ask from a search site to a Q&A platform. But the stakes for that change were about as low as they could be: No one was using Ask for search. By contrast, there’s no point in buying something with 180m users if your first objective is to chase them away.

Which brings us to possibility number two: That IAC is kidding us. Early this morning, Sarah and I received a note from IAC’s PR representative, announcing the deal, and offering to put us in touch with Leeds or Teitelbaum to discuss how the new Ask will compare with Secret.

I’ve also received copies of the internal memo announcing the sale, from multiple IAC staffers — all of whom asked not to be named, and all of whom expressed clear discomfort at the acquisition. (The memo is below)

Again, it’s to the company’s credit that they’re addressing the comparison head on and that there are people at IAC who are nervous about the acquisition — but it’s also clear that IAC has to commit to being different from Secret, Whisper and the rest to avoid the acquisition being sunk by bad press before it gets started. Fine words prevent no teen suicides.

I’ve responded to the PR rep’s offer to speak to “chief trust and safety officer,” Catherine Teitelbaum. I’ll let you know how that conversation goes. Meantime, here’s the full internal memo from Doug Leeds…

UPDATE: Ask’s CEO: “We won’t run a bullying site. If we can’t fix Ask.fm, we’ll shut it down”

Hi All,

I wanted to share some big news today: we officially announced that Ask.com purchased a controlling stake in Ask.fm, the world’s largest social and mobile Q&A service with more than 180 million global users. You can check out the New York Times piece on the deal here.

“Ask-dot-WHAT?” some of you may be thinking. Though it’s not a household name, Ask.fm is actually huge. Today, 180 million users ask 20,000 questions per minute on the service – there are 670 posts on Ask.fm every second – which puts it on par with some of the biggest, most well-known social networks in the world.

Others of you may know full well what Ask.fm is – it has made plenty of unflattering headlines for safety issues, particularly cyberbullying among teens. The reality is, Ask.fm could have all the potential in the world to become the next big thing in social networking, but today that potential is crippled by its lack of important safety measures. We are steadfastly dedicated to changing that; in fact, this deal would not have happened if we didn’t think we could.

You may be asking why this bold move makes sense for us. First, the Ask.fm platform offers a different and distinct Q&A strategy and value proposition than what Ask.com is pursuing around search and content, and, accordingly, will exist in parallel.  Q&A on Ask.com is about finding information.  Q&A on Ask.fm is about social expression – albeit social expression in a unique way. This is not based on what you choose to put into a status update; rather, it’s social expression shaped by the questions other people ask you. It’s social “pull” versus social “push,” and so flips the traditional “post” model on its head. Regardless, it’s undoubtedly 100% Q&A, which means it also represents a very exciting extension of Ask.com’s brand leadership into the social networking sphere; a place where the brand does not have a strong presence today.

But what today’s news doesn’t do is change anything when it comes to the current Ask.com goals and strategy under Kartik’s leadership. I actually expect much less crossover assistance and “synergy” with this acquisition than any of the companies we’ve acquired as part of the Inform Media Group strategy.  Indeed, while Ask.fm extends the Ask.com brand, it clearly is not a part of the IMG mission—a strategy, I should note, we continue to believe in strongly and wholeheartedly with future Inform Media Group M&A just as likely as ever to continue.

So, starting today, Ask.fm will report to me. As we’re on the hunt for new Ask.fm leadership, our colleagues Nick McCann (on loan from CityGridMedia) and Corbin Howes (née Dictionary.com) are running the show from Latvia (yep, Latvia).

I want to extend a huge thank you to all the people who worked diligently and tirelessly to pull the Ask.fm deal over the finish line. I am confident we can transform Ask.fm into a materially safer, more fun and engaging experience, not only for the millions of users who love it today, but for millions more who have yet to discover it.

As always, I hope and expect you have questions, so feel free to ask me on ask.fm.  I’m @ ask.fm/dougleeds or hit me up on email.

DOUG