Ask's CEO: "We won't run a bullying site. If we can't fix Ask.fm, we'll shut it down"
"We're not going to run a bullying site," Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds tells me. "If we can't [fix Ask.fm] we'll shut it down."
It's a pretty bold claim for a man who had just finished telling me that he's committing what will likely be millions of dollars into buying and fixing one of the Internet's most infamous bullying platforms.
Yesterday morning, struggling (former) search engine, Ask.com announced that it had bought Ask.fm, the anonymous Q&A site that has been implicated in at least seven teen suicides. As part of the terms of the acquisition, Ask.fm's founders -- Mark and Ilja Terebin -- are leaving the company and Ask.com has promised to clean up the Ask.fm platform, hiring a new head of user safety, agreeing to new safety measures with two attorneys general, and implementing new tools to protect young users.
When news of the acquisition broke, I argued that the executives at Ask.com were either fooling themselves -- thinking that Ask.fm's 180 million users will stick around if their bullying platform is "cleaned up" -- or fooling us by talking a good press game with no real intention of making serious changes.
To try to figure out which possibility is closer to the truth, I called Leeds, and Ask.fm's new head of safety, Catherine Teitelbaum to ask what the hell they were thinking when they decided to take on the service.
"What the hell were you thinking?" I ask Leeds.
He laughs. But not an easy laugh.
"I read your article," he says. "Your argument makes sense if you accept one fundamental premise. Which I don't."
That premise: That Ask.fm is a platform for bullying.
"We have access to the data, and the data says that's not the predominant use case." Leeds also insists that his new acquisition differs from anonymous gossip apps like Secret. Ask.fm's core organizing principle isn't anonymity. In fact, he points out, Ask.fm only allows questions to appear publicly on the site if they have been answered by a named person. (Although he quickly concedes that there are few, if any, checks in place to ensure that the name is real.)
Leeds may have access to the data, but we've all seen the news reports. Along with those high-profile teen suicides, there have been reports of countless thousands more instances of bullying. Ask.fm has even been accused of enabling terrorists to communicate anonymously.
It doesn't matter if, technically, Ask.fm isn't set up to be a bullying tool or if bullying isn't the primary use case. It doesn't even matter if they implement a whole host of anti-bullying tools and make a whole bunch of commitments to attorneys general. If Ask.fm can't lose its reputation as a great place to bully your friends, then kids are always going to find new and innovative ways to do that. And other users will stay away from a site they, even erroneously, think is a cesspool.
Leeds concedes there's a hell of a lot of work to do to "fix" Ask.fm, but he says he's willing to do what it takes. He also rejects the idea that he would have bought Ask.fm just to milk its 180 million users while making the right noises about safety and privacy just to keep the press off his back.
"There’s nothing to milk," he says, "This isn't a company that's profitable right now and we're going to move it further anyway from profitability [by making the safety changes]." Certainly the decision to fire both founders from the company as a condition of the sale is a powerful signifier that change is afoot. "A lot is being allowed to happen [in bullying apps] due to the philosophy of leadership," Leeds says. From your mouth to David Byttow's ears, Doug.
Leeds' comments are echoed by Teitelbaum who previously worked with Leeds at Yahoo. Ask.fm is committed, she says, to finding a good solution to Ask.fm's bullying problem "across industry, government, crisis prevention."
"We're actively engaging with parents," Leeds adds.
As well as working with lawmakers and parents, the company has promised to work with suicide prevention charities, something which the founders of, say, Secret have refused to commit to. At Ask.fm, says Teitelbaum, the commitment to cleaning up the sewer comes right from the top. "I wouldn’t have taken on this, admittedly hard, task… if I hadn't been convinced of the executive commitment," she says.
Teitelbaum gives an example of the kinds of specific changes Ask.fm users are likely to see: For one thing, for the first time, questions — not just answers — will be fully moderated. Currently much of Ask.fm’s bullying happens in the shadows: Bullies bombarding users with abusive questions which don’t appear publicly (questions are only visible once they’ve been answered) but, as Teitelbaum puts it, "someone was being hurt." Now the company promises to respond to all allegations of bullying "within 24 hours."
"24 hours is a long time in high school," I say.
"You’re right," says Teitelbaum, but she explains that the 24 hour promise only applies to a human response. "Technology can respond immediately."
Neither Leeds or Teitelbaum could detail what a "fixed" Ask.fm would look like or how it would be measured.
"Will you shut it down if there’s one more tragic suicide? Two?" I ask.
There's no easy metric. Instead Leeds says he wants to change the public perception of Ask.fm closer to that of a Twitter or a Facebook: That is, a social network where — sure — bullying happens, but it's not the primary reason to use it.
And that's where we get to the nut of the issue. The AOL acquisition of Bebo has shown us the risks of spending millions of dollars on acquiring a social network that's popular with notoriously flaky teen users, especially if you then start screwing around with the product. If Ask.com wants to make a new version of the current Ask.fm that's safe for teens, why don't they just build one from scratch?
Leeds goes back to quoting the data: "60% of our users are over 18," he says, adding quickly that that generally means "early 20s." Ask's aim is to bump the site's perceived target audience up into the early-to-mid 20s demographic that "everyone wants to be." And if users decide that the site's new anti-bullying stance makes it uncool? "If bullying is cool, I don't want to be cool," says Leeds.
If we take Leeds at his word, he's attempting to do something even more difficult that cleaning up a bullying site: Yes, he's trying to make Ask.fm unappealing to bullies, while trying to patch up the site’s horrible reputation for bullying with parents, lawmakers, and the media. But at the same time he's hoping to shift Ask.fm's audience further away from teens and towards users in their mid 20's in the hope of turning the service into IAC’s big social network play. All of which comes with a proclaimed willingness to drive the company further away from profit in pursuit of those goals, and a promise to shut it down if they fail.
I'll say this: I went into my phone call with Leeds and Teitelbaum expecting bullshit. And certainly I got a very polished corporate performance that, at times, verged on spin. And yet, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the company has already made many of the changes I've said that apps like Secret should make: They've ousted the two founders who apparently didn't give a damn about bullying, they've made actual public commitments to two attorneys general, they've hired a person — Teitelbaum — with actual experience in user safety, and they've identified specific product changes they're making to respond to bullying. They're also able to articulate a case — not necessarily a slam dunk, but a decent one — that, unlike Secret or Whisper — Ask.fm doesn’t necessarily have to be about anonymous gossip. There could be a more benign use case, even if it's a warmed over version of Yahoo Answers.
I'm still not convinced that Ask.fm's critically wounded brand can be resuscitated, or that it should be. I'm also not sure that enough of Ask.fm's 180 million users will stick around to make the investment in fixing the site worth the money and effort. But there's one thing on which Leeds and I definitely do agree.
As we're ending our call, he says something which I wasn't quick enough to write down verbatim in my notes. The gist, though, is this: If we try to do this and fail and have to shut down the site, the world is still a slightly better place than it is with Ask.fm in its current form.
That much is unarguable. By changing the management team and installing people who at least profess to give a damn about teen bullying, by working with the right people and making the right noises about protecting vulnerable users, the Ask.fm of today is already slightly better than the Ask.fm of yesterday. That's more than can be said for any of the other bullying apps.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]