Recently, my interviews with WTHR and WBNS-10TV, and their accompanying articles caught the attention of the folks at the world’s largest Q & A social network, Ask.fm. Subsequently (and much to my surprise), I was contacted by a representative who offered to set up a call with Ask.fm Safety and Communications execs to discuss their acquisition by Ask.com (August 2014) with the intention of making the site safer as well as provide additional background on safety efforts. Ask.com is owned by IAC/InterActive Corp.
Before I go any further, it is important to note that I was not asked by Ask.fm to write this, nor am I benefitting in any fashion from sharing this information with you in the form of this blog post.
Unfortunately, one of the things that doesn’t always ‘make the cut’ when I do television interviews, and something I say on a regular basis, is “don’t blame the app, blame the user.” There are ignorant trolls actively engaging in cyberbullying across every social network. Last summer, one of my favs, Minnie Driver was driven away from Twitter (for a time) by trolls (I chatted with Deborah Norville about it), and more recently, former MLB pitcher, Curt Schilling and Ashley Judd found themselves on the receiving end of what can only be described as next-level disturbing tweets. These are just two examples of people in the public eye who have been affected – there are many thousands of kids being bullied online every day, many of whom we will never hear about.
So, here I am being given the opportunity to speak personally with Catherine Teitelbaum, Chief Trust and Safety Officer, former director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo, and a well respected advocate for online child safety, along with Gina Serpa, Ask.fm’s Law Enforcement Liaison, and Senior VP at Ask.fm, Valerie Combs. Ask.fm’s reputation precedes itself and the app has been notoriously linked to 16 teen suicides since 2012, so I was more than a little bit interested to hear what they had to say.
Was I nervous? Um, YEAH!
The first thing we discussed was how Ask.com came to acquire Ask.fm and “all that trouble”. If you’re interested, read “IAC’s Ask.com Buys Ask.fm and Hires a Safety Officer to Stem Bullying” via Forbes online.
What I also learned about Catherine Teitelbaum is that she’s a worried mom just like the rest of us, and also has a background in education. For the record, I’m not on a crusade to now sell everyone on this app being the best thing since sliced bread. I DO, however, like to see things from all sides and in fairness, I think parents deserve to hear about the efforts being made by the folks at Ask.fm to create a safer environment for young people using the app. This short, informative video, A New View on Safety, is worth a watch and explains a lot.
I asked if they could share some positive stories of how Ask.fm is being used because I couldn’t find any. Here are a few examples:
- The Telegraph wrote about rising British tennis star Katie Swan and how she answers questions about herself on Ask.fm.
- The Michigan Daily wrote about the “Let’s Talk About: Race” event at University of Michigan, where students invited to share their opinions and personal experiences either anonymously or in person, with an Ask.fm page set up so that students could submit questions anonymously.
- Forbes Contributor Jason Evangelho discussed how he started his column “School of Tech” based on the number of questions he received about PC’s and the popularity of his Ask.fm account.
There have also been a number of instances where companies used the site to interact with fans and answer questions about everything from entertainment (movies, gaming, music) to physical products like this yo-yo company.
Ask.fm put their money where their mouth is by forming its first ever Safety Advisory Board. One of the first orders of business? Removing the prior founders of Ask.fm leadership who didn’t share Ask.com’s commitment to safety and, via PR Newswire:
“Our view is that safety is a collaborative effort, and I look forward to tapping into the expertise of these world-renowned experts as we tackle the complex challenges social networks face,” said Catherine Teitelbaum, chief trust and safety officer at Ask.fm. “My team is committed to doing the hard work in digging into the issues our users – particularly teens – grapple with as they navigate social platforms, and partnering with all stakeholders to develop real working solutions.”
Today’s news is the latest milestone in Ask.com’s plan to transform the Ask.fm service and materially impact the safety of the site. Since being acquired by Ask.com, and over the last five months, Ask.fm has executed the following:
- Removed the prior founders and Ask.fm leadership who didn’t share Ask.com’s commitment to safety.
- Partnered with two Attorneys General in the US (New York and Maryland) to formalize agreements around Ask.fm safety commitments and plans.
- Hired two world-class safety experts to lead its safety strategy: Catherine Teitelbaum (Yahoo!, KidZania) as global Chief Trust and Safety Officer, and Annie Mullins OBE (Yahoo UK, Vodafone) to direct safety operations in the EU.
- Engaged with government regulators, ministers and safety NGOs in Ireland as part of its relocation from Latvia to Dublin.
- Launched new Terms and Policies to better clarify safety controls and site features for users.
- Targeted investments in moderation technology, practices and guidelines have yielded the following:
- Grew moderation team by 20 percent;
- Increased the volume of moderated content by 40 percent;
- Increased moderation across several additional languages;
- Improved process and tools to moderate and remove inappropriate video content.
Next, Ask.fm will focus on key areas such as:
- A revamped Safety Center with tailored guidance and expert content for users, parents, educators, schools and law enforcement.
- The appointment of two law enforcement liaison positions, one in Ireland, one in the North America, to more closely partner with local law enforcement in these regions.
- Partnerships with leading mental health and suicide prevention organizations to best support users in crisis.
“We bought Ask.fm both because of its impressive organic growth and its potential for becoming an even bigger mainstream social network for asking and answering questions,” said Doug Leeds, chief executive officer, Ask.com, the parent company of Ask.fm. “But we’ve said from the beginning that unlocking that potential is dependent on putting safety first. It won’t be a quick or easy process, but step by step we are methodically tackling safety issues on Ask.fm, and are as committed as ever to making the site a safer and more positive place.”
As with any social networking app, it is the responsibility of parents to know what their children, under the age of 18, are doing online. I believe the only effective way to do this is to install some form of parental control software. Utilization of such software can potentially alert parents to trouble before it gets out of hand.
Beyond this and before this, open conversations about what constitutes appropriate online behavior as outlined in my book, “@Sophie Takes a #Selfie” ~ Rules and Etiquette for Taking Good Care Before You Share, are key.
I can’t say enough about what a positive experience and privilege it was to talk with Catherine, Gina and Valerie. They did not have to talk to me… who am I? A small fish in a big pond. I admire the fact that they would take time out of their busy schedules to do so, because each time they reach out to someone like me, there is a ripple effect and awareness is raised.
In other things-I-never-thought-I-would-do news, I have created my own Ask.fm profile in an effort to connect more with young people who have questions about tricky social situations. I will let you know how it goes!
Thanks for stopping by,
ox J. J.