Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.
In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.
The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.
In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”
“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.
The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.
Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.
So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?
Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.
Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.
Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?
Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?
Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.
What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?
Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.
But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?
Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.
Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.
When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?
Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.
Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?
Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.
You seem to think it’s a societal problem.
Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.
What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?
Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.
Do you worry about your reputation?
Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.
When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.
Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?
Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?
Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.
So what is the present like?
Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.
Are you sure you’re having that impact?
Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.
When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?
Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.
Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.
But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?
Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.
Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?
Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.
Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.
Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?
Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.
How much did you guys put into the company?
Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.
As a business, how are you doing?
Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.
What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?
Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.
What do you anticipate happening in the sector?
Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.
How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?
Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.
Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.
But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?
Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.
Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.