Main Aur Meri Tanhai: Instagram’s “Ask Me a Question” Feature is Peak Loneliness


Main Aur Meri Tanhai: Instagram’s “Ask Me a Question” Feature is Peak Loneliness

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Have some time to kill, so ask me a question y’all.

Will you date me? What is your favourite show? Your favourite country? Who let the dogs out? And who the fuck is Alice?!

Instagram’s new “Ask Me a Question” feature seems perfect for people with bios that read “start-up founders” to “wanderlust chasers” and have the same “time to kill” that leaves them feeling more chatty than usual. Only it isn’t a chat in the real sense. It is more like a beauty pageant where people answer questions and paste them on a wall for everyone to see. It makes me almost miss Gchat when a handful of people cared every day if I’d found a dog to pet or a boss to kill.

But Instagram wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, it was a knight in shining armour that had come to save us from the mundane mediocrity that Facebook had become, one pretty photo at a time. It was a decent place where both commoners and celebrities came to share the most picturesque of moments spent, complete with a caption or two.

Sometimes these captions would be lines by great poets, and at other times, something approaching a Rupi Kaurism. Either way, people, most of whom had fled the local train called Facebook, hopped aboard this elite jet plane only to share photos of them reading books with their legs outstretched and enjoy the camaraderie when Twinkle Khanna or another actor did the same.

Insta gifted us the chance to choose questions that are juicy enough without prying our inner shells open.

However, much slower than how a zombie turns, the app became like our PM’s Mann ki Baat, a kind of soapbox from where one can say what s/he wants without anyone replying. Where one is alone but imagines one has company. It introduced a new feature called “stories” and in one move, excited and alienated our social media-crazed generation a little more. While stars realised they could just rant away and paid influencers could plug just about anything, the rest of us found an easy way to use these stories – we started sharing the most exciting parts of our day, from getting a Harry Potter bobblehead from the best friend to the first-ever kadhi chawal we made as a “tribute to mom”.

It also became our place of sadness, with some sharing time hop photos, missing the wanderlust of that one Prague village they’d been to, to a farewell party they were too drunk to remember (but miraculously had saved photographic evidence of). Some took their profound, funny, and vulnerable thoughts away from the negative cesspool Twitter had become, and brought them to Instagram. A popular Mumbai comedian and actor is the perfect example of this: He shares his favourite Marvel storylines, his fitness journey, his cynicism at the government and media, to his struggles and victories over anxiety, neatly capping about 20 stories in a 24-hour period, regularly.

However, while it is interesting to know about people like him who are constantly in the public eye and instructive to see how fame changes things (or doesn’t), it isn’t so great when your next-door neighbour put up five badly shot photos of the champa he has grown accompanied with a post on why it’s special to him. Because the words are worse than the pictures.

I know, I know, that I’m being judgmental and that I am free to unfollow him and all the rest of it. But stories have become yet another pedestal through which to shout into the abyss, and to reassure yourself that you’re still the star of your story. Even if people are unfollowing or muting you all the time.   

Then finally, as if to crown itself as the primary app of making people truly lonely – I mean “talking to themselves” kinda lonely – Instagram launched its “Ask Me a Question” feature recently. Yet another “safe” way to convince you that yes, your followers are indeed interested in your life in a deeply personal way. It works on the serotonin bump that you feel, that drives your need for human interaction. And yet, it remains a one-way street, where you have a conversation without actually having one. Just the way our generation likes it.

We want to have connections, to mean something to our community, but we’d rather do it in the passive voice. So Insta gifted us the chance to choose questions that are juicy enough without prying our inner shells open. We choose the ones we want to answer and display, still curating them to see what best fits the virtual image we’ve created of ourselves. By the end of the day, all we’ve really accomplished is that we have managed to remind people of our existence without having had to really talk to any of them.

In this last week of “Ask Me a Question,” I’ve gotten to know more about people’s favourite actors and food than in the last two years of my time using the app. It’s like the slam book that was passed around in class but the problem is, the slam books of our past belonged to our friends, people whose kadhi chawal tributes meant something to us.

I wonder what feature is next on Instagram’s list. Filters with creatures that you can adopt as pets with a built-in feature that allows users to give you pet advice? Polls that allow followers to select your #OOTD for you? A feature that lets you know exactly who refused to view your selfie or story? It won’t take our loneliness away, but at least there will be that blip of serotonin to look forward to.