When I was a teenager, a guy I liked asked me on MSN why I was as wide as a trampoline.
There were a number of logical issues with his question.
- Are trampolines particularly… wide?
- Surely there are better similes.
- I wasn’t… wide.
- I don’t think the point of his question was to actually get an answer.
The point of his question, I assume, was to make me feel weird and bad about my body/myself, which he needn’t have attempted because no 14-year-old girl needs help in that department.
But it was the first time I observed a particular phenomenon I then wouldn't be able to unsee in teenage boys and girls: cruelness, thinly veiled as 'just asking a question'.
How come your teeth are yellow?
Did you wash your hair this morning?
Are those jeans meant to look like that?
What's with your top?
Why are you friends with Jessica when she hates you?
Do you actually have any friends?
Of course, if you then react to any of these questions by pointing out that they're... mean, the response is one of feigned confusion and passive aggression: 'Why are you upset? I was just asking!'
Just last week, Instagram made the decision to build this behaviour into their platform. Now, any of Instagram's 800 million monthly active users can invite their followers to ask them anything, and respond to those questions publicly on their story.
Within days of the feature being introduced, a friend, Tim*, who has around 10,000 followers, made a confession. 'So... people are being really mean,' he said. 'All the questions are just having a go at me.'
This is a 28-year-old man. Who probably hadn't been cyberbullied since the days of MySpace in '05.
Another friend posted an Instagram story asking her followers not to be cruel, and reminded them that while questions appear anonymously once answered, when users receive a question, they can see who it's from.
This, at least, is one step above social media platforms Ask.fm and Formspring, which were particularly popular between 2011-2014. Users would set up a profile and people asked them questions - with the option to remain anonymous. The feature of anonymity, of course, led to abuse, bullying and sexualised content, and was linked to a number of incidences of self harm and suicide.
Speaking to The Daily Mail in 2013, 13-year-old Laura Quinn described how the platform started out harmless. After a dress-up party, however, Laura started receiving 'questions' that called her a slut, and said she was anorexic. What was particularly disarming was that Laura knew the anonymous messages must be coming from someone within her inner circle, because they had seen the photos from the party. But she had no way of finding out who.
Laura's comments were part of a larger feature on the cyberbullying taking place on these platforms, which cited the deaths of at least six teenagers who had suffered extensive abuse on Ask.fm.
Having people's identities attached to the questions they ask on Instagram is likely to slightly dampen the cruelty of their behaviour, but not by much. Anyone can create a fake profile in seconds, and even the people you do know can ask the type of questions that leave you hurt and confused.
But unfortunately, Instagram didn't create this feature with anyone's mental health or well being in mind. Their goal is to simply keep users on the platform for longer, and introducing a question and answer tool is sure to feed into the narcissism of exactly the type of people who use Instagram (myself included).
In doing so, Instagram just stepped into the territory of many social media platforms before it, and moved away from its image-based, mindless, and comparatively 'light' user experience.
It just became mean.
And a lot of young people are about to learn the hard way just how much cruelty can unfold under the seemingly benign guise of 'ask me anything'.