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They can be funny or serious, short or sprawling, cryptic or self-deprecating.

They can be punny: “And now we’re Instagram FRIENDS too,” said Jennifer Aniston. They can be straightforward: “Happy Halloween everyone,” said Cristiano Ronaldo. Or they can be blatant stunts: “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram,” said a picture of a brown egg.

They’re all captions on Instagram. And though images are the main attraction on the extremely visual social media platform, that little bit of text can go a long way.

That could become even more true as Instagram enters a new chapter; in parts of the US the platform will start hiding how many ‘likes’ a post gets.  Only the author will be able to see how popular their post is, in a test aimed at decreasing competition and improving users’ mental health.

The move follows similar trials in other countries, including Australia, Japan and Brazil. And even as some influencers and celebrities bemoan the fact that it could make their job harder, experts say it will shift the spotlight from ‘likes’ to captions – and the comments and community they create.

From a few pithy words to soul-baring confessions, captions help determine which influencers thrive, and with the changes, the text posted alongside photos will have to start doing a heavier lift. But what exactly is the power of the Instagram caption – and how could this play out?

In a viral Instagram video, American hip-hop star Cardi B says it's the text parts of Instagram that are bad for mental health, not the number of 'likes' (Credit: Getty Images)

The power of captions

A simple Google search shows just how much people already value captions.

It brings up millions of results like 1,000+ Beautiful Instagram Captions – A collection of Lyrics and Quotes, and 31 Of The Best Instagram Captions For Boys To Use Right Now. There are suggestions for all contexts: friends (“The yin to my yang”), fitness (“Stronger than yesterday”), and food (“But first, coffee”).

Many of these, of course, are aimed at amateur Instagrammers who just want to make a halfway decent post and need a little caption inspiration. But there’s a serious side to it: if you’re savvy and work in the business as an influencer, you know that the caption isn’t just an emoji dumping ground. It’s the place to get more people to interact with the post.

Captions help determine which influencers thrive

“I’ve often used captions with a beautiful image to drive home hard truths, like in the case of the recent Kashmir lockdown,” says Siddhartha Joshi, a Mumbai-based travel photographer. In his case, captions carry an informational weight that wouldn’t exist with the image alone, causing people to be more invested in his account (although Joshi says he still considers the image itself more important).

Captions aren’t tacked-on afterthoughts; they’re what add context and shape your voice, all of which drive up follower count.

“It's like the cherry on top,” says Chicago-based influencer Mariko Dennis, who uses Instagram to promote her jewellery business. For her, the caption is also about building a connection with her followers, letting them “learn more about who you are and what your thought process is like, rather than just see your physical self”.

For influencers, captions fuel what they live or die by: engagement. This is measured by how many people ‘like’ a post, comment on it or share it. Simply seeing a post isn’t enough. The higher the engagement, the more likely brands are to do sponsorship or business deals with influencers.

“On Instagram, strong imagery is what stops users in their feed. However, captions are what drive engagement,” says Stephanie Cartin, co-CEO at Socialfly, a New York City agency that connects influencers with big corporations. “Sharing candid personal stories, asking for specific feedback, presenting thoughtful or playful questions are a great way to start a conversation.”

This photo's caption urged viewers to 'like' it, in an efffort to become the most-liked image on Instagram — it did (Credit: Getty Images)

Analyses show that Instagram images with captions or text embedded in them get more interactions than those that don’t. Socialbakers, an international social media marketing firm, looked at six major media companies, like BuzzFeed and HuffPost, and found that posts with explanatory text overlay generated 41% more interactions on average over the course of 2017.

For marketers, “dialogue is what fosters community, placing significant value on thoughtful captions,” says Cartin.

A way to connect

Part of the power of captions is that sense of community they cultivate. Experts say they serve as the bridge that makes us feel more connected to the person we’re following.

Paul Benzon, a professor of English at Skidmore College in upstate New York who specialises in internet culture and digital identity, says that captions help perpetuate the loop that locks us into social media.

“The stated idea of social media is to level the plane between us, the users, and celebrities. The very idea of an influencer is someone whose job is to make money [doing that],” he says. “If that’s the model, so much of that hinges on getting people to interact and engage.”

Strong imagery is what stops users in their feed. However, captions are what drive engagement – Stephanie Cartin

What makes a good caption? Advice includes using a call to action to like or tag friends, using emoji and hashtags, shooting for either super short or super long, and drafting several versions before posting. (Or when in doubt, turn to one of those countless sites for inspiration.)

But their real use is to connect better with the audience, something which has contributed to the evolution of Instagram captions from serviceable afterthoughts to – in some cases – “megacaptions,” long, deeply personal statements driven by celebrities like Lena Dunham or Taylor Swift.

Queen Elizabeth's narrative-style caption accompanied her first-ever Instagram post in 2019: an old letter to Prince Albert (Credit: Getty Images)

This mirrors the broader social media trend of celebrities and influencers being more vulnerable and opening up online about struggles like mental health issues. But it could also cause a new kind of Instagram rat race, where influencers feel an increased need to be vulnerable and bare their souls.

Indeed, those comment-triggering captions can rebound. American rapper Cardi B, who has 54 million Instagram followers, decried the move to hide ‘likes’, saying that comments were actually the most problematic element of Instagram, especially the fact that the comments themselves can receive individual ‘likes’ and replies.

Instagram users, she said in her video, have “been starting the craziest arguments, been starting to race bait, all because of comments – because they want to get to the top, they want to get the most reactions”. (The more ‘likes’ a comment receives, the higher in the list of comments it appears on a specific post.)

Some media outlets agreed with her: “Cardi has a better analysis of an issue than the majority of people who are paid to make these decisions,” feminist site Jezebel wrote. Followers also backed her up, saying Instagram should focus more on removing bot accounts and trolls instead of hiding likes.

‘Only as big as your community’

Some industry analysts, like New York-based AdExchanger, predict that when ‘likes’ are no longer the measure for the reach of a post, it could benefit people much less famous than the Kylie Jenners or Justin Biebers of Instagram.

“The push for better metrics and insights will drive more business toward microinfluencers – people with large, loyal followings – rather than celebrities that get lots of ‘likes’, but don’t have a personal connection with their audience,” reads a blog post on its website.

Influencers may be worried that the changes will affect their livelihoods. Back during the pilot, the move drove some to tears, saying hiding ‘likes’ would tank engagement. Yet experts say it’s just a matter of being more creative in other ways – like writing better captions that keep people interested and involved.  

“Influencers are only as valuable as the communities they've created,” Cartin says.

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