As I scroll through Instagram, my mind tends to slip into a fugue state, the kind that should be expected from beaming a pure and endless stream of delicious-looking food, friends, puppies, celebrities, nature, Confucius quotes, and sunsets into my eyes. I temporarily forget where I am, whether that’s on a street corner or my own couch, and just keep swiping up on my phone’s screen, soaking in images like UV rays in a high-powered tanning bed turned up to “Snookie.”
Then there comes an inevitable point in my Insta-hole when I thumb over a bag I want to buy, or a story I want to read. As I skim the image caption, I am abruptly awakened by the words: “Link in bio.”
Link. In. Bio: A phrase that launched a thousand 20-somethings’ social media jobs.
Kylie Jenner says it. Chance the Rapper rhymed it with pico de gallo once. The New York Times uses a grammatically correct version of it. Ditto the White House. Even Ringer social media manager Rubie Edmondson has been forced to use the phrase on occasion. (She readily admits that she “dies a little inside” every time she writes it.)
However grating, those three words have become a necessity for anyone hoping to reap the benefits of Instagram’s growing audience. The six-year-old social media network hosts about 500 million active users a month, including Beyoncé, the Transportation Security Administration, and Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov (he’s a ruthless dictator who has a thing for cats!). Entire cottage industries rely on its audience and yes, those precious bio links, to make money. And yet, Instagram prevents its users from including links everywhere on the site except the “website” section of a person’s profile.
Take a moment to think about that. A network that hosts millions of people won’t let them do something that is second nature for digital natives. So its users have concocted their own clunky loophole to get around the problem. It’s as if there were a permanent snowstorm in a city, and the mayor refused to clear the sidewalks. Inevitably, pedestrians would just stomp out their own inelegant roundabout paths to navigate the dirty, urine-filled slush.
And just like those slush paths, the “link in bio” loophole is semi-functional, at best. Instagram’s photo feed is no longer chronological. So when a news post says “story link in bio,” that very well could not even be true anymore! It could be a different link, or no there could be no link at all. When I start chasing down a Shade Room link, it rarely leads me to the story I was looking for, because the account posts something like 20 images a day and even I’m not addicted enough to Instagram to catch them all as they post. The same goes for the recipes Bon Appetit teases in its scrumptious food photo captions: I often land on instructions to make a Greek salad when I was really interested in wings. I can only imagine how many thousands of dollars of debt I would be in if I could “click to buy” the items featured on clothing labels’ Instagrams, rather than search for a bio link that leads me to the homepage of a website.
Obviously, Instagram’s isolationism is not due to lack of ability. The platform has added a number of major changes over the past year, including the ability to zoom (a victory for Olds across the nation) and a tool for people to filter abusive comments (R.I.P. emoji bombing), and the aforementioned surfacing of non-chronological posts. In March 2015, it even introduced a option for carousel ads that allowed users to swipe through to a link to its third-party site.
The real reason the “link in bio” phenomenon has persisted is because Instagram is clingy. The company knows exactly the kind of endless scrolling its app encourages, and doesn’t want to interrupt its captive audience with pesky distractions that encourage people to venture outside its ecosystem. It doesn’t trust that we will come back.
But it should know, now that it has approximately 300 million daily users, that we almost certainly will. Even if Instagram is popular, it is limited by its platform’s abilities. It is not a blogging or commerce site, just a place where you can gaze at an alternate reality and aspire to it. As wonderful as it is to wade in a pool of glorious image soup, the network can’t keep kidding itself that it is a singular online destination. So, give us those caption links, Instagram. There’s enough room on the internet for everyone.