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Caption Goals: How Instagram Spawned a Cottage Industry Around Words

As the quest for likes and followers on IG has intensified, so too has the demand for funnier, punnier captions, creating a crowded new market selling cleverness

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The cliché photos that populate Instagram have become a joke: the Starbucks cup with a misspelled name; snapshots taken from airplane windows; the classic “hot dogs or legs?”; and so many selfies. But now, the clichés have spilled over to the caption box: “I woke up like this”; “Squad goals”; and the ever-popular “[Literally any activity] with this guy.” (There’s an entire genre of overused engagement captions that were collectively mocked on Twitter last March, to the internet’s delight.)

For a certain kind of user, the pursuit of the perfect Instagram post can be a long and complicated journey. You can manipulate the photo with apps like Facetune and Darkroom (not to mention Instagram’s own filters). You can peruse a slew of hashtag options, choose the right ones—and the right number of them—and then decide whether to post them as a comment or hide them. There’s the decision of whether to geotag or not to geotag (select wisely, please). And finally, there is the caption.

For a platform predicated on images, Instagram has become a place where the words you use are increasingly important. The business of Instagram quotes is alive and well (and apparently, lining at least one copywriter’s pockets). Meme accounts, many of which are primarily composed of screenshots of tweets, are implementing clever monetization methods. One of Instagram’s rising stars is @commentsbycelebs, an account that monitors and posts screenshots of famous people’s Instagram comments. Words do matter, even on Instagram, and that has led users to seek the consummate caption for each of their posts. And just as it has for a variety of its other features, Instagram has spawned a cottage industry around this pursuit. Freelance writers, brand-consulting agencies, apps, and SEO-hungry websites are targeting those who need help in crafting the perfect caption.

The business of Instagram caption writing is being spearheaded by both the old guard as well as precocious entrepreneurs. In typical media fashion, agencies are jumping on the trend and web publications using traditional SEO know-how are capitalizing on it. Hypeplanner, an L.A.-based Instagram growth marketing company, knows the power of the written content that accompanies a post, if not the formula to crack the app’s Explore page. “Some say that Instagram favors long and unique captions but honestly, who really knows?” Hypeplanner cofounder and growth strategist Cassie Jenkins told me via email. “Anyone who claims to know 100 percent what is going on with Instagram’s tricky algorithms is flat-out lying, so don’t believe all the blog posts.” Exactly how Instagram’s algorithms populate users’ feeds as well as how they determine what shows up on the Explore tab remains unclear. A representative for Instagram says the length of a caption doesn’t factor into Explore or search rank (though it’s long been theorized that the longer people look at a post, the better signal boost it gets—which could favor a longer caption).

While Instagram’s algorithm is something of a secret, gaming Google’s PageRank is old hat. Publications like Good Housekeeping, Seventeen, Southern Living, and Bustle regularly churn out articles like “18 Best Friend Instagram Captions to Share on National Friendship Day 2018” and “16 Good Instagram Captions [sic] Ideas for Plants Because That Monstera Leaf Looks Too Good Not to Post” for obvious reasons. As the never-ending quest for likes and followers has intensified, so too has the desire to post funnier, punnier, and more eloquent captions. While that’s true for regular users, it’s doubly so for influencers and brands that aren’t simply trying to be witty for witty’s sake: Visibility on Instagram is their business. And of course, all of this means that websites and other outlets are capitalizing on that sweet, sweet SEO juice. According to Google Trends, over the past five years Google saw a surge in Instagram caption–related queries such as “clever Instagram captions,” “caption for best friends,” “Christmas Instagram caption,” and “Halloween Instagram caption.”

For the most basic caption help, ad-cluttered websites like igcaptions.com and bestgoodcaptions.com provide exactly what you think they do, utilizing SEO-friendly headlines like “200+ best and cool attitude captions for Instagram for boys, girls, and selfie quotes.” These posts appear to be written for optimal copy and pasting, often without emoji or other characters (perhaps leaving at least that final touch-up to the account holder).

The caption market is also quickly becoming dominated by app entrepreneurs. InstaCaptions lets users search by topic for captions, some of which are crowdsourced. The CaptionExpert app has a $3.99 a month premium feature that gets you “unlimited hashtag exploring, access to app captions and categories, [and] unlimited keyword searching.” Some apps rely on machine-learning algorithms to analyze a photo and generate a caption, no human input required. Young, digital-native programmers are responding to this demand. Issa Caption is the brainchild of Nathan Leung, Samay Shamdasani, and Rohan Bhatia. Leung and Bhatia created the app during their senior year of high school, and later met Shamdasani through a University of Pennsylvania hackathon and brought him on to help as well. (Leung and Bhatia are now in college; Shamdasani is a senior in high school.) Issa Caption scans user-submitted photos and generates “related” hip-hop lyrics. If users want more caption options, they can watch video ads to earn more “guap.”

Leung says that seeing their friends constantly looking for captions inspired them to create the app. “Some people even had whole folders in their Notes app on their phone filled with potential Instagram caption ideas,” Leung says, adding that queries for good captions would also frequently pop up in group texts. Caption apps on the market were disappointing, so the three decided to make their own—with a rap bent, because they saw it was a popular caption genre.

The app uses a proprietary neural network to analyze uploaded images, but Leung says that the real value of Issa Caption isn’t so much how well its image-classifying A.I. works, but in how accurately it takes keywords associated with the images and matches them to relevant captions. This is where the human touch comes in: “Our keyword-to-caption model encodes a lot of human knowledge and heuristics in addition to basic search algorithms,” Leung says. “We’ve found that for captions, applying this human element to curation and matching yields better results.” Issa Caption currently depends on video ads for revenue, but the team is looking into growing its business plan. “We’re looking to partner with SoundCloud rappers and other up-and-coming artists and use Issa Caption as a medium to promote their music,” Leung says. They’re also interested in refining captions by pulling in elements beyond just the visuals of an image, such as user preferences and metadata like location and time of day.

Among the many Twitter and Instagram accounts that collect and share IG caption ideas for free (and also for follows) is @_insta.captions, which currently boasts more than 28,000 followers to its private account. Some of the suggested captions found there are song lyrics, though they’re all credited to the account itself. Many of the captions that come from the various free options, in fact, are oft-repeated clichés.

The @_insta-captions account is run by a 17-year-old high-schooler in Lucknow, India, named Anchit Sinha. “I basically look through various accounts and if I find something good I take ideas from it,” Sinha explains. Sinha also finds and posts song lyrics and quotes from books as captions, but since he’s not selling the repurposed phrases, he isn’t worried about any trademark issues. The goal of all of this is simply to gain a following. “I target to reach around 35K followers at the end of the year, and I hope that by the end of 2019 I will cross the 1 million followers milestone,” he told me via email.

Less clichéd, more tailored caption content unsurprisingly comes at a price. Mechanical engineering student Morgan Lee writes captions as a side gig on the freelance marketplace Fiverr (she began doing so in 2014, during her freshman year of college). To date, she’s fielded over 800 requests. “As a millennial, I should be good at this. This is what I’m here for ... to double tap your super cute pics or write you a caption that’ll make people go, ‘wow, nice caption.’ I gotchu,” reads her Fiverr bio, in which she also offers to “creep on your exs [sic] social media.” Lee believes that individual attention to her clients on Instagram serves them better than the generic copy that comes from website roundups or apps that spit out repetitive results. “I never thought about looking up a caption online, but maybe that’s why I get paid to write them?” she says. Lee charges anywhere from $0.50 to $3 per caption, and sometimes accepts merchandise—like a bikini from a swimwear company—as payment. “I think when I first started, Instagram was hardly used as a main marketing medium,” Lee says. Clearly, that’s changed. “I used to go weeks without a single customer, but I get daily inquiries now,” she says.

The options for caption help are quickly becoming overwhelming, but Lee is kind enough to offer a little free advice on how she comes up with Instagram copy. “Captions are like a little voice-over,” she says. “I look at the photo and imagine seeing it in real life standing next to a friend. The next single sentence or comment I’m about to say to my friend about it is going to be the caption.” As Instagram (and all of social media) continues to veer toward the overly produced and expertly packaged, perhaps users should at least take a stab at writing something genuine and not necessarily the most clever, on-trend, crowd-pleasing caption. If that fails, there’s always a cliché to fall back on. Maybe: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.”

This piece was updated with more information after publication.