As Instagram has continued to take over the world (i.e. surge in popularity) over the last seven years, a stream of corresponding articles and analyses have covered the purported reasons behind its success. The common consensus seems to be that Instagram’s emphasis on the visual is what sets it apart.
“It is made of pictures, not text, which makes it less political than Twitter or Facebook, and therefore cheerier,” writes The Atlantic. Forbes goes one step further, warning marketers that too much copy will hurt an Instagram’s performance: “People don’t jump on Instagram to read posts; they want to see images. If you have a written message to share, you may not reach as much of your audience as you’d like.” Minus the addition of Instagram stories and some futzing with the feed algorithm, the app has barely changed since it first emerged. Why fix what very clearly isn’t broken?
Lately, though, I’ve noticed a change in how people are using it. Lena Dunham’s Instagram on May 4th is an apt example:
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Thank you for all the love & concern that's been pouring in since Tuesday. Although I'm much healthier than I was a year ago, complications arose from my most recent endometriosis surgery. When the healthcare of so many American women, especially our trans sisters, is at-risk- or already nonexistent- I am lucky to be in the position to seek help when I'm in pain. To those in that privileged spot- never forget that we are blessed and can pay it forward by supporting Planned Parenthood and LGBTQ clinics like Callen-Lorde with our 💰 and ⌚️. I also want to remind all the women suffering from chronic illness that we aren't weak- quite the opposite, actually. We do our jobs with skill even when we're struggling. We care for our families even when we can hardly care for ourselves. We serve major face on a red carpet when we feel like lying face down would be more appropriate. I'll always be proud of those Met Gala pics- not just because I felt beautiful, surrounded by art and magic, hugging my best friend tightly, but because they're evidence that women contain steely multitudes. Just that morning @dianafalzone sued Fox after they took her off air for disclosing her endometriosis. But they're the ones who lost when they lost her, because everyone who's anyone knows that if you can battle chronic illness there's nothing you can't take on.
Her caption is 235 words long. In it, she includes an update on her personal struggle with endometriosis, a politically relevant reminder about the importance of healthcare, a plea for people to donate time and money to organizations like Planned Parenthood, a supportive message for women with chronic illnesses, a shout-out to her Met Gala look and a PSA about Diana Falcone’s lawsuit against Fox.
I actually wouldn’t call this a caption. It’s too long to be a caption! Too informative. Too personal. You know what it reads more like? A blog post. Yes, that’s what I would call it — a blog post, typed into the spot where an Instagram caption usually goes. Lately, I’ve started to wonder if Instagram is the new WordPress.
Dunham is a big proponent of utilizing her Instagram account as a personal blog of sorts. Her Instagram captions are often lengthy and revealing paragraphs. She even co-opted another popular blog post format — the listicle — in an Instagram clapping back at a tabloid’s gross misconstrual of her weight loss:
She’s not the only one ignoring the constraints of a typical Instagram caption. I’ve observed this practice more and more lately across a broad spectrum of accounts. Busy Philipps is another Instagram blogging enthusiast:
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This is 38. I will say this. This year has been so hard for me in so many ways. But also, this year has been insane and incredible and opened me up in many ways I didn't ever think possible. And that's just it, BBs. Life isn't all one thing. People aren't just all one thing. It's hard and it sucks and it's wonderful and it's life changing and it goes and it goes and it goes and it goes on. If you're lucky. And if you're here. And if you're able to be open to it. Anyway. HBD to me. It's weird I'm this old. But I'm happy and grateful for it. Because THIS IS WHO I AM NOW. ❤️❤️
I could easily imagine the copy underneath this photo appearing in a post on someone’s personal blog with a headline like “A Personal Note, on My 38th Birthday” or “On My Mind Lately” or “An Emotional Year.” Can’t you?
Sometimes the caption slot just doesn’t cut it, though, and users will actually Instagram a photo of text. Selena Gomez took this approach when she posted a screenshot of a heartfelt, lengthy comment she had written on a struggling fan’s Instagram account:
While this blog-esque approach to Instagram seems to be increasingly common amongst A-list celebrities (likely as a means of bypassing the typical media process of releasing a comment or opinion via a publicist, in favor of a more direct and therefore more “authentic” mechanism for being heard), I’ve also seen it crop up on a number of low-key (a.k.a. non-celebrity) accounts I follow. Writer Kelly Oxford shared the following on her Instagram to announce her divorce:
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I've been thinking about posting this for months… the right day, the right tone, but I've recently realized there rarely comes an opportunity to do anything the "right way"… Late last fall James and I mutually split up. Another victim of the 2016 reaper. While he and I have different goals, our mutual goal is working together to provide health, security and happiness of our kids who are all doing great. The last few months have taught me that you can't totally plan out your future; that's scary but also exciting too. 18 years is a good run. I appreciate and thank you guys for all the support I've received and am now receiving. Yes, this is weird. We live in weird times.❤
The last sentence of her post is particularly resonant in the context of Instagram’s recent, user-generated evolution: “Yes, this is weird. We live in weird times.” I interpret that as Oxford’s acknowledgement that it felt a little weird to be sharing something so detailed and intimate on an app that, up until recently, was reserved for brief and superficial (in the literal, visual-based sense of the word) missives; but also weird in the sense that it wasn’t weird — that, in fact, it felt right to share, in that precise format, on this particular platform.
An Australian dietician I follow, Heidi Sze, seemed to feel similarly when she decided to break the painful news of her impending miscarriage on her Instagram account:
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I took this picture last night. And this morning, I wrote the following words 💚 I don’t feel pregnant anymore. I still am. There is still a baby inside of me with a beating heart. But it’s not a strong heartbeat. Instead of 8 & a half weeks old, it looks more like 6 weeks, & if the blood tests come back as I expect them to, my pregnancy hormone levels are decreasing & very soon, I won’t be pregnant anymore. & this January baby won’t be. They say 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. With these odds, I expected I would experience one in my lifetime, as Ben & I dream of having 3 healthy children. I just didn’t think it would be this babe. So now we wait. We wait & see what my body does. We wait & see how we feel. When Ben & I feel wobbly & sad, we find strength in each other & remind ourselves what we know in our bones to be true. That we are blessed. We are blessed to have become pregnant relatively easily, twice, & to have a beautiful healthy daughter. This babe? He wasn’t meant to be in our lives for longer than this short while (I’m sure it was a boy). Though I didn’t expect that, I find great comfort in surrendering to the process of growing & nurturing new life & trusting my body. & when I quieten the noise & worry & comparisons & frustrations & the “why me, why this one?” that so easily flows, I know in my heart that when we get pregnant again, when we make another healthy baby, though different from what we had begun to imagine with this pregnancy, it will be even more perfect. That, above all, I know to be true. I am sharing this news because writing & sharing helps me, it’s how I live. I believe it's valuable to connect with others as we experience tough times. & yet, I am going to be honest & say when it's raw & fresh, I don't love hearing other people’s stories – good or bad. What helps me get through is tuning into my own unique situation & recognising my feelings. Recognising what I know to be true in my heart. Because when I do that, I don’t feel so bad. & in between the waves of sadness & grieving what could have been, I can trust & be thankful, & become excited again.
“I am sharing this news because writing & sharing helps me,” she writes in the caption-cum-blog-post. “I believe it’s valuable to connect with others as we experience tough times.” As a longtime follower of Heidi’s relatively under-the-radar Instagram and blog, I was shaken. Her grief was palpable. At the same time, though, I deeply admired her candidness, and given the number of likes (1,111 — far more than her typical posts receive) and comments (322 — many from people sharing similar experiences), it seemed I wasn’t alone.
Social media gets a bad rap, but there are moments when its truly redeeming qualities are more than evident. It might be all-consuming and soul-sucking, but it is also a conduit for human connection. I love how people are co-opting Instagram’s platform to further facilitate the latter. As true WordPress blogs are becoming fewer and farther between, Instagram is starting to fill the void. A picture might speak 1,000 words, but it can’t always speak 1,000 feelings, and feelings are 2017’s currency of choice.
Illustration by Madeline Montoya.