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:
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:
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:
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:
“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.