Caption This

For a growing number of Instagrammers, the caption, not the photo, is the hardest part. An entire cottage industry is cropping up to provide support.

An illustrated Instagram dialog box in which trite captions are entered and deleted repeatedly, as the user revises the text.
Doris Liou

Kourtney Kardashian recently posted a photo on Instagram of herself surrounded by shelves of leather-bound books, geotagged to Rome and captioned “studying abroad” along with the spaghetti emoji. It would have been a pretty unremarkable post in the Kardashians’ sprawling body of online output if it weren’t for the comment Khloé Kardashian left under it: “How many people did you ask to get this caption?” Khloé was teasing her older sister because she thought Kourtney’s caption was good—too good for her to have come up with it on her own.

It’s not just the Kardashians who recognize how critical the caption is. Despite the now-clichéd message that no one reads anymore and text is dead, captions remain surprisingly and sneakily important on Instagram—which means they’re also the source of more than a little unseen agita. If Instagram is the stage where you present an ideal version of yourself, then how important can a caption be? Really important, it turns out.

“Sometimes I have really nice pictures and I don’t post them because I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t have a caption,’ ” said Subah Imami, a 20-year-old rising senior at New York University.

“I think the caption is really 75 percent of the post,” said Michelle Ciciyasvili, a 28-year-old publicist in New York. “It’s like when they say losing weight is 80 percent diet, 20 percent gym. I think it’s kind of the same with Instagram: The caption could make or break your post.”

As Instagram has taken over more and more of our time and attention, we’ve become accustomed to selfie sticks, made-for-Instagram museums, social media–driven food trends, and a whole host of novel inventions, behaviors, and places that only exist to help people take cute pictures. It’s normal to encounter someone holding an impromptu photo shoot on a street corner. On Instagram, photos come first—or at least that’s how we once understood it. But lately, serious ’grammers have concentrated their anxieties on the one nonvisual element of this very visual medium. They can always take another photo with better lighting or a different pose. But the caption has become like the essay question after a multiple-choice test: the hard part. We might as well call it capprehension.

Not every Instagram user suffers from capprehension. Beyoncé, in a strategy that echoes her decision to follow zero people on the app, frequently posts captionless photos, and she seems to be doing just fine in the engagement department. I too was under the impression that a picture could stand on its own—apparently an old millennial’s mistake. Then I started talking to younger people, like my co-worker ShaMya Williams, who is 22 and an office manager at Slate, as well as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about her captions.

“I just can’t come up with anything witty on my own,” Williams told me. “I feel like everyone does song lyrics or quotes, and that’s so basic. I don’t want to be that basic. But I also want an Instagram aesthetic.” Simply posting an emoji—lately an acceptable shorthand for describing human experience—would be a cop-out: too easy. “My little brothers, they are 14, and they just put a lot of emojis. And it’s just—it’s awful.”

To solve this problem, Williams said she’ll sometimes ask friends for a caption consultation. Showing me her feed, she pointed out the ones that were ghostwritten: “Katie’s given me probably four of my recent captions. This one Lizzie gave to me. … This is one that Tommy gave me. … Shirley came up with that one for me.” She’ll often send a picture to a group text and workshop the caption with multiple people. The writers’-room approach has an added bonus: “When I post it, I’m like, ‘OK, I posted it, go like it.’ It’s like an automatic five likes.”

When it comes to captions, Nicole Lopez-Alvar, a 25-year-old from Miami, is the Cyrano de Bergerac of Instagram. She’s been writing captions for friends for years. Her personal tastes run toward self-deprecation: “Prob laughing at my own joke,” she wrote next to a recent photo taken at a ritzy Miami restaurant and lounge. “My friends started realizing that I was so good that I was getting texts like, ‘What captions? What captions? Caption this,’ ” she said. “I was writing captions for all my friends, even my entire sorority. Some people I was writing captions for I barely knew. They would just DM me like, ‘Hey, can you write a caption?’ ”

But friends can’t always provide a solution. In those situations, the capprenhensive can seek out caption advice elsewhere on the web. This has led to the emergence of a strange new genre of advice—a cottage industry within a cottage industry—and collections of ready-made, prefab captions that you can use to furnish your feed. Nikolas Haskins, a 22-year-old from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who works in insurance, turned to online caption advice earlier this year when his Instagram captions were causing tension in his relationship. “My girlfriend brought up the fact that ‘Oh, your captions aren’t even that good, you need to put more thought into it,’ ” Haskins said. So he typed “Instagram captions” into a search engine—and found that the search-optimized gears of the click economy were ready to start turning.

Within those search results, you’ll find a few sites you’ve probably never heard of, like Gramlike and Lifewire. But what you’ll find even more of are publications you likely have heard of dispensing caption advice for an increasingly specific array of situations. At Travel + Leisure, there’s “The 37 Best Selfie Captions and Quotes for Instagram,” and at Real Simple, don’t miss “Our Favorite Road Trip Quotes and Instagram Captions.” But those sound basic in comparison with Southern Living’s “Funny & Heartwarming Instagram Captions for Mother’s Day” or HelloGiggles’ “18 Coachella Quotes That Make for a Festival-Ready Instagram Caption” or Refinery29’s “Cardi B’s Album Is Full of Instagram Captions for All Your #OOTDs.” If there’s an event or thing that you want to post about on Instagram, then someone has definitely already published some advice on the perfect caption to pair with it. To understand how specialized this can get, consider that country star Toby Keith recently tweeted a link to a list had put together: “45 Toby Keith Lyrics Perfect for Your Instagram Captions.”

The sites that seem to be the most prolific clearinghouses of these lists of ideas for Instagram captions are Bustle and Elite Daily (which is owned by Bustle), whose recent hits include “30 Coconut Captions for Instagram, Because Paradise Is a Sip Away,” “32 Instagram Captions for the Hamptons, Because It’s Officially Summer, Beaches,” and “21 Punny National Mac and Cheese Day 2018 Instagram Captions That Honor This Glorious Holiday.” By my count, Bustle published six separate lists of Fourth of July caption suggestions, including one with 11 “last-minute” ideas. (I reached out to representatives from the sites to talk about their strategy, but they did not respond.)

There’s also an app, CapGenius, that serves a similar function. Launched in late 2016, CapGenius gives users access to a keyboard they can use in conjunction with Instagram or other apps. The keyboard itself is a sort of database of quips, organized by topic. According to co-founder Jordan Verroi, it works something like this: “You’re sitting here right now drinking a cup of coffee,” he said. “You go to Instagram. You take your picture. You can actually access your keyboard in Instagram. You would type in ‘coffee,’ and it gives you really punny and witty things to say, so ‘Java number I can call you on?’ or ‘Life is great, don’t be depresso.’ ” Lopez-Alvar, the 25-year-old from Miami, now gets paid to contribute captions to the app.

So how does all this caption advice actually stack up? Some of it seems a lot more interested in clicks than utility. I have trouble imagining a scenario in which I would want to use a Meghan Markle quote in an Instagram caption, even though a list offers 24 “flawless” options, like “I don’t want to waste time getting ready. I want to go out and have fun” and “When you invest in a great piece, you’re going to pull it out of your closet again and again.”

The logic behind some of the lyric suggestions also falls flat. One Fourth of July post recommended quoting the Minnie Riperton song “Never Existed Before”: “The light of the stars… the clouds in the sky/The fireworks on the Fourth of July.” With all due respect to Minnie Riperton, show me the person who both knows who Riperton is and uses online research to come up with Instagram captions, because I suspect such a person does not exist. Many of the suggested quote captions also feel far-fetched. Why would a teen or twentysomething want to quote Billy Graham or Benjamin Disraeli on Instagram?

Some of the posts are just lazy. “Happy as a clam,” one Odyssey post that purports to offer 100 ideas suggests. “Beach Days are the best” is another one on that list. I’m picturing an angry Gen Zer throwing her phone at the wall: “I Googled for this crap?!?” Another strange choice: In its list of bathing-suit-caption ideas, Sweety High, a website for girls, offers a bunch of cutesy sayings, like “Salty vibes” or “Suns out buns out,” but treats each one as if it’s a quote attributed to “Unknown,” giving the feeling that one is reading a bizarro-universe, surfer-chick version of Elite Daily similarly and weirdly recommends captioning your “pina colada pics” with so-called quotes like “ ‘Feeling tropical.’ — Unknown” or “ ‘This is my happy place.’ — Unknown.” Is the joke that no one would actually want to be credited for writing a caption that inane?

“I barely remember writing any of them,” said a New York–based writer who has contributed lists of Instagram captions to an online publication (and who didn’t want to use her name because she didn’t want to criticize her workplace publicly). It takes about 45 minutes to put together one list, she said, and she tries to turn off her brain when she writes them. The process goes something like this: “You look at Instagram. You see what people are posting, because that’s kind of what the point of these stories are, is that somebody wants everything aggregated together in one story; they don’t want to spend an hour looking through rosé hashtags and getting ideas.” In addition, she said, “I spend a lot of time in idiom dictionaries, like wine idioms, and things that rhyme with rosé, every possible idiotic thing that I can think of.”

As this writer’s idiom research can attest, much of the caption-advice corpus is preoccupied with puns. Puns are tricky territory even under the best of circumstances, since some people will always groan at them. In Instagram-caption land, however, “TRUE FRIENDSHIP: Walking into a persons house and your wifi connects automatically” and “Whatever floats your boat” are both offered as “punny” suggestions, so it’s safe to say we’re working with a more expansive definition of pun here, wherein anything vaguely funny qualifies. Actual puns, like “Mojitos, mo problems” for National Mojito Day, are popular, I suspect, because the caption is a genre that prizes concision as well as cleverness. Though, of course, that cleverness might count for less if people knew you were copying and pasting it from somewhere else.

When you think it through, the existence of these lists and the CapGenius app makes sense. Their creators figured out that people—people like Haskins—are searching online for caption advice, so they decided to provide it. Indeed, Google Trends data shows that searches for “Instagram captions” have been growing steadily since the social network’s early days and are now at an all-time high. It’s basic search engine optimization, and though this content has been criticized plenty of times for being craven from an editorial standpoint, it works. Confirming this, a spokesman for Sweety High told me that the site’s Instagram-caption posts receive 2.3 times more page views than the average post.

What’s less intuitive, and possibly even more of a bummer, is the idea that young people are trying to Google and app their way into seeming unique and different on social media in an unironic embrace of their “brands.” It’s a dissonance that isn’t totally lost on the people who actually assemble all this caption advice.

“It’s bittersweet,” Lopez-Alvar said of her contributions to CapGenius. “I love helping them. Some people really struggle with this. I love seeing when people use one of our captions and they get comments of their friends cracking up. I love the confidence boost it gives people. At the same time, it’s kind of hurting their creativity, relying on an app.” She said she hopes instead that people will use the provided captions as inspiration and find a way to make them their own.

Tim Hayne, the vice president of editorial at Sweety High, contested the idea that its caption advice could lead to cookie-cutter posts. “I only know anecdotally that they’re really just using these captions as a jumping-off point,” he said. “I don’t think that a lot of them are copying and pasting these captions.” Hayne added that the caption advice is meant to be a tool to “empower” the site’s audience. Still, it’s hard not to be dispirited by the thought of adolescents putting so much effort into so minute a part of their online life. Instagram is already such a pressure cooker—studies have shown it to have deleterious effects on users’ self-esteem—that it feels unfair that having a good caption should become one more burden, especially for girls.

But something Lopez-Alvar said made me rethink the idea that caption anxiety is a harbinger of doom. Lopez-Alvar got her gig writing captions for CapGenius through Instagram. “I literally DMed them like, ‘Hey, I love captions, can I write captions with you guys?’ ” she said. Instagram is also how she started contributing pieces to the Miami New Times. “I’ve networked more on Instagram and through my captions than on LinkedIn or on any other platform,” she said. “For me, it’s my LinkedIn page. It’s like my résumé.” No one would write a résumé without looking at examples first and maybe copying them a little, right? Put that way, caption research, while strange to those of us who don’t engage in it, might not really be any more suspect than advice you’d seek out when applying for jobs.

There are also other reasons people might want to research their captions that I hadn’t considered. Ellie Windham, a 33-year-old New Yorker, has more than 4,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts frequently about running and fitness. She also has a learning disability that affects her grammar and ability to put together complex thoughts. So she uses Pinterest, where inspirational quotes are plentiful, for help with coming up with captions and varying her language. “That’s my go-to place,” she said. “It’s like, I want to say something, but I don’t know how to say it, so then I have to research on it.”

For Nikolas Haskins’ part, he has no qualms about doing some Googling when he has a new picture to post, much to his girlfriend’s chagrin. “It’s almost every time,” he admitted. “At least for selfies and stuff.”