Future Tense

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Makes Instagram a Little Better

Others should follow her use of captions—but the app needs to make it easier.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Karamo Brown in Instagram Stories with captions.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Karamo Brown have both used Clipomatic to caption their Instagram Stories. Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Instagram.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been deftly using Instagram stories to give followers a peek into everything from her black bean soup to being a newbie in Washington. She’s also making her life more accessible in a subtler way.

In some of her videos, captions appear in a pink strip with text as she talks. The app she uses is called Clipomatic. “Big shout out to the deaf + disability advocates who put me on to it!” she wrote in her Instagram Story this weekend. She’s made a point of recommending the app a couple times, tweeting about it in November, as the Huffington Post reported.

She’s not the only famous person to use the app. Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown has also posted about it recently. “I’m making a shift with myself,” he said in a video about being more inclusive.

Too often, videos rely on the viewer having excellent hearing. In a 2017 video, comedian Jessica Marie Flores used American Sign Language to illustrate how frustrating Instagram and other media can be for the many, many people who are deaf or hard of hearing. “Where are the captions?” she wrote beneath the silent video. “I probably ask myself that same questions a million times a year.”

One problem is that apps that make it so easy to shoot a quick video often don’t make captioning it easy, too. The Clipomatic app was released a year ago, and it’s good that it exists. And at $5 with 4.5 stars across 494 ratings in the App Store, it seems like an easy choice to download. But it would be a lot better if it were baked into Instagram, instead of something that people have to think of, seek out, and then pay for. Instagram will release endless seasonal filters and controversial horizontal side-swiping, but apparently not a feature that would make the fantasy world of carefully crafted images a little more accessible to all.

Closed captions are ubiquitous in TV and movies because the Federal Communications Commission has required all broadcasts to have them since 2006. But as media shifts to smaller distributors—you can start the day by flicking through Instagram Stories rather than TV channels—there’s no impetus to do the work required to type in a caption, or for companies to make doing so realistic for small content creators. At least YouTube has an option for automatic captions baked in. Like Clipomatic, it uses voice recognition technology. But YouTube’s solve is notoriously buggy: YouTuber Rikki Poynter called them “craptions” in 2015, though she notes they’ve improved a bit since. But Instagram doesn’t even support the ability to turn third-party captioning on or off, requiring content creators to make the choice to have captions appear for everyone—or no one.

That means more work for already-harried content creators who want to be inclusive.
Clipomatic’s voice recognition works pretty well if you speak slowly, I discovered when I downloaded the app. But talk fast and you have to painstakingly edit individual words in a screen that’s separate from the video. (In a test video that I made about how cozy the soundproof booths are at the Slate offices, it registered “feels like a little womb” as “feels like a little poop.”)

Shannon Palus, with the Clipomatic caption, "Feels like a little poop call bye."
Shannon Palus

That process doesn’t exactly gel with the stream-of-conscious talking in the car or while walking around in a city that has become popular on the platform. And while there are a handful of options for basic color-changing filters, it doesn’t integrate with Instagram’s own filters or augmented reality options, like adding animal ears to your face.

Which is perhaps why it’s not that common to see captions used. The #clipomatic hashtag has just 144 posts, and aside from Ocasio-Cortez’s stories, I can’t recall seeing it in the wild. Further, the app is currently only available for iPhone.

Instagram makes creating visually appealing media more accessible—Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of us don’t need expensive equipment or design chops to speak directly to thousands of supporters—while making consuming it in some ways less accessible than traditional TV. Accessibility is something that Instagram is working on, if slowly: Recently, it added alternative text (both automatic, generated by object recognition, and custom) so users with visual impairments can hear descriptions of the photos in their feed. (Twitter introduced alt-text to photos in 2016.) Instagram didn’t share any concrete plans to add closed captioning, which would be a useful next step. “We are always looking for ways to improve accessibility to Instagram and continue to iterate on the experience for our global community,” an Instagram spokesperson said when I asked.

Like so many design tweaks that make the world better for those living with disabilities, captions would make using Instagram easier for everyone. I was able to watch videos made with the Clipomatic app on my computer at work with the sound off, avoiding the annoying dance of switching my Bluetooth headphones to pair with my computer. They’re also fun: In Clipomatic, captions can appear as text in a variety of fonts, including several options for speech bubbles, making the story feel sort of like a comic. I can only imagine what Instagram could do creatively with captions if it were a feature that it took as seriously as giving everyone the ability to look like they are flitting around the world with in an effortless celebration of hearts and glitter.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.