Position Paper: #captionsbywriters by Ariel Bissett
Instagram was established in 2010, and since then has garnered over 300 million users. Instagram is a photo sharing app – you can take a photo on the app itself or import it from your phone’s memory, edit the photo with Instagram’s built-in photo editing software, and then share it to your profile to appear in the feed of anyone who follows you. Like any open platform with many users, Instagram homes many different communities. There are niche communities like “#bookstagram” or wide-spread communities like “#throwbackthursday.” What all communities on Instagram have in common is that they use a hashtag to share their content. In July of 2014, Philip Anderson Edsel created one of these communities: #captionsbywriters. His goal was to “create a place on Instagram for writers to share and find inspiration.”
His goal was a success. With over 4,000 posts, #captionsbywriters is a community of writers engaging with the Instagram platform. What makes this project most interesting, at least for me, is that Instagram is not a medium that was built for, or necessarily encourages, writing. There is no doubt or waver that photos are the main point, and the much acknowledged unspoken rule is that captions should be short.
“When I see a powerful photo, I feel inspired to write,” says Edsel. “It sparks a particular memory or even an imaginary scene that I want to describe.” He adds that “There are a lot of writers who feel like they’re limited to posting a photo of their writing typed instead of allowing their words to elevate a beautiful photograph, or vice versa.” His project embraces the Instagram project and collaborates with it.
The first interesting caveat to explore is how this project would force writers to change how they write. As Hayles alluded, context changes content. The first forming would happen through the writing interface. Instagram is not very encouraging of writing – although it has an extensive photo editing interface, the caption section is small, cannot be expanded, and is all around unhelpful. A second thing to consider would be how the caption is going to look and be consumed by the audience. It will appear under the photo, so will be seen second and it will not look any different, format-wise, to comments.
The second interesting caveat to investigate is how this project interacts with greater Instagram culture. One of the unique qualities to Instagram is the infamous “double tap” function; by double-tapping a small heart will appear indicating you’ve liked the photo. This, alongside comments (which is not a particularly unique function, but important nonetheless), allows for an intimate and instantaneous feedback system. The incredible ease of following someone and having them show up in your feed instantly allows for fast and broad audience gathering. There is also the interesting feature of geo-tagging; photos can be “tagged” with the location at which they were taken or posted, which adds an extra layer of data and possibility to each post. Although real places can be found, imaginary places can also be added as a geo-tag, allowing for another possible story-telling tool.
Edsel enjoyed this project so much that he took it a step forward and created what he called an “Instagram Photo-Novel.” During NaNoWriMo (a 30 day writing challenge in which you attempt to write 50k words), he posted a photo every day to Instagram with a chapter of his photo-novel. I see this as a perfect response to Hayles’ call to action to try more with writing. Edsel tried something that, at least he thought (and I’ve been unable to find any information to the contrary), was completely unique. He harnessed a new medium and allowed its restrictions and rules to create creative barriers around him.
The fear is always creating something gimmicky, and trying to break out of that into doing something interesting and new. Could this be the future of the novel? In some ways it’s much like a salute to the important past of serialized novels – a chapter a day. Is it a new way to get people involved in a story? As part of an organic feed, the photo will be scrolled by everyday and perhaps the new chapter consumed. Is the mix of photo and text pivotal? Perhaps new media, especially print media, is moving away from just being text and requires something extra.
Ultimately, Edsel says “My favorite thing to see from the hashtag is actually how excited writers get when they find out there’s a community of people they can share their work with and find inspiration from!” There is no doubting that a community HAS been formed. A community that is accessible to all and is completely open to participation. As an experiment I decided to join in on the hashtag. (Click here to see my photo!) I was, as always, able to make my photo pretty with photo editing apps, but never before had I focused so much on the narrative of the caption, and on the way the caption can alter how the photo is viewed. I also felt excitement by the sense of community. Will other online writers find my post? Will they be encouraged to look at my other posts (and be confused when they see that this is my only contribution)? Will they feel compelled to comment and engage? And what about all the people that are my followers, see the hashtag they’ve never encountered, and feel compelled to search? They’ll find a whole new community!
The biggest thing I took away from this experiment was the manipulation of a larger resource for a niche group. This is not, at least not specifically, what Instagram was intended for, but it works nonetheless. Definite improvements could be made – changes to the GUI could make typing on the app easier, or changes could be made to visually give the captions as much importance as the photos. But regardless, Edsel was able to carve out a space on a virtual platform to create something fun, democratic, and unique.
Word Count: 1015
Works Cited and Referenced:
 “Instagram.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instagram/>.
 Edsel, Philip A. “Crafting A Community of Writers With @philipandersonedsel”.” Edsel Photo. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. <http://www.edselphoto.com/captionsbywriters/>.
 “Crafting A Community of Writers With @philipandersonedsel.” Instagram Blog. N.p., 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. <http://blog.instagram.com/post/126521557137/150812-captionsbywriters>.
Hayles, Katherine N. Writing Machines. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2002. Web.