Are You A Total Cliché On Instagram?

The buzzwords and hashtags to avoid on social media. Because no one wants to lose followers

Here we are hurtling towards the tail end of the year and Instagram, believe it or not, is still a pretty big deal. In the 700-million-users ballpark. And there we were thinking the typical consumer of such things had the attention span of a gnat and the loyalty of a cobra. Shows what we know. The launch of Instagram Stories in 2016 probably helped inject newness into the whole experience, conveniently squashing the hopes of its competitor Snapchat in the process. (At the time of writing, Instagram Stories is celebrating its first birthday with the news that it now boasts more users than its rainbow-puke-spattered rival. What’s more, the arrival of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-style content on Instagram, according to tech blog TechCrunch, has upped its average daily usage to 32 minutes per user for the under-25s and 24 minutes for 25s and up – also more than Snapchat.)

Unfortunately, though, while we have been granted the golden opportunity to see more of our friends’ and colleagues’ lunches, workoutshangovers and dog-filter selfies, one aspect of Instagram that doesn’t seem to have moved on at all in the past year is the words attached to each post. While the blur of media flickering past us on our phones gets more and more diverse, colourful and gripping, our linguistic skills appear to be regressing when it comes to the accompanying text, with the same old linguistic tropes, stale memes and meaningless catchphrases continually resurfacing. Some have even been institutionalised – Instagram has handily introduced a “Tho” sticker (see below) into its Stories interface (because sometimes it’s just that little bit too onerous to type those three letters) as well as, bizarrely, one for “#Hashtag”. Would you say that? Hashtag hashtag? What on earth could that signify? It’s a mise-en-abyme of meaninglessness.

What makes a good Instagram caption? Here at MR PORTER, we’re keen on the likes of the travel journalist (and, yes, occasional contributor to The Journal) Ms Sophy Roberts (@sophy_roberts), who not only uses her feed to post spectacular pictures of her trips to far-flung locations, but describes them beautifully in pithy, fact-filled paragraphs that tell us what we’re looking at and why. Here she is, for example, on a recent jaunt to Siberia: “In just seven weeks since I was last here in remote Russia, snow has turned to green. It’s as if there has been no spring, just a flip in extremes.” Now isn’t that lovely?

Granted, Ms Roberts is a professional writer, someone you might expect to be unusually eloquent. But writing a good caption is not exactly a fine art. When presented with a picture of something intriguing and beautiful, isn’t it far more rewarding to know what, in fact, it is and what the writer thinks about it, rather than being forced to scrape our poor eyeballs across another stream of emojis (with perhaps a #tbt thrown in for good measure)? The biggest obstacle to a good caption, in our humble opinion, isn’t so much a lack of literary skill, but an over-reliance upon a series of dreaded clichés, ones that have reverberated so thunderously round the Insta-echo chamber that, from this point forward, we would like to ban them. Clearing these buzzwords from your vocabulary is the best way to get on the right path, and convince your followers you’re both a human being and a grown-up.

01. Vibes

Vibes, it seems, are things that are emitted by other things. When you come into contact with a swimming pool, it emits “pool vibes”. A coastline contains alarming levels of “beach vibes”. They can radiate from events – “wedding vibes” – or even from the void and vortex of time itself – “Sunday vibes”. Could it be that all those scientists at Cern in Switzerland are wasting their time trying to find the Higgs boson, or dark matter, or whatever it is that glues the universe together, when it is so clearly present – as vibes – in almost every image we see on Instagram? Or could this be a stupid way for the unimaginative to draw our attention to the fact that things are, in essence, themselves? Take a guess.

02. When…

Posts in the formula “That feeling when X”. Also, slightly worse, “When bae does X”. Both meme formats are designed to instil a vague sense of solidarity and familiarity in the reader, but are usually hung upon an activity/feeling/event that no other human apart from the author has ever experienced. Particularly atrocious if it’s a humblebrag, or just a straight-up brag. “When the proof copies of your debut novel arrive.” “When bae buys you diamonds.” Enough to turn any human heart to ashy flint in a matter of minutes. 

03. Goals

Goals means you like something you’ve seen. “Apartment goals.” “Fashion goals.” “Pizza goals.” The subtext here is not merely that the thing in question is nice, but in this appalling cut-throat culture of digital one-upmanship, a person cannot exist unless they are in a continuous state of self-flagellating self-improvement. Also, that mere appreciation is somehow not enough. What you see, you like. What you like, you must conquer, devour and make your own. Call us aimless, but we prefer to restrict any conversation about goals to our biannual HR catch-ups. Let’s take the performance-review element out of everyday life, OK?

04. Tho

This is a word you put at the end of a sentence instead of a full stop. “That coat tho.” “These puppies tho.” You might think of it as a sort of grammatical cliffhanger, if the definition of cliffhanger were “something you care absolutely nothing about”. Essentially, it’s another word that means, in a lazy way, “This is nice”. But, as with vibes, it’s also a way of captioning something with a non-caption. It makes flicking through the feeds in which it appears like reading a picture book with a baby, the key difference being that, ultimately, no one learns anything at all.