Longform storytelling hijacks Instagram

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The latest experiment in social media journalism began, for one writer, with something decidedly non-tech: used reporter’s notebooks.

Dog-eared, jammed with impressions and spilling out of desk drawers, those notepads, Neil Shea decided, contained far too many untold stories. Lost among their pages were details that didn’t make the main article but languished in his memory.

“Most of them just vanish into our personal archives,” said Shea, a frequent contributor to National Geographic and contributing editor to Virginia Quarterly Review. “There’s not enough room in the magazine. Even on the web, there’s not a tremendous appetite for secondary stories.

“So we just started talking about the idea that Instagram might be the perfect vehicle to tell some of these brief stories from the field,” he said.

Shea’s surfeit of stories from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya in 2014 created some of the first longform Instagram posts — arresting, full-frame photos paired with 300-word captions that weave a concise and intimate narrative around the image. Many simply featured the portraits Shea had taken with his iPhone 6 to recall subjects as he wrote.


The wooden canoes always seemed to hobble through the water, half-sunk and fickle as a Sunday drunk. Barely more than flotsam. Once I asked who made them and the fishermen pointed north to Ethiopia, to a fading kingdom of trees. Many things came from there, looping down through the delta—guns, fish, fertilizer, rumors of death or rebellion. Rafts of thick grass came, too, and every few days a new flotilla drifted into the lake. Most were green specks, but now and then a large one appeared, an islet rustling with birds and frogs and other creatures. Occasionally the local priest, a German, would swim out to meet them and haul aboard as though he were a giant shouldering into Lilliput. Imagine—this white guy rising from the opaque water, long-haired and pale as dawn. He rode the islets south for a time and did not worry about crocodiles. In the middle of our stay something strange occurred. For several nights the islets arrived on fire. One after another, glowing fierce as comets. Before I slept I would scan the darkness and note their positions in the void beneath Orion’s belt. When I woke hours later, delirious with heat, I’d find them farther along, still aflame and somehow more familiar. Always by morning they had vanished. For a while I thought them a dream. I asked, but no one could say why they burned or what the Ethiopians might be doing upriver. Soon I thought better of it and stopped looking for answers. Mystery keeps better than fact, and I wanted those nights blazing. // #laketurkana #omoriver #daasanach #kenya #islet #canoe #natgeo #onassignment with @randyolson +@natgeo // See the series: #jadeseaseries2014

A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on


“It evolved from there into not just portraits and little profiles, but stories from the field as a magazine story was coming together,” Shea said, and later collaborations with photographers such as Randy Olson and Yuri Kozyrev, whose stunning images anchored his words.

The phenomenon — called caption blogging, longform social storytelling and Instagram journalism — takes advantage of the rapid growth of a photographic platform that draws 400 million monthly active users. Pew Research Center reported last year that 26 percent of online adults use Instagram. (Teens of course far outrank their adult counterparts, with 52 percent using the social media channel.)

Other media also have begun to harness Instagram for more literary means. In November, Wired posted 11 related Instagram images about impoverished Mississippi towns left behind by the digital age. The story, with a combined word count of 3,115, was available only on Instagram and received thousands of likes (and also a few snarky comments about blown-up feeds).

National Public Radio periodically posts serialized images on Instagram throughout one day, including a recent series on a nonprofit group that teaches inner-city kids to eat more healthfully.

“These typically involve longer captions because we want to give the audience context to what we are sharing,” said Emily Bogle, assistant producer of NPR Visuals. “We also include enough information that if someone is seeing the third photo first, he or she can still understand the story.”

The New York Times, which didn’t have a general Instagram account until March last year, posts extended captions on many of its photographers’ photos, netting up to 20,000 “likes” on some.

But relatively few writers have experimented with the medium the way Shea has, focusing on literary mood and tone in tightly constructed narratives.

“It’s a much more freeing way of writing and it sort of got me back to why I liked writing in the first place,” he said. “It’s unbounded by the nut graph or all the different rules that a certain publication will put onto it. It allows me to write, and that’s really what I wanted to do.”

He and colleague Jeff Sharlet embarked on a project in July of having writers produce Instagram stories each week for The Virginia Quarterly Review. #VQRTrueStory project, says the magazine, is a “social media experiment in which stories share platforms — between Instagram, our website, and the magazine.”

Unlike @NatGeo, the VQR photos are almost all taken by writers.           


This week #VQRTrueStory presents @jamiealliotts on encounters on the sidewalks of Manhattan: (1/4) Joseph Ritter used to be a fighter. Says he knocked out Bam Bam Bogner in ’87. Second round. “I caught him real quick with a three-piece combination—bing-bing-bing.” Says a boxing magazine once called him up-and-coming. He grins: “And smokin’.” No drugs or booze, he says. Just coffee and cigarettes. “I smoke like a Chevy with a bad oil leak.” // Says he fought in Iraq, too. Fallujah, early ’90s. His convoy rolled into a village. “There weren’t supposed to be any combatants.” But there were. An RPG destroyed the lead Hummer. “The guys inside were gone, it lit up like a torch.” He ran to help a buddy who was hit, drag him the hell out of there. That’s when the AK-47 blew his hip apart. Three shots. “All I felt was burning, like I was on fire. Next thing I knew I was in a helicopter.” // Joseph wants to work. He worked as a plumber in Philly. “War’s easier than being homeless,” he says. He was offered a plumbing job—no money for boots. A job waiting tables—no money for shirts. “No this, no that, no, no, no, no, no. No job, no phone, no money, no clothes, no way to clean up. All those nos piled up make things really difficult. The one thing I do have is need.” I start to feel like he’s trying to sell me something. Before I sat down, I’d offered him ten bucks. “I was hoping for twenty,” he’d said. // I ask how he ended up out here. Says his ex-wife got a DWI with their kids in the car. Child Services took the kids; he came up from Philly; the judge threatened him with abandonment charges; the money for hotel rooms ran out; here he is. Something doesn’t add up. Maybe. I ask to see the scars. The ones from that AK-47. “That’s a little personal, bro. They’re near my groin, right above my gun.” Later I’ll look up Bogner: Bang Bang, not Bam Bam. No record of a bout with a guy named Ritter. // “I love to do it,” he says. He means fighting. “In 130 seconds, I’ll hit a guy sixty times. My hands are like a machine gun.” He opens and closes his fists. Five, six times. Fast—really fast. Knuckles pop like firecrackers, dozens of them. He smiles. “Everybody calls me Champ.”

A photo posted by Virginia Quarterly Review (@vqreview) on


“If you hold them up against a series of photographs from a professional photographer, they are not going to win,” Shea said. “But people are coming to this because they know there is a story involved.”

Some balk at the longish captions. One Wired follower commented after that publication’s 11-post series: “Instagram is not the place for 1,000 words of text. And certainly not for a series that takes over the Instagram feed road blocking it with words. A picture speaks a thousands words, and a thousands [sic] words ruins Instagram. Great article, wrong channel.”

Many others praised the series, begging for more. (Wired executive editor Joe Brown said that if another story lends itself to Instagram as well, Wired “will absolutely consider it.”)

As with all social media, a kind of natural selection weeds out haters over time, Shea said.

“If people know that you are telling stories in which the photograph is just one piece, then I think they begin to come to your Instagram feed for other reasons,” said Shea, who has 46,500 followers.

“You start to build up an audience. It’s almost like serial podcast: People tune in every week or biweekly because they know a new section of story is coming . . . People who want this kind of interaction keep coming back and those who don’t, won’t.”

Longform Instagram stories can be emotive and intensely personal in a way that almost romances the reader to keep reading. But what the posts haven’t done is drive traffic back to media organizations’ websites. That’s partly because Instagram doesn’t allow clickable links (though publishers have found some workarounds to that issue — see Tips, below.) Most publications, including USA Today, say that’s not why they use Instagram. They use the channel, they say, to reach new audiences in new and different ways.

Focusing on monetizing Instagram journalism is short-sighted, said Shea. You have to think of it as an investment.

“The money question is one that plagues us and one we’re kind of obsessed with, he said. “But to get that lost in that is to lose the point of why we all get this in the first place.

“I really like to write, and if I just relied on National Geographic, I would write a 5000-word story twice a year and that would be it,” he said. “For me there has to be other avenues to do this, other ways to practice, and Instagram has given me that. It allows me to keep writing when the media world tells me there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do it.”


Tips for longform Instagram

• Make every word count. Instagram has a 2200-character limit, about 400 words, but some writers try to cap it at 300 so that followers don’t need to scroll to read it.

• If you’re running more than one image, serialize them at the top (1/4, 2/4, etc.) so that readers know they are part of a series.

• Use hashtags at the end to point your readers to series of posts, point out locations and keywords pertinent to the post.

• It is possible to point followers to a website by referring them to your profile page, then include a link to your website there.

• If you do include a URL, make it very short and memorable.


© Randy Olson Photo by @randyolson | Words by @neilshea13 | Posted @lensculture The sun is low. It sinks behind black volcanoes and pulls night down behind. For once there is no wind. It is that rarest quiet, last breath between daylight and darkness, when the heat breaks and the lake lies still and without color. Along the shore, little waves curl over the mud and tiny birds run before them, crying softly. A dozen yards out, several fishing boats sleep at their moorings while behind you, in camp, a fire has been lit. It glows yellow between the tents. Soon the others will expect you. Not yet, though, you have a few more minutes. The first stars glimmer overhead and the shorebirds’ chirps are reassuring. There’s a scent of salt, of gasoline. Everything feels familiar and the lake looks like the sea. These last few days have been hard, hot, leaving you skinned with sweat and dust. A quick dunk would work wonders. You’ve seen the locals do it—what was it they said? But the odds of that are so low, and later, at the fire, it will make a good story. You look around. Waves wash cool over your toes. You notice the birds are gone. Nothing moves on the water, nothing moves up the beach. No deeper than my knees, you say, stepping in. No more than a moment. These Instagram pieces are part of our ongoing project, #NGwatershedstories, and they’re linked to our feature article on Kenya’s Lake Turkana in the August issue of @natgeo magazine. For the last six years, we’ve been documenting culture, change, and conflict in the ecosystem that connects southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and we hope you’ll join us — @randyolson and @neilshea13 — as we follow water down the desert. —

A photo posted by LensCulture (@lensculture) on


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