An Instagram caption might seem superfluous, but that string of words, emojis, and hashtags beneath the square of an acai bowl or handcrafted necklace can, to consumers, be the difference between following an account, buying a product, or idly scrolling by. A photo captures attention, but captions can sustain it. On a platform where attention is currency, a well-worded caption can increase engagement in the form of comments and likes, making those posts more prominently displayed via Instagram’s algorithm. 

Over a billion Instagram accounts are active every month; 90% of these accounts follow at least one business. Instagram brought in about $20 billion in advertising revenue in 2019, and the platform is full of people primed to shop. According to Investopedia, about 70% of shopping enthusiasts say they turn to Instagram for “product discovery.” As of June 23, Instagram expanded its commerce eligibility requirements to allow more types of businesses and influencers to sell products inside the app. 

Some brands, understanding the importance of a carefully curated Instagram feed, are outsourcing the production of these captions and hashtags to a far-flung cadre of writers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. Hiring freelancers in one-off pops is cheaper than bringing in writers as contractors or staffers. And in other countries, small payments go further: $5 might buy a coffee in the United States, but in Pakistan, that amount will buy three coffees. To brand managers with social media accounts to maintain and countless other tasks to occupy their workdays, it’s a cheap outsourcing of digital labor. To the writers, this work can be a lifeline, a side gig, or a boost to their career in words.

Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services founded by Micha Kaufman a decade ago, is one place where writers gather to hawk their literary wares. A search for “Instagram captions” on Fiverr yields nearly 200 results. Freelancer is similar, though the marketplace for Instagram caption writers is smaller. On Upwork, freelancers respond to job postings directly and charge rates hourly. ContentFly, a Canadian company, pre-vets content writers for businesses. On Taobao, the Chinese e-commerce platform, one service sells templates for custom writing — including love letters, new business announcements, copy for WeChat businesses, greetings, and thank yous — to companies and individuals.

It’s unclear how many people are working in this gig economy of social media caption writers, but it is widespread. (In the U.S. and U.K., the phenomenon gained notoriety in 2019 when writer Natalie Beach published an essay about her work writing Instagram captions for the controversial influencer Caroline Calloway.) The market is mostly geared toward English-language businesses or influencers who are too busy or cash-strapped to write captions in-house.

On Fiverr, sellers often advertise their writing skills in English: “5 unique captions for $10! Send me 5 photos and I will create unique, out of the box captions related to your image OR brand!” writes user bismaa2 in Pakistan, promising customers more online engagement. Another seller, silverliningsco, is a writer from Bangladesh. She started her freelance career as a content writer before transitioning to digital marketing. For her, writing captions was a way of stitching together her past experience. “A well-written caption is nothing unless it’s on the same page as digital trends,” she told Rest of World. Before writing a post, she researches keywords and hashtags to find out what’s trending. She pointed to the pandemic as an example: “Most of my recent copy regarded staying at home, maintaining distance, washing your hands, staying close to your friends and family, and so on.” 

“A well-written caption is nothing unless it’s on the same page as digital trends.”

Many of the writers skew younger: Rubabb is a 22-year-old from Pakistan with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Since she was in university, she had wanted to work on developing trademarks and slogans, and a friend recommended Fiverr. Many of her clients, she said, are from the U.K. and Spain, and she currently offers three tiers of service: basic (five captions for $5, delivered in two days with one revision), standard (eight captions for $10, delivered in three days with one revision), and premium (30 captions for $15, delivered in three days with one revision). Her recent gigs included writing captions for a produce provider that operates in Florida and Texas, and for a cafe that serves acai bowls and coffee some 7,600 miles away from her, in Oakland, California. 

Just as nearly any item can be sold online, any item can be written about: ccshermaine, a Fiverr seller from Singapore, has written captions for a desert-themed glamping resort in Indonesia (“Kickback and relax – this isn’t a competition on who’s most productive! We all need a break to recharge once in awhile”) and a streetwear brand in New York City (“Summer is still a couple months away but it’s never too early to get yourself a brand new one-piece swimsuit!”). She also manages the Instagram account of an online pet store as well as that of a cat salon, both in Singapore.

Sometimes, writing isn’t even required. Sellers such as pr_junction in India simply source quotes for customers rather than writing captions themselves. “I use the best ones available on the net,” he told Rest of World. For $30, for example, a buyer can purchase 450 dog or cat quotes that pr_junction attaches to “high quality, royalty free images” in 640 x 640 pixels. A business logo or URL can be added to the image file. He also makes custom quote posters with phrases that range from the mundane, “Take from your past what is useful to you and let the rest go,” to the distinctive, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.” 

For many sellers on Fiverr, answering questions about their work was, at best, a minor inconvenience. What they were after, first and foremost, was to be hired for a gig.

“Do let me know if you need my services related to creative writing! :)” Aruj wrote when I asked if she had anything else to add. 

Rubabb closed out our interview with a question: “So would you hire me?”