Captions As Content

We spoke to the Crowd team about how captions connect people, develop global citizenship, and have a big impact in just 50 characters...

Twitter has demanded we distil our thoughts down to 280 characters. But the real mastery of language these days is being shown on captions. The caption – ideally 1-50 characters – may be taxingly short, but once mastered, it is a content device with multiple compelling uses and opportunities. 

In a time when the caption plays such a big role in streaming, social media and gaming, a text version of short dialog or sound effects is very important. Of course, it makes popular content more accessible for the deaf or hard of hearing. But it is also influencing culture on a global scale. The care and diligence the subtitler takes on streaming TV content for all the various languages, for example, can make all the difference to authenticity for the audience.

We’re also seeing how captions are changing behaviour: teenagers prefer to watch their shows with subtitles on (four out of five viewers aged 18-25 use subtitles all or part of the time, Stagetext, 2021), while it’s captions-as-convo on gaming platforms like Roblox. But what are the challenges and rewards of using captions in content?

Getting translations right could give global content platforms a competitive edge. Crowd DNA’s Jennifer Simon (associate director, semiotics), describes captions as “a powerful tool of communication” but warns: “Captions are often overlooked.”

She says: “Unsurprisingly, they are often seen as neutral labels – but they are anything but. They communicate a host of hidden, culturally specific meanings.”

For example, when Korean drama Squid Game was released, native Korean speakers pointed out that both the English dubs and subtitles for Squid Game were inaccurate – and communicated different cultural meanings. “As we can see here, the meanings of captions depend heavily on our cultural context – ultimately influencing how we interpret and understand the intended message.” 

Meanwhile, we rely more and more on captions to perform our own lives – and comprehend others. Reading captions helps us with a basic need of our time: it aids multi-screen use.

Rachel Rapp (director, futures), says: “Captions are playing a huge role in our multi-screen lives.”

She explains: “Captions are everywhere and now allow us to watch a reel at the same time as a TV series. A meme we’re enjoying is usually summarised in the text overlayed so that our short attention spans can grasp the joke fast – without distracting us from our work, or the episode we’re stuck into. We caption every picture we post.”

Captions also allow us to embrace our growing global citizenship. Now that captions are on so much of our media, reading them is no longer seen as hard work. This influences the success of international dramas as we’ve seen with Squid Game (Korean) or Money Heist (Spanish). And this exposure to international content helps our growing global citizenship.

And finally, it’s also another tool in the kit for the creator community. Chloe Swayne (senior designer, Socialise) says: “The ways in which we see captions being used both as a visual aid and a visual device are evolving – most rapidly within social media. Essentially handing captioning control over to the creator has enabled us to create a whole new visual language – on how words and pictures ought to interact.”

For brands and content producers there’s a lot to think about when it comes to captions. But let’s end this short-ish conversation acknowledging that the art of keeping things neat and to the point has always been a sweet spot in content. And with captions – and mastery of 1-50 characters – that’s now more than ever.