I’m particularly fearful of screenshots because I take them all the time: I screenshot acquaintances’ Instagram stories that I think are stupid, or Twitter fights that give me secondhand embarrassment, or text conversations on which I need a second opinion—or third or fourth or fifth. I’m a gossip, and I use screenshots for good and for evil. I also live in constant fear that I’ve sown the wind with all my PNGs and JPGs, and that I’ll reap the whirlwind for my habit. What if I accidentally send a screenshot of a text exchange back to the person who was involved in it, rather than to the person who was supposed to analyze it? Or, worse, what if my own stories, tweets, or texts are being captured and ridiculed, or captured and eye-rolled, without my even knowing?
The rules for taking screenshots are, like their consequences, far from clear. A Google search for a simple question—“Does someone know when I screenshot them?”—will supply dozens of blog posts written with patience and empathy for the worried. In legal-advice forums, the nervous ask whether it’s against the law to show screenshots of a text exchange to other people, or if this would be a violation of the right to screenshot privacy. In r/AmItheAsshole, one of Reddit’s largest communities dedicated to questions of etiquette and human behavior, dozens of posts discuss whether it was okay to have screenshot something, though the responses show no discernible pattern.
However they’re created, most screenshots are born into a quiet, unassuming life. Together they amount to an intimate archive of a person’s daily life online—sometimes sweet and funny, sometimes damning, often rather dull. (The best group archives of them are available on the Tumblr blogs Screenshots of Despair—tagline: “I am trying to break your heart”—and The Last Message Received, which is as sad as it sounds.) Yet they also have a way of slipping free and causing mischief. In recent years, the screenshot has become an impish instrument of justice, or at the least, a vehicle for scandal. Reporters have jumped on captures of internal chat messages to expose drama at The New York Times, Amazon, and Facebook, among other major companies. In January, a woman using the dating app Bumble was DMing with a man who bragged, “I did storm the capitol.” “We are not a match,” she told him, then grabbed a screenshot of the conversation and sent it to the FBI. In February, group-text screenshots revealed a plan by Senator Ted Cruz’s family and friends to abandon their “FREEZING” Texas homes amid mass power outages and hunker down at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún.
Whether or not we’re ready to admit it, screenshots have become the chaos agents of the internet. They cannot be controlled, only understood.
A screenshot used to be a “screen shot”—as in, a regular photograph, taken of a computer screen. The first one ever was a Polaroid from 1959. According to Frances Corry, a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Southern California who recently published an academic paper on the social function of screenshots, it was a picture of a pinup girl, as shown on an Air Force cathode-ray-tube display. Cute!