In early 2017, a terrifying rumor began to drift around the internet. An iPhone software update was coming, and the anarchists at Apple had decided to add a new feature: Starting soon, your device would register every screenshot that you grabbed of a text conversation, and notify the other participants. Apple users imagined total mayhem, or the necessity of owning two phones—one for daily use, and one for photographing the other phone. Others dug in their heels and promised never to stop screenshotting their texts: “iOS 11 is gonna have screenshot alerts so if you get a notification from me you can pull up honestly I could care less,” one man wrote on Twitter. The feature never materialized, which we can be sure of because we still live in a society.
But screenshots themselves are very real, and sometimes equally terrifying. The idea that anything and everything you do online could be—and let’s face it, probably is—captured by someone, somewhere, and then stored for future use, has imbued our lives online with a latent sense of paranoia. It’s a fact we all live with but force ourselves to forget, in order to keep texting and posting and chatting and screenshotting in (something like) peace.
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!
For decades, “screen shots” were mostly taken by professional photographers, and used for marketing new computer software. It was not obvious why anyone else would need or want to capture what was on a screen. The earliest mainstream use of “screen shots” emerged in the 1980s, says Jacob Gaboury, an assistant film-and-media professor at UC Berkeley, in an essay on this history. Video-game magazines encouraged players to take photos of their high scores to use as proof. (Nintendo Power, Nintendo’s official magazine, often printed instructions for how to do so with the best results: “When you take your picture, turn out the lights and hold the camera steady.”)
Until the mid-’90s, Gaboury explains, most other people who were trying to preserve something from a computer screen were interested in “screen dumps,” which is to say they wanted to copy whatever happened to be on-screen into a text file for practical reasons, and didn’t care to freeze it in a static, documentary image. “The action here is not the photographic capture or the weaponized shot,” Gaboury writes, “but the emptying of content or data.” By 1999, enough had changed about technology that readers of The New York Times were writing in to ask whether it was possible to “take a picture of the screen” so they could add an image of their band’s website to a concert flier.
The modern idea of a screenshot arrived after cameras and phones merged. Daily life began to move online as mobile photography became ubiquitous, and self-documentation became reflexive. Early social media filled up with screenshots taken on computers, and then the ability to screenshot from your pocket was added to the iPhone in 2008. The original iPhone had a camera on the back for taking pictures of the world—now the 3G had another, quasi-imaginary one inside the phone that could be used for taking pictures of the screen, independently of any app. With that in place, it became possible—and very easy—to screenshot everything.
So that’s what happened next: Screenshots were soon synonymous with seeing and remembering on the internet. Ten years into screenshot culture, a Dazed retrospective argued that, indeed, “nothing is too sacred to screenshot,” including (and especially) bad texts from boys and bad Tinder messages from men over 50.
Humiliation screenshots have since come to stand in for the medium, because they’re the ones that attract the most attention when they’re shared. But screenshots can be both diverse and atmospheric—images of random texts that morph into a set of memes and fill the gaps of online conversation. (See: “I ain’t reading all that,” or “I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis.”) Some are never meant for sharing in the first place: I have a friend who keeps a private screenshot folder on her desktop, full of warm texts that she’s received on her birthday, to peruse whenever she feels sad.
But the most important trait of screenshots now is that they’re slippery: A personal exchange can become a meme or a weapon; a random moment can turn into a work of art or mutate into a callout. The alt-lit community—the internet’s short-lived literary movement—was founded by people who used screenshots of text messages, Gchat conversations, and Snapchats to make poems and digital art. It was later blown up by alleged sexual predators who were exposed via screenshots of their other messages, which circulated on Tumblr and Twitter. The rapper 50 Cent published text-message screenshots on Instagram in which he berated Randall Emmett, the husband of a Vanderpump Rules cast member, for being late on a debt payment, but no one remembers that original tough talk. They remember that Emmett wrote “I’m sorry fofty” over and over, inexplicably, a phrase that lives forever on Etsy—you can get it on a T-shirt, a tote, a wine glass, a onesie. (I received a sparkling Im sorry fofty coaster for my birthday last year.)
These transformations lend a spectral quality to screenshots: Corry calls them the “evidentiary technique haunting the online realm.” Her recent paper examines the case of the former New York representative Anthony Weiner, who was humiliated by the leak of a lewd Twitter message in 2011, leading to his resignation from Congress. Two years later, more screenshots of more NSFW online messages leaked to the press, effectively ending his run for New York City mayor; and three years after that, it happened again, becoming an unexpected and wild tabloid story in the run-up to the 2016 election. (Weiner was later convicted of a felony for sending explicit messages to a 15-year-old, and served 18 months in prison.) Reporting on his downfall suggested that a lack of tech-savvy played a role: If Weiner had known anything about anything, he would have come up with some better operational security. He was condemned for his predatory behavior, but also mocked for “not knowing how to use the internet,” Corry told me—a shame on top of a shame. How could you be so clueless as to not fear the ever-lurking screenshot?
To be aware of this haunting doesn’t mean that you’re protected from it. “Leaks and leakiness are at the center of new media environments,” Corry said. “The boundaries between different environments are actually porous.” She doesn’t necessarily mean this to be terrifying; she expresses it simply as a fact of digital life. We should all expect to be screenshot; we should all wonder whether those screenshots will appear in other places. When we take screenshots, we should imagine what it might be like if someone were to stumble across them, left to fill in their own narrative of why they were made.
Screenshots are only multiplying as technology improves, and so their mischief is getting harder to predict, prepare for, and prevent. Remote work and online office environments are creating even more opportunities for calls to be recorded and messages to be saved. “There’s a huge number, a massive amount of screenshots being taken all the time every day,” Gaboury told me. Nobody can visualize or imagine the world’s library of screenshots, because they are secret until they are shared or leaked. “We think of them as just little personal things we do for ourselves,” he said. “We don’t think of them in bulk, because we don’t often see other people’s screenshots.” This is both the wonder and the terror of the screenshot: You never know who is hoarding what.
And screenshots are now taking on strange, new shapes. The actor Armie Hammer was the subject of scandal earlier this year when alleged screenshots of messages he’d written to women, describing his violent sexual fantasies, circulated on Instagram. In April, a Brooklyn artist tried to sell screenshots of two exchanges she’d had with him as NFTs. (“Aren’t these private messages?” she asked, rhetorically, in an artist’s statement. “No. These are artworks and my own exchanges.”) No one ever placed a bid—which maybe isn’t surprising. On some level, everyone will understand that a screenshot is impossible to pin down and control, much less own forever.