Screenshots, Internet Gremlins


I’m especially scared of screenshots because I take them all the time: I capture Instagram stories of acquaintances that I find stupid, or Twitter fights that give me indirect embarrassment, or text conversations that I am on. need a second opinion – or a third or fourth or fifth. I’m a gossip, and I use screenshots for good and for bad. I also live in constant fear of having sown the wind with all my PNGs and JPGs, and reaping the whirlwind of my habit. What to do if I accidentally send a screenshot of a text exchange back to the person who was involved in it, rather than to the one who was supposed to analyze it? Or, worse, what if my clean any stories, tweets or texts being captured and ridiculed, or captured and ridiculed, without me even knowing it?

The rules for taking screenshots are, like their consequences, far from clear. A Google search for a simple question – “Does anyone know when I’m catching them?” – will yield dozens of blog posts written with patience and empathy for the worried. In legal advice forums, the nervous ask whether it is against the law to show screenshots of a text exchange to other people, or if it would violate the right to privacy of the screenshots. In r / AmItheAsshole, one of Reddit’s largest communities dedicated to questions of etiquette and human behavior, dozens of posts discuss whether it’s okay to have something screenshot, though the responses show no discernible diagram.

Regardless of their creation, most screenshots are born into a calm, unpretentious life. Together they are an intimate archive of a person’s daily life online, sometimes sweet and funny, sometimes overwhelming, often rather boring. (The best group archives of them are available on Tumblr Blogs Screenshots of Despair—Tagline: “I’m trying to break your heart” —and The last message received, which is as sad as it sounds.) Yet they also have a way to break free and do harm. In recent years, the screenshot has become a mischievous instrument of justice, or at least a vehicle of scandal. Journalists jumped on captures of internal chat messages to expose the drama to The New York Times, Amazon, and Facebook, Among others large companies. In January, a woman using the Bumble dating app was on DM with a man who bragged, “I’ve taken the capital by storm.” “We’re not a match,” she told him, then grabbed a screenshot of the conversation and sent it to the FBI. In February, screenshots of group text revealed a plan from the family and friends of Senator Ted Cruz to abandon their “FREEZING” Texas homes amid massive power outages and take refuge at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun.

Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, screenshots have become the agents of chaos on the internet. They cannot be controlled, only understood.

A screenshot used to be a “screenshot,” like an ordinary photograph taken from a computer screen. The very first was a 1959 Polaroid. According to Frances Corry, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Southern California who recently published an academic article on the social feature of the screenshots, it was an image of a pin-up girl, as seen on an Air Force CRT screen. Cute!


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