Illustration by Sandy van Helden

The rise of screenshots

Samuel Beek
4 min readMar 8, 2019

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Grab your phone -if you’re not already reading this on it- and open your photos app. Some of the pictures you see are taken with the beautiful camera the devices get shipped with these days, but I bet you, it also contains at least two screenshots at first glance.

I have 2800 screenshots on my phone

It’s 2019 and screenshots are omnipresent in our digital life. They are used for a large bunch of use cases: varying from saving information to sharing ideas with others. I couldn’t find any data on the adoption of screenshots, but I know that I’ve made more than 800 over the last year alone. These things weren’t here five years ago, and suddenly they’re everywhere. What happened?

Nowadays, everyone has a smartphone, and we’ve been spending way too much time on it. We’re averaging more than 3 hours of phone screen time each day. During this time, we experience many things. Although we often label phones as “distraction devices”, we do experience a lot of meaningful moments on them. One of the best ways to capture these moments and ideas is to take screenshots. They are our digital eyes.

Phones have made our communication more visual. This was caused by the shift from full-size keyboards to the primary inputs of the phone: touch, a little keyboard, and a camera. It resulted in blogs losing popularity over the new platforms like Instagram. We are using instant messages or images to express ourselves, instead of sending long emails. And screenshots are a category of those images, and they fit in our modern, visual way of communicating.

Initially, I thought that screenshots were an inferior format: people took them because they couldn’t save or share something in any other way, they were so called “desired paths”. I realized the contrary is true: screenshots have a lot of advantages over different forms of sharing. They allow the sender to render something in a way that the receiver will immediately understand it. They give control to the creator. Just like with photography, there’s an art to making great screenshots. Using close-ups, annotation and by capturing the thing at the exact right moment, you can express ideas in the fittest way possible.

Screenshots sometimes become a medium on its own. A great example of this are the screenshots of Tweets that have become a format on Instagram. There’s accounts -like @fuckjerry- that merely post screenshots, they have millions of followers. These is not just copied content, many of these people are making original content on Twitter or using iMessage and then posting screenshots of them on Instagram, because the latter platform is much better for building an audience.

If you compare screenshots to photography, then we should also talk about screen recordings, the equivalent of filmography. Although making them is not as widely adopted as screenshots, the medium itself has taken off like crazy. It’s become a mainstream way to tell and view stories online. People spend hours watching other peoples screen while they play video games on Twitch.

Even though they’re still a little bit taboo and not considered real content or art, screenshots are here to stay. This is just the tip of the iceberg. This era will probably be compared to when photography was developed initially: everything is still in its early stage, but it’s apparent that we’re at the forefront of something big. The act of taking a screenshot has already gotten etiquettes, Instagram and Snapchat have gone as far as sending notifications to people if their content is captured in this way. Mobile OSs recently started allowing users to edit their screenshots. Tools like PasteIt is just the beginning, over time, leveraging image recognition and machine learning, screenshots will be more aware of what information they contain and therefore become an even more immersive way of capturing our digital lives. I’m not sure where this will bring us, but I believe that there’s a ton of opportunities in this era and I’m excited to see how screenshots are going to evolve in the coming years.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I’m planning to write more :).

Sources: The Verge, Kotaku, Wired

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Samuel Beek

Product Manager @WeTransfer — I like to eat, enjoy art and sail when I’m not busy making something.