I can’t remember taking screenshots until about five or six years ago.
I wish I had taken screenshots earlier. Many times I have tried to recall something particular about the Friendster interface, the collage-like way AOL “channels” opened up to navigate, or how posts threaded on a web forum I frequented. I must have once or twice googled to find out how to do it, but if I did, I couldn’t share those images today. Back then, I perceived my experiences on the internet as ephemeral. My screenshot habit picked up when I began thinking of my time online as something archived and traced.
Now the keystroke shortcut — Cmd-Shift-4 — is a muscle memory pinch as much as Cmd-Z. By the end of the average day, I might have a dozen images auto-saved to my desktop as “Screen Shot [DATE] at [TIME]”.
Apple employs a skeuomorphic camera shutter sound for each screenshot you take. The metaphor is not cloning or freezing or mirroring. It is a “shot”. It is a picture of what you see.
Some of us couldn’t screenshot our first tweets — because we received them on our phones as texts. The founders of Twitter decided upon the 140-character limit because it fell within the range of characters for a single SMS. The move from dumb phones to smart phones led to links in tweets. Now with the latest redesign of Twitter’s website, there is an emphasis on images. I click on “media” first whenever I see a new profile page.
Meanwhile, I’ve noticed an increase in people working around the 140-character limit by posting screenshots of text, often with a cursor highlight to draw your attention to particular sentences. It is a way to share what you are reading. It is also sharing your point of view on the screen. The interface elements personalize these images.
Screenshots are a sister to the POV footage that is taking over YouTube and Vimeo. Generally filmed with GoPro or Google Glass, the point of view of the image-maker is much more pronounced than with still photographs — you can tell how tall someone is, or if they tripped while walking. There’s a reason why that demo footage always features action-intensive activities like extreme sports and roller coaster rides. But most of us aren’t on hot air balloons or skydiving at this very moment. If you want to see what I see right now, let me take a screenshot.
The number of signal strength bars, the clock that indicates if someone has set an alarm, the battery percentage — these are the mobile screenshot equivalents to figuring out the height of someone filming with Google Glass. A few years ago, there was a great blog called First & 20 that was a collection of iPhone screenshots that emphasized these small differences. While everyone has the same device, the way it is used is not the same. We have preferences and settings that might seem minor but are as different as looking at the world from the height of 5’6 or 6 feet.
Screenshots mean the EPA’s errant Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game tweet will never die. (The Kardashian game, by the way, could not exist without mobile screenshots. There is no in-game interactivity between friends. No one can see where you take their avatars unless you take a screenshot and send it to them.) Entire Tumblr are devoted to screenshots from Snapchat, Tinder, or Grindr taken out of context. But just as often, a screenshot is meant to show you the context, like the juxtaposition of tweets in your stream (another window into your world, as the people you follow make a Twitter stream uniquely yours). Until optical character recognition technology catches up, text in a screenshot image does not appear in search engines. Like the newsletter, it is just a step removed for extra privacy.
Dropbox even uploads screenshots automatically. You could print a flipbook of your web activity that goes on infinitely. Like old GoPro footage of an afternoon cycling, these screenshot images bring you back to where you were looking at that minute.