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Screen Shots Privacy iPhone

How iPhone screenshots bring out the creep in us all

*lock button home button*

Ten years ago this summer, the iPhone 2.0 introduced what one tech writer at the time called a “geeky feature”: the ability to screenshot. The extent to which screenshots form a central role in our mobile-first, digital culture today couldn’t have been anticipated then: they are how images travel (#regram), how we gossip, and how we put bad behaviour on blast. In the last few weeks, they’ve also trickled up into advertising: both Burberry and ecommerce platform SSENSE have included screenshots – featuring messages from designers Riccardo Tisci and Virgil Abloh – in marketing materials. With an update in September 2017, Apple also added the ability to video record your iPhone’s screen, bringing the screenshot to life in new ways.

Screenshots have changed the way we think about what’s private. Sure, there are those totally banal ‘grabs, like that meme or train timetable, but there are also those we take with the intent to share – choosing to ignore the fact that maybe, that text we just got sent was meant for us, not 14 of our closest friends. In the same way we’ve decided that unconsenting strangers sitting in front of us on planes or in cinemas are prime opportunities for content which we can use to post our way to viral fame, we treat anything that arrives in our inboxes or DMs as fair game.

It’s not just Kanye tweeting his texts with John Legend. A quick poll of what my friends admit to screenshotting and sending on: conversations with lovers (for analysis in the WhatsApp group chat lab), nudes, sexts, Tinder profiles of both strangers and acquaintances, pictures of people looking ugly, pictures where men’s bulges were particularly prominent, and of course, drama – between friends, celebrities, brands, strangers – whoever. As the ancient proverb says: keep the receipts.  

The point is, nothing is too sacred to screenshot – that synchronised ‘lock button, home button’ press is all muscle memory to us now, and we rack up an archive of thousands of iPhone freeze frames in our camera rolls. Unsurprisingly, an entire digital content ecosystem has popped up that is fuelled by (and helps to promulgate) our screenshot obsession – from amateur sleuthing memes, to comments by celebs, to texts from softboys and the Tinder chat up lines of men over 50. They’re supposedly unfiltered, and therefore genuine – but it’s got to the point that some screenshots feel staged, as if texts were sent purely with the purpose of being tweeted (there are even iMessage generators online, should you want to post a ‘cap of a conversation you didn’t actually have). Screenshots also generate news: deleted posts and off-the-handle tweets have become the fodder of digital gossip magazines like The Shade Room, whose 24/7 updates renders trashy celeb mags outdated as soon as they go to print.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that data from Facebook users had been mined and used to help influence political campaigns, including that of Donald Trump and Vote Leave, sparked widespread conversation around the ways our digital information is managed and sold. But as much as we now complain about privacy – and joke about the FBI Agents watching us 24/7 – we’re constantly violating each other, and often we don’t even really realise we’re doing it.

“Nothing is too sacred to screenshot – that synchronised ‘lock button, home button’ press is all muscle memory to us now”

Back in 2008, analysing every word we’d ever said to a person who stopped replying to our texts would have involved the meticulous transcription of SMSs, which, costing 10p for 160 characters, were much more succinct. Now, it’s easy to snap multiple screencaps of WhatsApp chats dating back months. That’s not to say there weren’t data leaks back in the day (Pete Wentz’s extremely low-res Sidekick dick pic, anyone?), but they were malicious hacks rather than the kinds of casual, daily exposures our screenshot-sharing represents.

It wasn’t always like this – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but somewhere, something changed – as we grew increasingly comfortable with sharing literally everything from our mood swings to our geotags online, the screenshot went from creepy and borderline unethical to common practice. When Snapchat launched in 2011, its ephemeral nature was designed to evade (screen) capture, with users required to touch and hold to view a Story, and notifying people if you screen-grabbed. Although naturally, apps popped up designed to circumvent this, it’s indicative of a culture that was slightly different from out cap-happy world in 2018. Last year, some people threatened to quit iPhones if a rumoured iMessage screenshot notification was added, while a few months ago, Instagram’s announcement to roll out Story screenshot notifications sparked what was described as “mass panic”. (The app decided to shelve the feature).

Then there’s the shadier side of screenshotting. Collecting evidence of perceived slights or missteps has become culturally encouraged – after all, you can delete the post (and now, even unsend the WhatsApp), but a screenshot is eternal. “Show me the receipts” was actually a 2002 Whitney Houston misquote, but by summer 2016 (circa Kim-Kardashian-Taylor-Swift-gate), it was being described as “the most ubiquitous comeback we have at our disposal”. It’s appropriate that this kind of digital hoarding is accepted in 2018, when we consider ourselves private investigators tasked with cancelling people’s careers over the problematic things they tweeted drunk at a house party age 14.

So where’s the line? It’s not all bad – saving those shoes you want for later is obviously fine, while screenshotting as a means of exposing bad behaviour cropped up in a few #MeToo cases, providing evidence to back up claims which otherwise may have been sidelined. The question remains: what is good screenshot etiquette? Should we ask consent before we send intimate details of a conversation to friends? Is ‘grabbing someone’s Tinder profile permissible because they’ll never find out, or does it just make us arseholes? Do we really need to save proof of something to use it as ammo later, or should we just put pettiness aside and learn to let things go?

We’re all still grappling with the answers to these questions, but this feels like a good line in the sand: if we’d feel embarrassed to justify the screenshot to the person it relates to, we shouldn’t take the screenshot. If we wouldn’t want someone to save our sexts, we shouldn’t save theirs. And if it was only meant for us, it’s not ours to send.