We’ve all taken a screenshot of a cringe Tinder profile or an annoying tweet – but is relentlessly surveilling each other doing any good?
We’ve all done it: instinctively reached for the lock and volume up buttons on our iPhones at the slightest trigger. An off-colour remark from a softboi on Hinge, perhaps, or a sweet message from your mum, or – God forbid – a stomach-churning ‘miss you’ from your ex sent at 3am. We’ve all screenshotted a private conversation and posted it to a group chat.
Apple first premiered inward camera technology in 2008 and by now, screenshotting, whether we know it’s happening or not, is a part of everyday life. People take and share screenshots of other people’s comments for myriad reasons: on one end of the spectrum, it might be to share a joke. On the other end, it might be to pour scorn on someone.
Arguably, treating yourself to a little bitch about someone within the safe space of a group chat is fair game. But worryingly, screenshots are increasingly moving out of the private to the public sphere. Sadly, many people have fallen victim to increasingly normalised screenshot shaming, where private conversations are captured and publicly aired on social media to mock, vilify or ‘hold accountable’.
The internet provides the perfect forum for sharing salacious screenshots. YouTubers have made a whole cottage industry out of ‘sharing receipts’, while the r/choosingbeggars subreddit exists to expose “people who are being way too picky when begging for things.” One unsuspecting 22-year-old girl had her dating profile, where she outlined her preferences in a partner, posted to the forum and lambasted. “If you got demands like this you better be a 9/10,” jeered one Redditor, commenting on the screenshot of her profile. “A girl who wants to date a guy who isn’t too hairy, has a mostly normal penis and has a job needs to be supermodel level hot,” claimed another.
Screenshots have become a way of dictating how we choose to conduct our lives, and especially, our relationships. There are the ‘relationship goals’ screenshots, where one partner will share cute texts from their other half or participate in TikTok challenges where they post screenshots of their partner’s reaction to a deliberately provocative text. And, of course, we’ve all seen Oloni’s infamous ‘text your crush’ Twitter threads, where she invites users to message their partners questions like “I want some excitement in my life. What are you going to do?” and share their responses.
Screenshots can also be used to rally public support when a relationship breaks down: take Kanye West leaking screenshots of an inflammatory text exchange between himself and Pete Davidson. Across the pond, former aide Dominic Cummings leaked screenshots of Boris Johnson calling then-health secretary Matt Hancock “totally fucking hopeless” (lol) when their professional relationship turned sour. In using screenshots as ammunition to curry favour online, we have the power to change the narrative on how relationships end.
Titania Jordan is chief marketing officer at Bark Technologies, a safety solution helping keep children safe online. “The more ‘out there’ something can be, the more sensational it is, the more attention you can get”, she says. “We want more likes, more followers, more shares, more retweets [...] It’s a real problem for children and adults.”
“The more ‘out there’ something can be, the more sensational it is, the more attention you can get” – Titania Jordan
It’s also often difficult to ascertain whether a screenshot is authentic or not. It’s easier than ever to create fake screenshots via generators, apps or other image editing tools online – notably, in June a doctored screenshot was shared on social media, supposedly of a Guardian headline reading “The Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial was the female Holocaust”.
When 15-year-old Hannah confided in her boyfriend over text that he’d been her first kiss and that she hadn’t had sex before, she was trusting him with that information. However, when they broke up, Hannah’s boyfriend screenshotted these personal messages and posted them on Instagram. Worse still: he even fabricated fake text conversations which painted Hannah as a racist. Soon, Hannah was receiving death threats. She was forced to move from a school she’d worked hard to get into. She was even assaulted.
“Those screenshots eventually got to the school I’d moved to, so I was getting confronted about it all the time”, says Hannah. “I had boys and girls trying to fight me. I lost all my friends, and ended up falling into a very deep depression. I even had thoughts of suicide and self-harm.”
Even when screenshots haven’t been edited, they’re still only putting out a one-sided version of events. Yair Cohen, legal specialist at internet law firm Cohen Davis, is fully cognisant of the added power that screenshots, especially when accompanied by context-changing comments, can wield. “With a [caption] on a screenshot, you’re creating your own context. It could be just one line, but it can completely change the perception of the situation”, he explains. “It’s very difficult to press charges because the caption will be an opinion. But people tend to agree with that opinion and go along with it. It ends up being truth.”
Part of the reason screenshots are so captivating is because they appear to allow us to put the pieces together ourselves – an appealing prospect in a world blighted with misinformation and fake news. But, as Cohen says, we so often end up fashioning an entire narrative out of a small fragment of information taken out of context. Ironically, despite the ties between our love of screenshots and our quest for truth, the former is pushing the latter further and further out of reach.
Thankfully, steps are being taken to preserve reality and privacy, and protect personal data. In February, Mark Zuckerberg warned Facebook users that screenshotting a private conversation in Messenger would notify the other person in the chat. In June 2021, Badoo became the first dating app to introduce a screenshot blocking feature, designed to discourage sharing private conversations.
However, Frances Corry, doctoral researcher in communication at the University of Southern California, theorises that screenshot restrictions are mainly put in place “to protect already powerful actors”. For instance, Netflix – worth nearly $30 billion – uses technology that prevents screenshots being taken, while the Confide app which offers screenshot-proof messaging is only really being used by “politicians and bankers”. Where the reputation of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals is at stake, screenshot regulating technology seems to be more accessible. But for people without these material privileges, like Hannah, screenshot shaming remains a widespread issue.
Even still, the public view the screenshot blocking features that are available disparagingly: like curfews designed to stop us having fun. Already, the internet is awash with articles explaining how to screenshot without notifying the other party. The desire for capturing and sharing messages shows no signs of abating.
What’s needed, then, is greater public awareness of the impacts of screenshot shaming. Without taking screenshotting too seriously – they can, after all, be sources of great amusement – learning to think twice about how screenshotting can affect other people online will only make the internet a safer and kinder place.