At any given moment, my computer desktop is littered with dozens of screenshots that reflect, more accurately than any social media presence or journal, what I’m thinking and doing and seeking to communicate on a given day. It's like a parallel version of my brain that’s less ephemeral and more specific than a browser history.
I recently conducted a very informal survey to ask people how they use screenshots, and a few dominant themes emerged.
We use screenshots to save things:
“A shot of a NextDoor thread where someone was complaining about yelling at 5am and someone else saying basically welcome to the Lower Haight, idiot.” — Laura Z
“A Spotify glitch and a Medium glitch.” — Chris B.
“My flight information (I’m on vacation and going home tomorrow).” — Angela H.
“1) Some cute dog at Christmas pic I couldn't just save;
2) Instructions for tablet-based fire code inspections.” — Jim P.
“My wife pretty regularly keeps ‘receipts’ of conversations, especially group text threads with her family.” — Jake T.
“As a researcher, I use screenshots to prove that things existed contrary to what someone might say. I recently used a screenshot of a tweet in an arbitration hearing to prove that a governor was making statements that undercut a state's position in the arbitration.” — James L.
To share things (and sometimes fail to):
“I screenshotted my STD test results to share with potential partners—which people appreciated.” — Sean K.
“My sister's protected Instagram post of her new boyfriend and the gun she bought him for Christmas to send to a co-worker with whom I have an ongoing ‘I'm a bigger redneck than you’ challenge going on.” — Christina M.
“On my work laptop I saved a funny thing someone drew that they were showing in a Hangout so I could share it in Slack, but then never got around to it.” — James H.
But maybe, above all, we use screenshots to make jokes:
“A Twitter message asking if I wanted to upload my contacts to Twitter. I wanted to make a joke about it. Summary of joke: No fucking way.” — Terry B.
“I have a recent series of all the times the word ‘analytics’ gets truncated to ‘anal’ in my tab bar and elsewhere.” — Virginia M.
As with any technological advancement that makes life easier, you have to take a cynical moment to wonder how all this is fucking up our brains.
If we use screenshots to make memories, to convey feelings, to remember where to find that one coffee shop in the cow paths of downtown Manhattan, what kind of cognitive ability are we leaving to wither? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I drew a diagram to convey the way something looked, for example, or gave my memory and sense of direction a workout to find a location I was unsure of.
Maybe giving over some of the work of human brains to screenshots will reveal itself in time to be a rich premise for a medium-dark Black Mirror episode. Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Having taken some time to think about it, though, I’ve realized that having a computer graveyard of screenshots with file names marked only by their date stamps is a super-inefficient way of saving stuff I care about. Possibly it’s time to just start writing some things down again.
By the way, if you’re curious, I asked people if the past tense is "screenshot" or "screenshotted" or something else:
Laura Olin is a digital strategist who lives in Brooklyn with her dog.