The power of the screenshot

Originally posted on Medium. 

The mobile screenshot.

Just hold home and power.

That *click*.

That bright, white blur.

It’s the two-handed action that has caused endless controversy for Snapchat (saving snaps), enabled the growth of “screenshot proof” messaging apps like Confide, and generated millions of views for media sites like Buzzfeed (via lists of autocorrect text fails).

Beyond the ability to save your latest Snapchat, screenshots are actually pretty special. They represent an emerging digital format that we are all instinctively aware of but haven’t yet acknowledged to be a distinct class all to themselves. Let’s change that.

Screenshotting is the only universal way to save mobile content. Apps are a tricky thing. They aren’t the internet. There’s no URL you can copy to bookmark something interesting you find. And native sharing functionality is up to the individual developer. A developer might decide you can share something to Facebook, but not Twitter. Or Pinterest, but not Instagram. He or she might even decide you aren’t allowed to copy and paste a line of text. A screenshot, while imperfect, is the fastest way to save anything on mobile.

Screenshots are addictively voyeuristic. Humans are naturally drawn to voyeuristic tendencies. Mobile screenshots are a window to our most prized and private of modern possessions— our phones. So when we catch a glimpse of someone else’s iMessage chat or Tinder conversation, there’s always this thought that “I shouldn’t be reading this but I can’t look away.”

Screenshots are raw and unfiltered. There is no BS when taking mobile screenshots. Hold the home and power buttons and you’re done. No fancy camera equipment. No cropping. No Photoshop. It’s surprisingly refreshing in a world where every minute detail of an Instagram post, from the filter to the angle to the airbrushing(!), seems to require prior planning.

Screenshots are universally perfect. When Snapchat disabled Mindie, a third-party Snapchat Story editor, they did so out of the recognition that viewing professionally edited video could be discouraging to users without the resources to create similar quality Stories. By enforcing a level playing field, content wins over technology. You can’t get more of a level playing field than with mobile screenshots. Every screenshot comes out, well, perfect. Near-identical aspect ratio, display quality, contrast, and brightness across mobile devices means that the content you choose to save or share is always what makes the screenshot interesting, and not the equipment or your Photoshop skills.

Our mobile lives are part of our modern identity. Early mobile apps were almost exclusively “online only.” Think games, calculators, and to-do lists. Over time, mobile apps have become much more integrated with our everyday lives, from how we get around town to how we date to how we pay. This shift toward “online-to-offline” apps means that the apps we use have become a larger part of our modern identity. Are you an Uber or Lyft rider? A Tinder or Hinge dater? Minecraft or Candy Crush gamer? As the success of Facebook has proven, we crave the ability to define and share our online identity with others. While, like many other aspects of our daily lives, 99% of what we see on our phones is routine, there’s that 1% of goodness that is share-worthy in the same way that a 140-character tweet, a Facebook check-in, or an Instagram selfie is.

So…what’s the big deal, then?

Despite the richness of screenshots, none of the existing image sharing giants have built a platform truly optimized for sharing and discovering mobile content. Instagram’s square aspect ratio crops half of any screenshot. Imgur is built primarily for web, and lacks attribution to the source of the content (i.e. what app is this?). And Pinterest is built for pinning content from image URLs, which does not work well with native mobile content. Search functionality by app and attribution to app is all but nonexistent.

Mobile screenshots function as both the URLs and “Right-click -> Save Image As…” of the mobile age and deserve better treatment as one of the most useful mechanisms to universally capture anything on mobile. Despite the limitations of apps vs. web, the reality is that we are moving toward a mobile app-centered world and we need better tools to help us organize and provide context to the content we choose to screenshot, save, and share. If the future is truly mobile, then the screenshot is truly the record of the future.

Why Pinterest's success on mobile is a double-edged sword

Originally posted on Medium

Last month, Venture Beat reported that 80 percent of Pinterest’s traffic now came from mobile devices.

Great news for Pinterest, right? I’m not so sure.

Pinterest is a product that is fundamentally built for web. A Pin is simply an image link to an external URL where the image lives on.

But as Venture Capitalist Chris Dixon pointed out on his blog, the mobile web is rapidly declining. In fact, time spent on mobile web accounted for only 14% of time spent on mobile in 2014. The other 86% of our time is spent in apps.

This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.

Why should this be especially worrisome for Pinterest? Quite simply, more time on mobile vs. desktop and more time in apps vs. mobile web means an ever decreasing window of time in which users have allocated to source fresh Pins from the treasure trove that is the web.

So while the vast majority of Pinterest traffic has already shifted from desktop to mobile, my intuition is that that the dominant action on mobile is discovery and that fresh Pin creation (not repinning) on mobile still lags behind desktop.

The problem is only compounded by the limitations of mobile web versus desktop. There is only so much real estate on our mobile devices, and often that means share buttons that are so prominent on desktop are poorly positioned when viewed in a mobile web browser.

Without further action from Pinterest, I believe the company risks creating an imbalance in which the proportion of time spent sourcing fresh Pins decreases while the proportion of time spent consuming and repinning increases. And fewer fresh pins means more recycled content. And too much recycled content is never very interesting.

Pinterest needs to figure out how to better enable pin creation in a world that is not only increasingly mobile but increasingly app-driven. Although the company offers an SDK to iOS and Android developers, the implementation nonetheless requires an image URL to actually work, something that is infrequently exposed by app developers.

The future of pin creation in an app-driven world will fundamentally require support of app-based attribution in contrast to URL-based attribution.

What does that mean? It means instead of exclusively supporting Pins from image URLs, Pinterest needs to better work with app developers to attribute the app itself using the app name, icon, custom link, App Store link, etc. as the source of content and enable deep linking to the app whenever a user clicks through a Pin. In essence, enable app metadata as the new URL.

Mobile is the future, we already know that. For Pinterest, this means that an entirely image URL-based Pinning system needs rethinking and, at the very least, means more investment in app developer tools to enable proper attribution and deep linking to content from within native apps. Doing so will almost undoubtedly unlock a whole new treasure trove of mobile app content loudly waiting to be Pinned.