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.