By phasing out such quaint and antiquated notions as “classified information,” “confidential disclosures,” and “private conversation,” the Internet has ushered in an era of forced transparency. This is great news for the news, which exists to report the things that would never be known otherwise. For everything and everyone else, it’s taking some getting used to.
Why just in the past few weeks I’ve casually read semi-scandalous leaked memos from the heights of global government, the depths of tech, sports, and political media, and the even depthier depths of the Vatican. Document leaks are common enough now to defy the logic of the term itself, and have pried open the grody inner workings of Facebook, Google, Congress, and a global financial conspiracy or two (billion).
And through the pervasive porousness of what used to be privacy, I’ve also learned how bad guys are at Tinder, thanks in large part to the basic unit of currency in the Full Disclosure economy: the screen shot.
It’s a good thing to know going into the composition of any text message, Facebook exchange, or Tinder chat that you aren’t just making lunch plans, arguing with strangers, or being creepy in a contained environment. You are drafting and composing what could be the next great anonymous drama in any one of thousands of Facebook groups devoted to snacking on the screencaps of other people’s conversations. Sliding into someone’s DMs could actually mean sliding into public discourse, or worse, viral infamy.
Screenshots are easily produced on many phones through a pinch of the external buttons, and their undeniable practical value has always felt undercut by their obvious ethical iffiness. Snapchat, which exists to traffic explicitly (and sometimes explicit) ephemeral images, will rat you out to your chatmate if you snap a screenshot. It’s one of the few features of our tech-driven daily lives that’s designed to abide by the honor system.
So you can guess how that went.
Now screenshots serve several purposes. They’re routinely laid out as “receipts” — indisputable evidence of petty transgressions by agents of even pettier justice. Twitter’s absolutely littered with screenshots lifted from DMs and text exchanges, posted to shame or showcase the hypocrisy of whoever was unlucky enough to have their handiwork snapped, and serving as one-tenth-act-plays for those clicking around for quick entertainment.
Screenshots form the conversational undergirding of thousands of social media groups. Toss “screenshots” into a search for private groups and you’ll find an embarrassment of embarrassment: “Screenshot Say What???,” “Dumpster Fires and Screenshots Galore,” “Bad Tinder Profile Screenshots,” and “Screenshots! Screenshots! Get your Screenshots!” among them. Gain access to any of them and your feed will quickly be filled with painful pick-up lines, messy breakups, caught cheaters, and “dirty deletes” — discussion threads that take a turn for the disastrous and are preserved (and reposted) by viewers before the original poster can vaporize them out of existence.
Of course, this more social exploitation of screenshots can also backfire. At least once a week in a dating screenshot group I passively lurk around (it’s like going to a digital zoo of heterosexuals in the wild), a member will post a testy Tinder exchange thinking they were in the right against their anonymous adversary/potential suitor, only to learn from the group that they were the creep all along. Never a good feeling. Great reading though.
These specimens often end up in an even more refined strata of Facebook screenshot group like “Why Was This Screenshot Taken By The Person Who Sent These Messages?” — where the tragedy of backfiring screenshots can be savored through a layer of irony.
But like anything on the Internet that gets popular for its casual embrace of evil for the sake of likes, the dark side of all of this is the weaponization of screenshots, which can take the cruelty and betrayal of publishing the private to new lows.
Last month, classmates of Tennessee high schooler Channing Smith posted and circulated screen shots of Smith’s sexually explicit and ostensibly private conversations with another boy — Smith was not out to anybody.
A classmate he had argued with sought to “humiliate him” and spread the shots across Snapchat and Instagram. Once Smith spotted them, the Sunday night before he was supposed to return to school, he panicked and posted an angry message to his Instagram (“I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake. Bye.”) Early Monday morning, his father found him dead in his bedroom.
“My brother committed suicide because of the actions of 2 kids that he trusted that turned personal screen shot messages over to social media in a deliberate attempt to assassinate his character,” his brother Joshua posted to Facebook.
It's all part of the same phenomenon — a breach that goes well beyond the notion that privacy doesn’t exist online.
By using screenshots as fodder for laughs, or anthropological examples of how we communicate (or fail to), or as bludgeons for bullying, we’re all collectively coming to an unconscious consensus that the notion of a private life is just as obsolete as a letter sealed with a stamp of wax — back when tinder was something you could make vanish in a fireplace.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.