internet culture

How the Screenshot Became One of the Internet’s Most Powerful Tools

The surprising origins of a gesture we take for granted everyday.
01 July 2020, 1:00am
a collage of screenshots
All images from the Internet Archive. Collage: Motherboard.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Recently, I broke the button on my phone that takes screenshots. Suddenly – and painfully – I couldn't share certain photos on Instagram, article headlines on WhatsApp, or memes on Reddit.

I dove into tech forums in search of alternatives, to no avail. While lots of phones have multiple methods for screenshotting, my Android doesn’t. The only option was to download a third-party app and I wasn't willing to risk my personal data.

The iPhone was the first mobile phone to integrate the screenshot as a function in 2007, before Android followed suit in 2011. But the history of screenshots stretches much further back, to 1959. The very first photo of a screen featured the image of a pin-up model, drawn by a computer programmer for fun on a 213 million euro Cathode-ray tube screen. The screen, which was owned by the American military (and usually used for detecting nuclear threats), was photographed using a polaroid camera, resulting in a rudimentary – and very expensive – first example of computer art, and the world's first-known screenshot.

At the same time, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was working on a revolutionary project. In a paper published in 2016, Harvard Professor Matthew Allen reconstructed the first steps made by scientists and engineers working on the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) project – design software still used by architects, engineers and artists. Many architects of the time thought of computers as simple tools, while MIT’s CAD project allowed people to interact with them. It was the first time people had thought of computers as “active partners” in planning and design.

Back then, computers were inaccessible, cumbersome and expensive, so screenshots became the tool used to advertise and showcase what CAD could do. The first examples were basic – made literally by taking a photo of a screen with an external camera – and only really seen by people in niche circles related to science and programming.

The screenshot moved toward the mainstream when it was taken up by gamers who wanted to show off their high scores in the 1980s. Back then, people took screenshots as evidence of their results. The trend was encouraged by game creators and gaming magazines, which asked gamers to send in their pictures.

Game publisher Activision used to publish a list with scores and goals, inviting gamers to send pictures in exchange for a patch to put on their backpacks. Nintendo Power magazine did something similar, instructing fans on how to make their screenshot and printing the highest scores on the back of each edition of the magazine.

According to Jacob Gaboury, assistant professor in film and media at the University of California, Berkeley, back then the screenshot wasn't just a way to capture scores – it helped players “personalise” the act of playing and put themselves in the frame. If CAD screenshots in the 1960s were a testimonial for what computers could do, by the 1980s screenshots had become a way for everyday people to relate to the virtual world. Today, all gaming platforms allow you to easily screenshot – and in-game photography has become an art of its own.

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Instructions for taking a video game screenshot for a competition in Nintendo Power magazine in 1997. Screenshot: Page 94, via Retrovolve / Internet Archive.

It wasn't until the 1990s that the "print screen" command on computers became standard, and people could finally take screenshots the way we think of them today: without the need for a separate camera. Since then, the world has changed and we spend a huge chunk of our lives staring at screens. As a result, screenshots have also taken on a different life and now serve as a way of sharing (sometimes dubiously) conversations we've had or images we've seen.

When Snapchat was created in 2011, its defining feature – that the images you posted were temporary – seemed pointless when you could just take a screenshot. Snapchat eventually introduced a feature that notified users when their snap had been captured.

Screenshots have become the faceless selfie, and a way to share what happens when we're alone on the internet. And while they're still important for archival reasons (like in the prolific work of the Internet Archive), they've evolved as vitally important evidence or "receipts" of behaviour people might have wanted to forget.

Today, the screenshot is a moment of stillness in a digital world that won’t stop spinning – a way to grab and hold a digital second before it slips through our fingers. Maybe I’m romanticising. Or maybe I just need to get my phone fixed.