A Picture of a Thousand Words: How Screenshots Changed Visual Culture

What started the rebellion against picture-based imagery on social media, and where is it taking us?

Illustration by Rosie Barker for Elephant
Illustration by Rosie Barker for Elephant

Instagram’s early mission statement, according to the company’s co-founder, Kevin Systrom, was to “capture and share the world’s photos”. The platform currently sees more than a thousand images uploaded every second, from frothy latte art, to self-conscious selfies and sunsets, as we digitally document our lives. Over the course of the last year, I have found myself facing a very different portrait of contemporary experience: screenshots of everything from viral TikToks to Twitter posts, snippets of recent news articles and even intimate musings from a personal Apple Notes app.

The rough, unaesthetic nature of the screenshot seems to rebel against the heavily-curated context of Instagram, but it also speaks to an age of distraction, where our attention is pulled between browser windows and apps. Screen captures represent an introspective shift that’s been accelerated by a year of locked-down culture, but they also reflect a changing way of using platforms that might have profound repercussions on our digital interactions and ways of seeing in the future.

Pictures have dominated social-media platforms since the inception of Instagram more than a decade ago, but they would appear to be in decline, abandoned in favour of the word-based image that is suddenly ubiquitous. A picture that’s worth a thousand words, as the old adage goes, is now a picture of a thousand words.



Critics like New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz posts images of his own Twitter posts, alongside longer diaristic snatches of his thoughts jotted down in basic text documents; art-world meme accounts such as those of Jerry Gogosian and Brad Troemel pair text with image to destabilise the latter’s meaning; high-profile cultural figures, from social activist Munroe Bergdorf to artist Wolfgang Tillmans, regularly post news headlines, Twitter commentary and text-based graphics to their feeds.

Artists including Ronan McKenzie share screengrabs of whole email exchanges to call out institutional racism, while DMs and comments (sometimes with Instagram handles scrawled out) are highlighted by accounts like The White Pube to beat trolls at their own game. Others share more personal interactions, text and WhatsApp messages that have moved them or made them laugh.

“A picture that’s worth a thousand words, as the old adage goes, is now a picture of a thousand words”

The trend for sharing screenshots can be partially explained by the restricted conditions of the pandemic. Confined largely to the home, even the most inventive Instagram users have been left with limited material.

“In The Before Times we might have gone to one or two social events a week, from parties to dinners to pubs, and taken a smattering of photos at each,” wrote Serena Smith in Refinery29 earlier this year, in an article reflecting on the shift towards more mundane Instagram multi-image posts dubbed ‘photo dumps’. “Nowadays, however, our camera rolls are barren. The random meme screenshots, photos of wispy clouds and no-makeup selfies which are usually buried by snaps of your friends sipping cocktails are the only things left in your camera roll.”



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Unlike the prettified inspirational quotes that would often pepper the feeds of Instagram users in the early 2010s (artist Amalia Ulman parodied this phenomenon in her 2014 ‘Instagram performance’ Excellences and Perfections), these posts eschew the elevated, glossy expectations of Instagram.

As the minutes and hours that the global millions spend online each day continues to grow, with usage of Instagram increasing by almost 10% in the USA from 2020 to 2021, it follows that our digital habits and interests will themselves increasingly become a part of what we wish to project. If Instagram encourages its users to present a curated version of their lives, or to broadcast an extended performance of personality, it follows that what we are consuming online plays into that particular construction of the self.

“If memories are what make us human, then our screenshots tell a story about who we are in the digital age,” commented Clio Chang in The New York Times last month, in a love letter to the art of the screenshot. The nature of screenshots seems almost a way of cross-referencing, of validating and re-uniting the different, sometimes disparate, versions of ourselves that exist online—like looking in a digital mirror.

“The popularity of screenshots signals a collective reaction against our image-obsessed culture, a return to words”

Yet even as restrictions have been lifted in many places, screenshots continue to prevail on social media, suggesting that the trend is more than just a reflection of the pandemic. Perhaps we are simply falling out of love with images altogether? “The teens say Instagram is dying, or dead, and I’m finally starting to feel it,” Haley Nahman wrote in her popular newsletter Maybe Baby this June. “I haven’t posted to my feed in nearly six weeks, and in that time I’ve amassed more postable content than I did the entire year before.”

“I feel like Instagram is too sincere, fake-earnest, it’s weird. I don’t like it anymore,” T Magazine features director Thessaly La Force agrees. “It feels like you’re bragging, or you’re being self-deprecating, and maybe you’re over-illustrating something with the picture. I’m losing interest in it.” The rise of screenshots perhaps signals a collective reaction against our so-called image-obsessed culture, a return to words, to something less ambiguous and showy.



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The popularity of word-based screenshots may be related to the rise of social justice slideshows that emerged last summer as Black Lives Matter protests were staged around the world, dubbed “PowerPoint activism” by Terry Nguyen in an article for Vox last August. “In a time of social unrest, these text-based slideshow graphics have found new resonance and an eager audience on the platform, which has been notorious for prioritizing still images over text,” he wrote.

There are artists who might have predicted this. Since the late 1970s, American artist Jenny Holzer has worked with text in posters and billboards, believing that words could be used not just as a counterpoint to images but as a powerful visual format in itself. “I like to compose the presentation of language,” she reflected in an interview in 2019, “I like to make the language spatial.” Screenshots re-posted on a picture-based platform have a similar effect, whereby we read the text visually first, as we’re conditioned to do.

“When a screengrab of text is posted as an image, our relationship with its meaning fundamentally shifts”

When a screengrab of text is posted as an image, our relationship with its meaning fundamentally shifts. Words are condensed and repackaged for easy and quick consumption, reducing everything (political opinion, activism, cultural reviews, artistic production, theses on life) to perfectly pithy squares. News articles, personal messages and even our private thoughts are mined for potentially shareable content.

It is clear that the impulse to perform online hasn’t gone away, even if the mechanisms by which we demonstrate our tastes and allegiances may have shifted. The picture has been replaced but the relentless drive for visibility remains the same. Words are read as images, and only the loudest, sharpest, funniest and most emotive posts stand out among the endless scroll.

As cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote in Simulacra and Simulation, his 1981 treatise on symbolism, reality and the media, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” But then, someone will probably screengrab that.

Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor

Top illustration by Rosie Barker for Elephant