An emotional history of the Internet.
Reconstructing a digital landscape, 2014 to present.
There is a lot of cultural, social, and emotional history on the internet that’s just lost.
To the credit of internet culture reporters, there’s just no easy way to document this stuff—how do you describe the emotional or social texture of something as ephemeral and diverse as the internet?
And maybe more practically, how do you decide what to capture?
How do we know what’s important? For example, does it matter who defined the conversations on Tech Twitter in 2013? Do we care how that might have informed reactions to events like Basecamp’s recent announcement that they were now going to be apolitical, or even #MiamiTechWeek, which started with a tweet? Does it matter that a phrase like “Tech Twitter” is only intelligible to maybe 5,000 people on earth? What about when you consider that we know that easily dozens of now measurably influential tech companies were born from Twitter connections?
There’s also the complicating factor of ethics: am I an asshole if I archive and analyze a stranger’s online behavior, e.g. their LiveJournal or Xanga or chatroom logs? A stranger whose real name and identity I don’t know and whose permission I have no way of getting? Who does and doesn’t have a right to privacy if we have reason to believe their behavior is worth including in recorded history?
Obviously, none of these are easy to answer questions—even if some of them might feel obvious on the surface.
One place where we seem to have done a good job with internet history is with memes. We can trace most significant meme origins with ease, and KnowYourMeme is arguably a more reliable information source than some major news outlets. We also have done a good job tracking how certain slang has evolved.
But still, the less tangible aspects of digital life remain a lingering question.
My instinct is that it’s all important, and we’ve lost a sizable chunk of real history by writing these things off as trivial.
When people tell me figures like Tao Lin or Audrey Kitching had a limited and narrow impact, my answer is, “Well, was Lydia Lunch important?”
And while you might be reading this and asking yourself, “Wait, who’s Lydia Lunch?” the truth is you already know—you just don’t know you know.
The culture of surveillance (2014/2015-present).
One can best understand a character like Trisha Paytas or Gabbie Hanna through the millennial lens. They are from a generation that was encouraged to digitally rebuild their psyches, to post every stray thought that floated through theirs heads. There was a brief period of time there that they were competing to be the most original: the rawer, the more fucked up, the more ‘real’ you were, the greater the potential reward.
It wasn’t just that millennials could be messy, it’s that they actively strived to become messier. One might also point to someone like Cat Marnell, who wasn’t just or even primarily a sideshow attraction.
No, to certain women of a certain age in a certain place, she was aspirational, amphetamines and all.
Millennials didn’t just have teen (or early adulthood, as it were) angst, they had psychiatric emergencies and they owned it. And then in late 2014 the culture changed.
It was time for millennials to take some accountability.
The changing role of the screenshot? (Part 1)
When I rack my brain for an answer to the question, “What changed?” The first thing I think of is the role of the screenshot.
Screenshots have always been a feature of computers, but as far as I can tell, nobody’s really done a good job of documenting how their usage has changed over time.
We know that in the 1980s, gamers used screenshots to share their high scores and we know that in 2007, the iPhone allowed us to screenshot our text messages for the first time. But why were most people taking and sharing screenshots?
Here’s what I can tell you, from memory:
In the 90s and early 2000s, I used to take a lot of screenshots to hoard anime images. First in folders on my desktop, and then on PhotoBucket. (This phenomena of “image hoarding” was not unique not to me; it’s another one of those things that a lot of people were doing, but there’s not much if anything written on it.) Pertinently, when people were sharing emails or conversations, it was mostly copied and pasted. Here’s one iconic example.
Between 2005 and 2007, my personal use of screenshots was primarily to share screens from MMORPGs and, more sentimentally, ‘archive’ conversations between myself and a crush. Every now and then, I received a screenshot of someone embarrassing themselves on AIM or on one of the aforementioned MMOs, but it was rare. I was sent screenshots digitally about as often as someone just straight up printed something out and brought it to school.
Occasionally, damning screenshots would pop up in niche communities. Examples that immediately come to mind are Jammno’s WoW forum posts asking for a girlfriend and AppleMilk1988’s AIM conversations about her sexual escapades in Japan. While things like AppleMilk1988’s AIM conversations were reputation-nuking in a particular context, this wasn’t the kind of thing that would, for example, get someone cancelled as we understand it today.
Around 2008, I start seeing screenshots of funny text conversations being shared, primarily as a kind of meme format. Revenge porn—a problem amplified by smartphones—also hits the mainstream. You start hearing the word sexting. Transcripts of Tiger Woods’ cringe-inducing sexts to his half a dozen mistresses are leaked. Screenshots, however, are either not circulated or not widely circulated.
An interesting tension is underscored as leaked emails pop up in the news (and historically, had been popping up and would continue to). They feel somehow removed from the immediate threat that someone you know might betray your confidence, but are understood as a potential professional threat. Especially in less online circles, you have this interesting push and pull. You’re told not to share too much information either for safety or practicality, e.g. photos of you partying might prevent you from getting into a good college or scoring your dream job, but at the same time, there is no deeper sense that if you say something controversial to a friend they will screenshot it and distribute it.
In 2011, Snapchat launches, ostensibly to assuage the revenge porn/sexting paranoia. In 2012, sexting is added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It might be useful context to add it’s another few years before The Fappening happens, in August of 2014.
Between 2008 and 2014, online confessional writers and net artists also use screenshots in their short stories and art. In 2012, reviews of Marie Calloway’s book what purpose did i serve in your life make note of her clever use of screenshots.
Around 2011 and 2013, the idea that conversation screenshots might be used against you, outside of the context of sexting, starts emerging. Now, if I’m recalling correctly, even though people would send screenshots in small scale gossip operations before 2011 and the were well-worn fixtures on websites like EncyclopediaDramatica, the real threat was framed in terms of sex. Maybe it was just me, but I never worried about sharing a secret, or even saying something that I wasn’t supposed to, because screenshots just weren’t that common even if technically possible. It could, however, also be that at this time it was extremely easy to doctor or recreate instant message screenshots. People still used usernames more often than their real names, so maybe there was some plausible deniability baked in?
I would be remiss not to mention the bombshell that was Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Does Edward Snowden’s revelations impact how average, everyday people are sharing and distributing screenshots, specifically? I don’t have a satisfying answer to this. Let’s put a stake in the ground here though. I will also say this: 2013 remains an interesting year in Internet history more generally. Let’s not forget the peculiar role ISIS very visibly plays in Internet culture—remember Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber? Remember how he was treated exactly like Richard Spencer was, that is mainstream media straightforwardly publishing things like, “Haha, he’s a terrorist, but isn’t he kind of hot”? Not today’s topic, but worth bookmarking.
In 2014, the mostly New York-based alt lit community is rocked by rape allegations. Because of its relationship with major New York media outlets, I’m going to argue that this was not just a footnote, but a significant turning point. This was the first time I remember screenshots of conversations between non-celebrities being shared to significantly, and perhaps irreparably, impact someone’s reputation.
Something’s in the air and it feels like the floodgates have opened—even Gawker starts posting significantly more articles with text screenshots in 2014 and 2015. See: Ben Stein’s Horny Texts, Nick Jonas and Taylor Swift, Tinder Sexual Harassment Suit, et al. You might be surprised to learn that screenshots were not a regular fixture of Gawker stories until this time. You also have the rise of the ‘nice guy’ text screenshot, which becomes something of a meme format in and of itself. The Personality Girl and I discuss this in Episode 4 of After the Orgy, “Books… and Looks.”
The next pivot point would be the mainstream adoption of “show me the receipts,” which becomes a shorthand for “post screenshots.” Hand-in-hand with this is the rise of the “clapback” as a form of clickbait. I would mark this around 2016. While I’m aware “show me the receipts” and “clapback” are both AAVE and were being said for much longer, including online, I’m specifically speaking about widespread adoption by all demographics, both online and off.
Stay tuned for Part 2…