Screenshots have a reputation as a piece of evidence so concrete and irrefutable that, if deployed, something… big will happen. Everyone will cheer and a great flurry of action will ensue, someone might even lose their job, or who knows what! Keep the receipts, the saying goes; the suggestion being that these will render the upper hand in a dispute incontestable.
The spectre of “receipts” wrecking great professional damage looms so large that people who aren’t even famous (like me, for example) constantly joke in private messages and group chats about the potential for a leak. I probably send the words “Man, please never screenshot this chat lol!”, “Don’t screenshot me, lol, but…” or similar around once a day, usually accompanying something totally inane. (To those of you who are thinking “I bet they aren’t inane and are problematic/dirty/whatever,” I would say “Maybe sometimes, but probably no more so than your own...”)
Receipts culture has been a fixture of celebrity gossip for years now, and receipts have been praised as a tool for holding the powerful accountable. But, as many conversations have moved online during the pandemic, there seems to be a fresh sense of paranoia about leaks among people who are unlikely to ever grace the pages of a tabloid. And it’s not unfounded. In a recent extreme example, a man overheard a group of strangers talking about a friend of theirs in the street and then made a TikTok video to find the object of the conversation so he could tell on them. (She was grateful, I would not have been!)
This twitchy sense of neurosis among ordinary people about their private correspondence is corrosive (it’s corrosive even for celebrities). And the framing of receipts (and of tattling) as synonymous with accountability and truth adds a gloss of moralism (even the air of legal proceedings) to behavior which is often very ethically questionable. “Don’t leak me” after all, essentially equates to “Don’t spread this around” and when you put it like that, it seems much more sordid.
The fact that this paranoia surrounds even inane conversations (I’ve asked around!) suggests it is not even really a fear of being caught out getting up to no good, but more alarm at the idea of having something taken out of context, or being misrepresented, or even just having your privacy invaded. (Or maybe that we all like to think of ourselves as more cheeky and transgressive than we really are!)
Recently, though, I’ve been wondering whether this reputation receipts have acquired — and the associated paranoia relating to them — is justified. Screenshots certainly create the spectacle of something juicy being revealed, the sense that we are getting a peek at something lurid, into the spiritual equivalent of someone’s underwear drawer. But the content is often underwhelming, the ensuing fallout muted.
Sometimes they are presented as definitive proof of a certain misdemeanor but are missing crucial context, tone, or simply do not say the thing they are supposed to say (regardless of creative framing, more on this later). In other cases they are just not that shocking (revealing only, say, that a celebrity sometimes sends dirty messages and dick pics). The dramatic big reveal rarely brings a conclusive end to proceedings and is instead followed by rounds of arguments, more screenshots showing different things, or speculation that worse things may be to come, before the story eventually fizzles out.
Even instances where someone has clearly done something wrong can devolve into endless convoluted arguments about exactly what happened. Earlier this year, when Courtney Stodden recounted abusive tweets and private messages they had been sent, as a 16 year old, by Chrissy Teigen there was uproar. Others came forward with similar stories and Teigen issued an apology. But then the fashion designer Michael Costello posted screenshots of insulting messages from Teigen and this provoked an argument over whether they were real. Insider did a piece debunking them, Teigen began tweeting criticisms of Costello. Her current pinned tweet is, not her apology, but a screenshot of her Instagram messages from Costello, which appear to show a friendly conversation.
For other screenshot scandals it is hard to say how they even ended. The recent stunt by British government advisor turned Substack blogger Dominic Cummings is a good example. His leaked screenshots of Boris Johnson calling Matt Hancock “totally fucking hopeless” were framed as explosive. But it quickly devolved into arguments about context and Cummings’ motives. Then it all came to nothing. To illustrate how underwhelming the response was, I had to ask a friend of mine who reports on politics to summarize it, because it became too boring to follow.
I understand the enthusiasm for posting screenshots as evidence. One of the most frustrating things about life is that other people’s interpretation of events is often different from our own. Everything would be much easier if some kind of neutral third party existed to arbitrate disputes and decide who is right and who is wrong; presenting evidence to the internet, with its huge audience of strangers, can feel like a proxy for this. A large number of likes and supportive comments can feel like definitive “proof” that you are in the right. (A small number, I guess, can feel like the opposite.)
The echoes of a dossier being presented in court, too, lend the proceedings a veneer of officialdom, elevating things that are (let’s be honest) often gossip and personal gripes almost to the realm of legal disputes. But there is a line (which I think is from a Deborah Eisenberg short story) I think of, when I think about what it means to be thought of as in the right or in the wrong, or why we feel the need to have our version of events publicly validated: “If something is unfair it will always be unfair.”
Does being seen as right about something we feel was unfair change the feeling of it being unfair? What about if almost nobody likes it, inferring that we are seen as wrong? Would that make us forget about it? I’m not sure that public validation brings any real sense of personal resolution. Of course, lots of screenshot scandals are also about a desire for punishment; I think that comes from a similar place, an idea that punishing someone else might bring a sense of personal resolution. Again, I’m not sure that it does. And then there is the entertainment factor, and the promise of attention and the excitement of feeling to be at the centre of a storm. This one, at least, is definitely true, it is a surefire way to get a certain kind of attention; the most cynical motivation is also the most earnest.
The attention factor means that a third party will sometimes step in and adopt the mantle of promoting a scandal. The Diet Prada Instagram account is a major broker in the world of callouts. When Alexander Wang was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by a model, Diet Prada began soliciting other similar stories. It then made a virtual scrapbook of screenshot evidence, saved as a story highlight called “Wangover.”
The contents of “Wangover” are really strange. Anonymous messages outlining a mixture of serious allegations, descriptions of arguments in bars, and rumors are decorated with jazzy animations saying things like “Content warning” and “Trigger warning.” The framing here, the use of gifs and scrapbooking, is intended to emphasize the salaciousness of the accusations, but it recontextualizes them, rendering them unserious. As does pairing a story about sexual assault with one about an argument in a bar. The result of the whole thing so far has been a meeting and an apology.
The framing of screenshots is not a Diet Prada-specific thing. Often the form of it is more somber, using plain text and underlining instead of chirpy gifs. A debacle earlier in the year involving The Slumflower and Florence Given involved weeks of screenshots with certain passages underlined and circled. (Nothing came of that one either.)
This type of framing is less about entertainment, less lurid, but it is usually posited as a means of presenting the information with utmost clarity and this isn’t true either. Like any framing it is designed to narrativize the events in one party’s favor. (The most telling example of this is when screenshots are shared with a comment saying something like: Look you can see they literally said “X.” But the quoted X is nowhere to be found.) And this is sort of the problem with screenshots as evidence in the larger sense. They always seem to be missing something: context, another perspective, wrongdoing, even.
The internet is full of people narrating arguments and events in a different way to the way they happened. But then of course it is, life is too. I heard a story a few months ago of someone I know who had been going around showing a screenshot of the second half of a text argument to prove how terrible one person in the argument was. They had been showing a message responding to a provocation as if it was the original sin. But they happened to try this routine with someone who had seen the whole argument, the other receipts. They waved their phone around, bearing their screenshot, only to be told that this person had access to the bigger picture. They then had to shamefacedly backtrack. And that’s the thing, isn’t it; there is always more to it.
Rachel Connolly is a writer in London who mostly covers cultural trends and technology.