The Great and Terrible Rise of Screencaps

A new medium for humor, or cheap use of someone else's content? Images and GIFs taken from copyrighted material show modern fandom in all its creative complexity.

Parks and Rec Captioned/Tumblr; NBC

Late last year, a series of images climbed to the front page of Reddit. They showed an ostensible exchange on NBC's Parks and Recreation between Pawnee city counselor Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and plugged-in official Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), with superimposed text offering dialogue:

Leslie: Benefiting from other people's work is no substitute for creativity, Tom.

Tom: What? Yes it is. It totally is. Just look at Reddit!

Leslie: Read what?

Tom: Just take a few screencaps from a TV show and pop it up on Funny. People love it!

Leslie: So, what? It's just a bunch of people repeating the same quotes back and forth to each other?

Tom: See? I knew you'd get it! That's what being funny is all about!

What's weird is that the exchange never actually happened on television. It was created by Reddit user Max Schlienger, a humorist and aspiring novelist from San Francisco. Some Redditors were nonetheless taken in (“Well, this was meta as hell,” wrote one); I had to Google it to find that it wasn't real.

It was a well-executed prank, but it does raise questions. “Screencaps”—still images or looping GIFs, usually taken from TV shows, and featuring text—are a huge part of the viral ecosystem: During one recent week, according to analytics service Rebloggy, they accounted for six of the 18 most popular posts on Tumblr. Their ubiquity embodies everything great and everything troubling about pop-culture in the Internet age—an age where fan passions and remix culture clash with traditional ideas of intellectual property, authenticity, and linear storytelling.

The Office Screencaps/Tumblr; NBC

Before VCRs, people rewatched favorite episodes as reruns. Then there were rentals, and eventually streaming—but generally speaking one still sat through the whole thing, or at least left it on in the background. Screencaps turn that notion on its head. Now, fans can browse Tumblr for bite-sized punchlines. They can laugh at scenes from shows they've never seen before.

Of course, the idea that individual scenes can exist on their own isn't totally novel. People have rewatched, written about, and quoted their favorite moments from film and TV since long before the Internet; previous episodes have been summarized by TV guides and “Previously on …” sequences. But those are clinical narratives, designed to bring the reader or viewer up to speed, not to stand alone. Maybe screencaps are more closely related to older forms of media-based storytelling, like an uncle who recounts involved passages from Steve Martin movies at Thanksgiving.

Chianca Beatriz/Tumblr

It’s still a striking evolution, especially at the same time that binge-watching has become the new norm.  Netflix found that more than half of viewers watch two or three episodes in a sitting, and Vince Gilligan credits the same phenomenon with having saved Breaking Bad. Screencaps would seem to be a cultural counterbalance to that trend.

Different image bloggers seem to share screencaps for different reasons. A prominent contributor to one of the most popular screencap blogs, who didn’t want to be identified because of copyright concerns, told me that it’s largely about becoming involved in fan communities—and discovering new ones via viewer requests. And she feels the screencap scene can have a symbiotic relationship with the intellectual-property holders: The fan communities that evolve around certain shows, she said, can “create a massive amount of buzz around shows mainly through the manipulation of screencaps in some kind of way. And smaller niche fandoms create masses of buzz and get people talking about shows that are perhaps not talked about in mainstream media a lot.”

NBC Parks and Recreation/Tumblr; NBC

Not everyone appreciates the phenomenon, though. Last year, for example, Paramount filed a DMCA takedown notice to a Twitter account that was gradually tweeting screencaps of every scene in Top Gun. It’s not surprising: Screencaps, like mashup mixtapes and bloggable GIFs, test the limits of fair use and copyright. They also can mislead people. Without doing some background research, the authenticity of any given screencap is unclear; Schlienger’s parody certainly feels like a real bit between Poehler and Ansari.

In that parody, Tom stands up for screencaps and Leslie criticizes them as a way to take credit for someone else's work. I wondered which Pawnee official Schlienger agreed with. Are screencaps a valid way to share favorite moments, a new medium for parodists, or a cheap use of someone else's content?

“To be entirely honest, I'm a bit on the fence about that,” Schlienger wrote in an email. “On the one hand, I think people sell themselves short a lot of the time, and I fully believe that most folks are capable of more creativity than they allow themselves to explore. From that perspective, I'd say screencaps are a bit of a cop-out, particularly if they're only posted with the intent of chasing imaginary Internet points.”

On an image blogging platform like Tumblr, choosing which images to reblog is a key way to curate your public persona, even if your account is pseudonymous. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that many of the screencaps that rise to the top of the social web broadcast a social or political identity: in one, actress Emma Watson speaks about feminism before the United Nations General Assembly in New York; in another, comedian Angela Gould offers a snappy retort to John Oliver about the mixed messages of the Miss America pageant.

And in a screencap that has been shared nearly 400 thousand times, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o holds Elmo’s hand during the “12 Years A Slave” actress’s appearance on Sesame Street.

“Oh, wow,” the puppet says, seemingly over and over, in an endlessly looping GIF animation. “Elmo sees that Miss Lupita's skin is a beautiful brown colour.”