How Screenshots Became the Default Way to Share and Save Everything

Mostly it’s because we’re all lazy

  • Twitter now detects when you take a screenshot, and offers a link instead. 
  • Services like Twitter make no money if you share a screenshot. 
  • Screenshots are way easier, consistent, and more reliable than other methods.
students having fun using mobile phones in college campus

Xavier Lorenzo / Getty Images

Twitter now detects when you snap a screenshot and asks you to share the tweet instead. Good luck with that, Twitter.

Screenshots are the currency of social networks and micropublishing platforms like Instagram and Twitter, and that is, in part, the fault of companies like Twitter. Sharing can often be a pain and comes with a lot of extra baggage, including the usual suspects of any online activity—tracking your activity, privacy issues, and so on. So how did the screenshot become the default for sharing stuff on the internet?

"It's easier than saving a photo. You don't have to right-click and choose where to save. It's also quicker, and it doesn't interrupt your flow when you're collecting pictures for a mood board," professional fashion stylist and extensive screenshot user Nuria Gregori told Lifewire in an interview. "And some apps don't let you save images, like Instagram."


Let's share a Tweet from the Twitter website. I'm using it on an iPhone, but the web interface is pretty much the same however you're using it. First, tap the little share icon (a bracket character flipped 90˚ with an upward-pointing arrow above it), and you'll see a menu with options. One is to send via direct message. Another is to copy a link to the tweet, and one is to share the tweet "via…."

Twitter sharing tweet options

Choosing the "via…" option opens the iPhone's own share sheet. We're now three taps in, and we're still navigating the hierarchy. And remember, every step of this chain requires you to read a list, decipher the intent of each option, decide what you want to do, then tap. That's a lot of cognitive load.

What about sharing images? Or even just saving them? On iOS, you can often long-press an image and save it to your photo library, but not always. Instagram blocks this, as do some websites. But you'll never know until you try. And even if photo saving is allowed, you still have to navigate the iPhone's slow long-press UI to do it.


The result of using Twitter's cheat code of an interaction is a link like this:

If you instead choose the copy link to tweet option, you get this, which is the actual basic link to the tweet:

What do all those extra letters mean? I don't know, but I do know they're not necessary. Let's take a look at another shared link, this time from eBay. This is what you see if you choose to share a link to a listing:

In the link, everything after the "?" is superfluous to actual sharing. This link is a lot more transparent in what it shares than Twitter's version. We see how it was shared, where from, and by what method inside the app.

You can also screenshot your own photos to remove metadata like your location, camera used, capture time, and more. I do this before I post pictures to classified ad sites.

The Simple Screenshot

A screenshot avoids all of these problems. It's instant and requires no cognitive overload once you've learned the button combo. You just press the buttons, and the screenshot is saved. You can do it on an Android or iPhone, on a Mac, an Apple Watch, and even on a Kindle.

Saving a screenshot is easy. So easy, in fact, that some apps have taken to detecting when you snap one. Theoretically, an app may then display a blank screen to block it. That's pretty user-hostile for Twitter or Instagram but legit for some services.

"[An] application can be aware you've made a screenshot; it can even prevent it," nerd SeanJW said in an Ars Technica comment thread. "Snapchat warns the other user you've taken a screenshot of the conversation, for example, which matters when you think it's ephemeral."

It’s easier than saving a photo. You don’t have to right-click, and choose where to save.

And the tools for managing screenshots are getting better, too.

On Apple devices, you can search images based on the text they contain, and you can also select and copy that text. This makes screenshots of WhatsApp and iMessage conversations even more useful because you get the searchable text along with the context gained by seeing a picture of the original message thread.

Twitter might not like us snapping screenshots and denying its god-given right to monetize those original tweets, but unless it makes the process of sharing as easy as pressing a couple of buttons, it’s going to lose this battle.

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