“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.
Before VCRs, you rewatched your favorite episodes as reruns. Then there were rentals, and eventually streaming—but generally speaking you still sat through the whole thing, or at least left it on in the background. Screencaps turn that notion on its head. Now you can browse Tumblr for bite-sized punchlines. You can laugh at scenes from shows you’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 your uncle who recounts involved passages from Steve Martin movies at Thanksgiving.