The Rise of the No-Context Screenshot

Photo: Vulture and NBC

For television, 2017 was a year of Netflix domination, amazing new shows, and truly great coats. On social media, though, a different TV-related trend felt like it hit a watershed point this year. It worked as a stand-alone laugh, as a commentary on the moment, and as a viewing diary. It worked as a joke about a show, or as a joke about the person sharing it, or as a way to celebrate specific moments within an immense TV landscape. For television, 2017 was also the year of the no-context screenshot.

The no-context screenshot is hardly new, of course. Images taken from a TV show or movie and combined with a quote are an internet staple from way down deep in the Tumblr-verse, where GIFs and screenshots of beloved pop-culture objects have long been collected into easily shareable digital scrapbooks. But this year, it feels like they busted out of that particular niche and spread across the broader social-media landscape, where they’ve developed a distinct flavor. The no-context screenshot is no longer just intended for fans of a show, who will love an image precisely for its context. Now, the no-context screenshot has become a deliberate act of yanking a particular moment out from its original framework.

Images with captions have long been the bread and butter of internet culture, but this particular incarnation owes some thanks to a few predecessors that helped define the no-context screenshot as a genre. One of the first was @NYTMinusContext, an account that pulls short phrases from the New York Times and sets them free into the internet, sans baggage. Then, alongside a spate of anime-focused accounts, a Twitter account dedicated to no-context screenshots of British documentarian Louis Theroux hit the scene in 2016. Later that year, an account inspired by @NoContextLouis did the same for The Great British Bake-Off. Both rely on a particular style of meme-able image: a single screenshot, or perhaps a collection of two or three, generally accompanied by whatever the show’s closed captioning text reads at that same moment.

But in 2017, the no-context screenshot seemed to achieve a sort of escape velocity. A lot more accounts started springing up, dedicated to shows like The Good Place and Nathan for You and Frasier and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and New Girl. More broadly, no-context screenshots started to appear as stand-alone images on social feeds. Part of that ubiquity may be simple utility: An image is smaller and less finicky than a GIF, it’s easy to share across multiple platforms, and it’s remarkably quick to make. No fiddling around with photo manipulators or GIF-making apps — just turn on the closed captions, hit pause, and grab the pic. It’s easy to lift a single image from, say, Neo Yokio and set it off onto the internet, freed from its original framework.

Of course, the pleasure of the no-context screenshot, as with so much of comedy, comes out of how differently something reads when it’s taken out of its original circumstances. An account like @NoContextGBBO is funny because it isolates the naughty moments of an otherwise delightfully wholesome reality show: a dish that deserves to be a bit firmer, for example, or a grandmotherly figure who says she’s “getting it in both of them” while adding flavor to a dish. An image without a caption can also become a shorthand of its own, taking on the same shareable potential as an emoji or reaction GIF. Why use words when you can just send this instead?

Though coincidental, it also seems appropriate that the no-context screenshot is having a moment just as AOL Instant Messenger finally dies. Although some are just pure silliness set loose in the world, bouncing around the internet all on their own, the greatest no-context screenshots can feel like using a quote for your AIM status message: It works on its own, but it’s also meant to reflect the person who shared it (how clever they are for selecting it, and how it reflects on them) and speak to the people who receive it (how they understand the person who’s shared it, and how resonant it is to them). Removing something from its context, after all, is really just a way to create a vacuum where more contexts can flood in.

As the no-context screenshot has grown in visibility and ubiquity, we also landed on the runaway winner of the pack in 2017:

It’s easy to see why. For many, it’s a fantastically fitting pop-culture moment for our current reality. In context, it’s taken from the crucial part of The Good Place where the show reveals its big twist: Eleanor and her friends have spent the entire first season thinking that they’re bad people who’ve accidentally landed in heaven, but no. As Eleanor finally pieces together, they’re not in the Good Place at all. Eleanor’s realization is initially triumphant, but underneath that victory is deep despair. They already thought they were screwed, but now it’s so much worse. Everything they thought was true is a lie. Their entire universe has collapsed.

In the world of The Good Place, that moment is astonishing. But when it’s stripped of its context, it feels like the perfect encapsulation of this year. Many of us thought our country was one thing, but suddenly learned that it’s something else entirely. “This is the Bad Place!” became a shorthand for, well, everything. It’s the realization that the dark time has already come, and we’ve been living in it this whole time. It is a meme-able, despairing version of David Foster Wallace’s “this is water” speech. Even if you’re just realizing it now, this has always been the bad place.

Most no-context screenshots aren’t targeted at the political moment. Most are funny contrasts of caption and image, and few are as concerned with yawning existential despair. But still, this is precisely the appeal of the form: When something is stripped of its original context, it can suddenly speak to all kinds of new, unexpected ideas. It’s there in the hilarity of the caption “tense music plays” underneath someone sliding a baking sheet of cookies in the oven, and in mimicking normalcy with Dougie Jones’s grimace-smile, and also in just being Niles Crane for a moment. It’s definitely in the excerpted strangeness of The Good Doctor. The no-context screenshot is a found object in a huge pop-cultural sea, a testament to the collector’s taste and the audience’s savvy in appreciating it. In a year like 2017, perhaps it makes sense that the no-context screenshot would become such a cultural touchstone. It’s a way to point to the pain without having to say it.

Or, in other words:

The Rise of the No-Context Screenshot