Rob Walker | Essays

"Screenshots of Despair"

"No one currently likes this," via Nevver and Screenshots of Despair.

Here is a little something that I like a lot: Screenshots of Despair is a modest (for now!) Tumblr collection of images that in my opinion could, and should, spark a brilliant meme. I’ll  tell you why.

But first let me explain what it is. The Tumblr’s creation was announced a few weeks ago, this way: “I am trying to collect a bunch of screenshots illustrating the feelings of desolation that can often accompany social networking and life online. SO FUN!”

The announcement was accompanied by a visual example: The words “Nothing is being shared,” on a dark grey background. As a practical matter, this is something displayed by Adobe Connect in idle moments. But taken into this context — the context where you actually think for a second about what you’re seeing — it is indeed an existentially crushing message.

"Nothing is being shared," by Adobe Connect, via Screenshots of Despair.

So I like that sort of thing.

And while Screenshots of Despair has posted only a handful of images so far, you can already see the potential. One of the most cunning selections, I think, is the inclusion of a screenshot of the message Pandora displays when the service has been playing music for a set amount of time and the user has not been interacting by way of likes or dislikes and whatnot. “Are you still listening?” Pandora asks. Once again, it’s a practical query in the interactive-design sense — and a terribly plaintive one in the  human sense.

"Are you still listening?," by Pandora, via Screenshots of Despair.

My strong suspicion is that if the Internet could get excited about this, Screenshots of Despair would be flooded with more examples. Because the project, even in the handful of images new collected, almost instantly changes the way the reader/viewer thinks about these default communiqués of the networked world, the little stand-in placeholders that prod us all to, you know, interact. Get some friends, , declare some favorites, do something to earn some “compliments,” get some new friends.  

These are stand-in messages, and they are designed very specifically to be done away with as soon as possible. Which is exactly why it’s worth stopping and considering them instead.

So come on, Internet. Let’s interact with this idea. Let’s get the crowd involved in documenting these weird, almost accidental moments, when the default algorithms that undergird the realm of the connected remind us, quietly but somewhat naggingly, that we're all alone.

"No Friends," by Apple's Game Center, via Screenshots of Despair.

A closing note of disclosure: I might have had some extremely slight and indirect role in inspiring this — or at the least, the creator seemed to guess it was my kind of thing. I don’t know the creator, but I follow his Tumblr, and have followed his blog for some years now. Both are called The Listenerd, and both are recommended. 

Quick Update (March 26): Since the above was posted, Screenshots of Despair has been adding lots of great new stuff, following coverage from Gawker, TechCrunch, The Times' Bits blog, and others. So the meme now has momentum! And don't forget: you read it on Design Observer first. See this post if you have screenshots of despair to contribute....

Comments [4]

Here is a little meme to go with The Ekphrasis-y Critique . . .

NOTE: This American Life has retracted this story because we learned that many of Mike Daisey’s experiences in China were fabricated. We have removed the audio from our site, and have left this transcript up only for reference. We produced an entire new episode about the retraction, featuring Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who interviewed Mike’s translator Cathy and discovered discrepancies between her account and Mike’s, and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who has reported extensively on Apple. Ira also re-interviewed Mike Daisey.

© 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass

As Mark Twain said: Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Carl W. Smith

You probably saw my reply to the version of this comment you left on that other post that you're referring to, but just for anyone encountering it here: I've followed this turn of events and will find time soon to respond more fully. The short-term reaction is I wish I'd chosen a different example!

Meanwhile, comments about THIS post are welcome!
Rob Walker

OK, Thanks.
Please excuse my comment above. I thought the “RETRACTED” image would almost qualify for “Screenshots of Despair.” But alas, it is not a default algorithm.
Carl W. Smith

While some may find despair, I find freedom from digital slavery.
"Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want to get your drunk on feeling like you belong." - Lester Bangs in Almost Famous


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