Who doesn’t look at the battery gauge on a smartphone screenshot first? When Randall Munroe, proprietor of the popular technology webcomic XKCD, posted a comic titled “Screenshot” in 2014, it captured something of the zeitgeist.
Munroe’s insight came just as smartphone penetration topped 75 percent in America, which is the kind of saturation you’d need before something like battery problems became widely relatable. The old bricks, remember, didn’t need charging once a day because they couldn’t do as much.
While a Pew study found that smartphone adoption was only 77 percent this year, it also saw that one-fifth of smartphone users only access the internet through their mobile devices. That statistic is obviously segmented by race and class: 14 percent of white people were, as Pew describes them, “smartphone dependent”; 24 percent of black folks were; and that number jumped up to 35 percent of Hispanic people. The data breaks down even further by age and income: 28 percent of people 18–29 describe themselves as smartphone dependent. Of those people, 31 percent make less than $30,000 a year, and 22 percent make between $31,000 and $49,999.
That means America’s conception of the internet is changing. Smartphone battery life appearing in a screenshot says what you’re seeing has been created on a mobile device. That happens more and more often as smartphones become sleeker, faster, and more capable. On a reasonably cheap Android device, there are a host of powerful photo and video editing apps. Adobe makes mobile versions of Premiere and Photoshop, and Google has come up with its own equivalent offerings. Smartphones democratized both content creation and internet access, and that moved the internet into a new era. This feeds into all of the different online communities. The local internet is largely smartphone-based, for example, as is black Twitter, and the two couldn’t be more different.
The first app that truly embraced smartphone content creation was Vine, which launched in January 2013. Internet-enabled mobile devices were already intended for entertainment after drifting from their roots as business-class necessities. But the idea of creating entertainment on smartphones was relatively new. Instagram had appeared three years before and Facebook had its mobile app, but both were their own kind of walled gardens, which weren’t suited to propagating content created there across the internet at large. Vine burst into the meme world at a time when the dominant language was rage comics and when the dominant way of generating new memes and meme formats was on a computer or a desktop website.
At the time, “the Internet” referred to a kind of binary, with Facebook / Instagram / Twitter on one side and 4chan / Reddit / Something Awful / Metafilter on the other. It was divided between those who had been steeped in the language of internet community culture, in other words, and those Eternal Septemberers in the mainstream who were just coming online. Vine was more important than, say, Instagram because it broke down those walls that the other platforms had erected; Vines lived on every platform, including on Instagram where you can still find them today. The app was a way of seeing the world, and that’s one of the reasons why it was the first platform to bridge the gap between the segregated camps of internet old heads and normies.
Vine was also mostly used by teens of color who were just making things they liked. These were teens who weren’t necessarily smartphone dependent, but who mainly access the internet (and created things) via their mobile devices. Vines were their own language, too. You can read the conventions in the Vine compilations that are still floating around Tumblr and Worldstar Hip Hop; they include out-there catchphrases and mundane views punctured by jerky, sudden action, and they spread virally through the walled gardens and onto the forums, uniting the two in the process. Many of those teenage creators were the people Pew’s study described: people who don’t have a high income and whose main experience of the internet is via their phones.
Smartphones untethered meme creation from computers and gave us the internet we have today. Here, anyone can roast a member of Congress and have that person respond, and a brand can appropriate the language of teenagers online and not damage their reputation. It’s a place, in short, where a universal culture is emerging. Roasting people’s low batteries in screenshots prefigured that. It’s always difficult to predict where a medium will go and how it will change. But a good rule of thumb is to watch how quickly young, lower-income people adopt a technology and see how they use it. Now go charge your phone.