Are you becoming a screenshot friend?

Are you a ‘screenshot friend’ - and is relying on too many memes on WhatsApp jeopardising your relationships?

Sharing memes plays a big part in maintaining friendships online, but how much is too much?

A video of Geri Halliwell doing the absolute bare minimum during her final performance as a Spice Girl. A picture of the three wide-eyed Tots TV puppets bearing the caption “the British Stranger Things”. And a screengrab of Malcolm Tucker delivering an eviscerating putdown on The Thick Of It

What do these things have in common? They’re all bits of digital ephemera that I’ve fired off on WhatsApp over the past few weeks, not realising at the time that I was in danger of becoming that friend who clogs up everyone’s phone storage with screenshots, memes and one too many links to Love of Huns on Instagram.

Sharing media that we think our friends might find funny is hardly unusual online behaviour (though the Tots TV meme was, I admit, a bit questionable), but as I prepare to send another grainy screen grab that’s tangentially related to a past-its-sell-by-date joke from 2019, there’s a nagging fear that I’m becoming a ‘screenshot friend’, someone who deflects from or disengages from more meaningful conversations by dropping something mildly amusing in the chat, then tapping out (though not before quietly wondering to myself if this is how the people who post ‘live, laugh, love’ pictures on Facebook started out). 

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I’m not the only one guilty of this. When I share a post on Twitter wondering if others have found themselves defaulting to these speedy but nevertheless superficial ways of staying in touch, a screenshot of my message inevitably ends up on one of my group chats. “This is us all over,” one friend writes, while another replies with the go-to meme she’s been dropping into conversation every couple of weeks (one which ponders the eternal question: “What if slugs are just divorced snails?”) by way of agreement.

As an easy, crowd-pleasing form of communicating with our friendship groups that requires little engagement yet often prompts a flurry of quick, positive responses, messages like these can be a surefire route to a dopamine hit. There can be value in these chats, too, beyond that initial chemical rush: one friend notes that she often chooses memes that remind her of a time we’ve spent together; another sees it as a simple way of keeping an emotional connection open with her group when schedules are busy and friendships are scattered (especially if those friends aren’t ones for meandering voice notes).

It’s when these digital interactions start replacing or drowning out more in-depth conversations that our meme habit could become a problem – and no one wants to spend time drafting a detailed, heartfelt message bringing someone up to speed on major life changes, only to receive a video of Gemma Collins two days later. “Social media sites such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Meta [Facebook] create a dichotomy between connection and absence, creating false intimacy between friends,” says Ngozi Cadmus, mental health expert and founder of Frontline Therapist. “You feel close because you can contact anyone on your phone list, but in reality, who can you count on to be there for you when you are in need?”

She adds that people often “engage in regular interactions with people without substance, such as sending memes and links to videos without an honest conversation about how each of them is currently doing… because they are trying to avoid being transparent and vulnerable. Real engagement and deep connection are contingent on transparency and vulnerability. When we continue to have relationships without any meaningful connection, it is a form of protection – we feel unworthy to receive love.”

Her words touch a nerve. The period during which my screenshot-sending rivalled that of a meme-loving Facebook mum coincided with a move that’s taken me hundreds of miles away from the friendships I’ve spent the best part of a decade building up; I wonder whether this over-reliance on silly, substance-free communication has been some subconscious attempt to send out a message that I’m totally fine with everything, actually, rather than honestly answering all of the “How are you?” messages.

So, what’s the best way to break out of this cycle? Cadmus suggests scrolling through your contact list and considering which people you could call in a crisis – a way of prioritising your most valuable friendships – rather than spreading yourself thinly over a greater number of shallower bonds (to the detriment of the genuinely strong ones). 

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Then, she recommends going analogue with – deep breath – a phone call to reset that digital back-and-forth. “The [contacts] that get a ‘yes’ are likely to be no more than your fingers on both hands,” she says. “Decide to call each one and check up on them. Find out how they are and how you can be a better friend. In doing this, you are taking accountability for your poor communication and promising to do better.”

While I’m unlikely to fully abandon my screenshot habit any time soon (full disclosure: in the process of writing this, I dropped a tweet that featured three out of four members of Blue getting on a train with the caption “All rise if you’re getting off at Crewe” in two group chats), it seems that striking a balance between these forms of communication is key – as is finding the time to achieve this.

“Me and my best friend [send memes back and forth] every day and have done since the pandemic started,” says writer Emma Firth, though, she notes, their friendship doesn’t only rely on this form of communication. “We talk constantly on the phone. I only serially share memes with my best friends, in a way because we have the other stuff [in our relationship]. It’s a filler until we see each other, but sometimes I will literally call [my best friend] to laugh at a TikTok she sent me. Laughing is the ultimate connective tissue and we need it daily, however that comes.” 

Even if it’s in the form of a niche scene from a long-forgotten kids’ TV show (I hope).  

Images: Getty

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