Monday, June 11, 2012

Using Screenshots To Comment Critically On Websites

I recently read a post by Ken MacBeth (Lahikmajoe) titled Trashing the Tea Competition. This post was very interesting to me, and is likely to inspire a second post beyond this one, but in this post, I want to talk about something that happens often, not just on the web, not just in tea culture, but across the board in our society. This is when people get curious about a negative perspective being expressed somewhere, and end up inadvertently giving this negative perspective a lot of voice.

In this post, Lahikmajoe describes what he thought was a particularly nasty commentary on a specific company's tea, tea that he actually enjoyed. In the comments, several people spoke up and said that they wished he would provide a link to this commentary.

Why I think it is not a good idea to include such a link:

Linking to a website sends traffic to the site, and also makes it more likely for that page to be returned higher in search results, and thus get more traffic. Web traffic has financial benefits, as it can lead to sales and increased advertising revenue. It also makes a message more likely to be repeated--in this case, a message that the author commenting on it (Lahikmajoe in this case) thinks is negative. So it is not in the best interests of the author (which might be you!) to link to the site that contains the message you are critical of.

My general rule:

It is best to avoid publicly linking to any site that you do not wish to encourage or promote.

This rule can be applied to negative commentary that you think oversteps some sort of ethical line, to tea company websites of businesses that you think engage in questionable practices, or to any website voicing views or engaging in practices that you do not wish to support.

If someone contacts you and is curious, you can share a link in private, but what can you do when you really want to comment on a site publicly? I think that in this case, the best way of handling it is a screenshot.

Why screenshots?

Displayed here is a screenshot of, included only as an example. I own the copyright on this site, so I can use this screenshot however I please. When using screenshots on which you own the copyright, care must be taken to see that your use constitutes fair use.

A screenshot displays the content of the website that you wish to comment on, but enables you to describe it, in the way it appears on the website, without actually linking to the website. A screenshot is often more informative to your readers than simply quoting the material, because it shows the material in context. Screenshots also allow you to blur out or paint over sensitive material, such as profanity, personal information, or anything else you wish not to display:

Websites are copyrighted, and taking a screenshot of a website constitutes making a copy of copyrighted material. However, the use of a screenshot, for the sole purpose of commentary, and showing only a small portion of the site, is protected under fair use. For a brief legal explanation, I recommend reading Copyright & Fair Use: Commentary and Criticism on the Stanford University Library's website; this is the best, most concise explanation of fair use that I have been able to find. There is a more detailed article on the use of screenshots in particular on lifehacker, Ask the Law Geek: Is publishing screenshots Fair Use?. In general, screenshots can infringe copyright, but, if used for commentary and in ways that do not reproduce more of a website than is needed for commentary, are allowed under fair use. When the amount of text or images included in a screenshot may cause problems with fair use, you can always crop the image or blur out more material.

Using a screenshot also avoids the duplication of text within search engines, which, if you are copying a large block of text, can make it appear as if you are stealing content with ill intentions.

How to make a screenshot differs depending on your operating system. Wikipedia's page on Screenshots has some explanations for different operating systems.

What do you think?

Do you use screenshots in the way described in this post? Do you think I have convinced you to avoid linking to websites with a negative message or other sites that you do not wish to support, and instead use screenshots for commentary?

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