Is Internet Receipt Culture Our Undoing?

Cyberbits #8: How demands for evidence have become an impossible quest for truth

Welcome to another edition of Cyberbits—a weekly column on all things internet culture, from TikTok trends to random corners of Reddits to secret online subcultures.

I send  out Cyberbits in between working on longer essays—like Caught in the Study Web, LinkedIn’s Alternate Universe, Cashing in on Clubhouse, and Creeping as a Service (CraaS).

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Is Internet Receipt Culture Our Undoing? 

In 2002, Whitney Houston was questioned by Diane Sawyer during an interview about her alleged $730K drug habit. Houston denied it with a demand: “I want to see the receipts.” The term was launched into the lexicon. 

Today, it’s the same demand we make to determine if something is true and the proof we provide to expose and uncover. A receipt isn’t proof of purchase, but proof of occurence. It’s the internet’s v2 of “pics or it didn’t happen,” updated for a cultural climate where the threat of fake news makes the default mode suspicion in a time where seeing is not believing.

The irrefutable evidence of receipts—screenshots with annotations added, text messages with numbers blurred, and emails with addresses obscured—is the only way to convince the crowd. 

In 2016 when Kanye West released the song “Famous,” including a lyric about Taylor Swift, she made a statement through a publicist noting that West had not sought her permission and that she had cautioned him against releasing a song with a “strong misogynistic message.” Kim Kardashian famously shared receipts defending West—Snapchat footage with a recorded conversation between the two artists revealing Swift had some advance knowledge about the song and was seemingly “in” on it. The revelation changed the collective conversation, casting Swift as villain rather than victim.

When Cardi B rose to mainstream prominence with her chart-topping single “Bodak Yellow,” fellow rapper Azealia Banks criticized her artistry. Cardi B responded with the ultimate receipt—a video of Banks dancing enthusiastically in a club to “Bodak Yellow” singing every word of the song alongside a caption: “One of the reasons ‘Bodak Yellow’ went No. 1! Cuz even the HATERS love it!” 

Sharing receipts is common among YouTubers and online influencers who might make hour-long “response videos” about years-old grievances—revealing text messages, playing voice memos, and sharing since-deleted tweets to clear their names and discredit their detractors. Drama channels on YouTube have made a cottage industry out of digging through the pasts of internet influencers to find receipts; creators like Def Noodles are notorious for finding old clips to add context to the discourse of the day, calling his resurfacings “YOUTUBE ARCHEOLOGY.” 

But the receipts phenomenon now extends beyond celebrity drama and influencer arguments—it’s a mainstay in politics, too. When accusations arose that Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee in the 2021 New York City mayoral election, actually lived in New Jersey, he gave the media a tour of his Brooklyn brownstone. The internet poured over the pictures, analyzing old snapshots and previous references—sharing receipts, suggesting the photos had been staged.

Andrew Yang, then a contender in the same mayoral election, brought receipts of his own to question his competitor in an interview with New York magazine: 

“Eric Adams two debates ago said what he couldn’t do without was a bubble bath... When he gave reporters a tour of the basement he supposedly lives in, there is no bathtub in the basement. So, I just want people to notice there’s no bathtub.”

Capturing, sharing, and reviewing receipts—either private or forgotten proof—lets the public in on the process of constructing reality. The Internet is forever and we’re all leaving a digital paper trail. Everyone can be an aspiring investigator sorting through the clues to craft a narrative—we want the DMs, the screenshot of the deleted tweet, the archived webpage that shows an undeniable edit. 

And yet, despite our collective obsession with proof, we don’t appear to be moving closer to the truth. 

In May 2021, a since-deleted video started circulating online of Sienna Gomez and Jack Wright, a TikTok duo that were romantically linked. According to Wright’s twin brother, the video depicted Gomez sexually assaulting Wright. On June 4, 2021, Gomez released a 13-minute video addressing what she called “false allegations”—she argues the video was intentionally edited to make her look bad, the movement of Wright’s hand indicates he was awake, and that any intimate moments between them were mutual. In the comments under her plea to the public, the response was mixed, but many viewers were convinced: she had come with receipts. 

In 2020, four years after Kim Kardashian shared the receipts of Taylor Swift, a longer video of the original conversation was shared online. #TaylorSwiftWasRight, #KimKardashianIsOverParty, and #KanyeWestIsOverParty trended on Twitter as a result—new receipts had reversed the prevailing narrative.  

Receipts, like any other form of “evidence,” online or otherwise, can be photoshopped or doctored. They can be shared selectively—cropped, edited, angled—to fit a desired narrative. They can be wrapped in storytelling that adds life and color to a context-less screenshot. 

“Receipts culture” has collided with “accountability culture;” keeping receipts and sharing them is viewed as a way to hold truth to power, exposing someone as a bad actor. In some instances, this can be true. But our current obsession with internet receipts is often less truth-seeking and more entertainment-finding. Exposing people through receipts has become a global pastime, allowing us to play amateur detectives or simply enjoy the spectacle, rather than a searching for what's objective—whatever that means.

Evidence is rarely enough to change hearts and minds. Yet, the receipts phenomenon continues to trickle down. Capturing, processing, and sharing receipts has moved beyond celebrities, influencers, and politicians, to the rest of us.

In a piece by Kaitlyn Tiffany in The Atlantic, she discusses how screenshots have become an everyday weapon:

“But the most important trait of screenshots now is that they’re slippery: A personal exchange can become a meme or a weapon; a random moment can turn into a work of art or mutate into a callout.”

In between screenshots saved to desktops and shared in group chats, we’re all purveyors of receipts. In turn, every interaction is evidence, every message is worthy of saving, and everything must be recorded. It’s an exhausting way to exist. Rather than living, we’re indulging a new need to document, collecting and sharing proof: folders full of photos and text messages we’ll never delete. Just in case. We’re living lives on the defense, preparing to switch at any moment to the offense. 

Bits From Around The Web

Have an awesome weekend ahead!


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