The Alienated Aesthetics of Image Degradation

Curator's Note

Degraded images are an aesthetic genre on Instagram which makes explicit the deterioration of an image in circulation. Specifically, in this aesthetic, deterioration of the image is correlated with feelings of frustration, alienation, and existential anguish. These images come in a variety of formats but are instantly recognisable due to their corrupted appearance and the typically depressive text edited on top of them. They can most commonly be found on niche micro influencer’s pages that post and produce memes. The ones included above have been sourced on numerous meme-based Instagram accounts such as @zombiekith (recently deactivated) @thisisadigitalprison and others.

Degraded images showcase deterioration by making explicit the editing process an image circulating online will gradually go through over the course of its sharing and distribution process. It is not the first time that image deterioration has become an aesthetic staple in memetic subcultures. In deep frying, images were turned into memes through the following techniques of image editing.

  • Cropping
  • Image size alteration
  • Adding noise
  • Image mirroring
  • Image sharpening
  • Increasing contrast
  • Image warping


Various image editing techniques that were staples in the deep fried memes genre such pixelisation are recognisable in the images above, but the addition of references to depressive, existential or suicidal thoughts adds discomfort to the images.

In the above, the degraded aesthetic of the images is meant to embody physical and existential feelings of alienation. These emotions are sometimes specifically correlated with a human face that is overwhelmed, depressed, anxious. For example, a gaunt and anxious looking Spongebob reinforces the message of text edited on top of the image; “My body is made of crushed little stars and I am doing nothing”. Other times, degraded imagery is used as a shorthand to embody something that cannot be put into words. In this case, glitch imagery and Zalgo text (modified digital text incorporating bidrectionality) are also featured, such as “the feminine urge to [glitch imagery]”.

The particularities of this aesthetic are contingent on the constant image circulation process on which it feeds. In showcasing degradation, it places itself as a meta-commentary on the principle of meme-making. However, as it has popularised and spread amongst niche micro influencers, the genre has become more commonplace as a way to vent otherwise unrepresentable emotions.

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