Like a fried Oreo or Mars bar, but memes
Out of all the modes of memery to take over social media, the most bizarre has to be deep-fried memes. Like entering a glitched-out vortex, these images look exactly like they sound: comically overprocessed, fried within an inch of their life. Think of a fried Oreo or Mars bar, but memes. With the emphasis on form, not content, these images are intentionally indecipherable, scrambled out of recognition.
Originating on Tumblr in 2015 and popularised on Black Twitter, deep-fried memes aren’t a new phenomenon. In fact, they became so popular in the late 2010s that a dedicated subreddit r/DeepFriedMemes, described as an archive for “memes that imitate and exaggerate the degradation of an image”, surpassed one million members when it was made private in 2020. According to one of its moderators, the quality of the memes dropped in standards for a period (“people began frying more lazily”). But now, in 2022, deep-fried memes are back and crispier than ever. While earlier iterations of the meme veered towards pop culture characters like Spongebob and Yoda, newer versions feature a distinctly darker subject matter, with many of the memes touching on surreal and taboo content like mental health and addiction – AKA the sort of stuff that (un-fried) will likely get you Zuckked.
By deep-frying a meme, you essentially replicate the damage to an image as a result of repeatedly sharing, resharing and screenshotting through social media’s compression algorithm. “It implies that, whatever the incomprehensible content may be, it somehow resonated with enough people to get to you in this godforsaken state,” says London-based producer Voidboi, who regularly posts deep-fried memes on their Instagram. The content of the meme is almost irrelevant; its formless quality moves beyond representation into a state of pure sensation: the crispier the meme, the more cursed and frightening it feels.
This is especially true when we consider why there’s been a resurgence of deep-fried memes online. Blitzing an image out of recognition allows users to bypass Instagram’s shadowy censorship rules, so it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing increasingly cryptic memes emerge at a time when platforms like Instagram are changing up their algorithms to further shadow ban and deprioritise accounts that don’t meet the Terms And Conditions. “Deep frying also allows you to get away with stuff that you could never post on socials without distorting it into oblivion,” says Voidboi. Deep-frying then works as a system seizure of sorts, transforming social media-unfriendly content into a CAPTCHA so that it’s rendered unreadable by machines.
This allows more freedom to explore subjects on the edge of what the algorithm deems acceptable. “Platforms incentivise creators to make more and more extreme content that’s more incendiary... and it pushes them to the edge of the terms of service,” says Jak Ritger, an artist and researcher at Do Not Research and New Models. “If you go too far, you get knocked off. That's where it’s pushing you because that’s the content that really does the best.”
To understand the role that deep-frying plays online, we must understand the evolution of memes. Look back ten years and memes were simply text-image jokes to be shared en masse. Then the internet was colonised by Big Tech and everything became filtered through social media. Nowadays, all content is a commodity and even the most personal content takes on a glossy, search engine-optimised sheen that’s indistinguishable from advertising. “Because everything on social media is in this advertising language, you have to try to define something against it,” explains Ritger. “Whatever you post is going to be before or after a Zara ad or something and so you have to try to define it against it.”
At the forefront of the deep-fried revival is Sematary, the 21-year-old Soundcloud artist behind the viral RAINBOW BRIDGE mixtape series. With 138k followers on Instagram, the rapper is synonymous with the deep-fried aesthetic. He has a mysterious social media presence packed with distorted photos of knives and occult paraphernalia (it’s the sort of cryptic content you’d expect to find on liminal TikTok). His sound is equally processed, a horrorcore combo of witch house and Chief Keef with crunchy, distorted basslines and blown-out 808s.
As an artist who’s vocally anti-establishment, it makes sense that Sematary would employ a deep-fried aesthetic. “When I listen to music, I wanna hear super deranged, anti-society kind of stuff in it,” he said in a 2020 interview. Gaining a cult following on Soundcloud, his accompanying artworks have garnered a prolific reputation among countless other producers who aspire to follow in his footsteps, not to mention hundreds of meme pages that borrow from his visual language. “Soundcloud thrives on free, lo-fi content, which itself is made using royalty-free platforms such as Splice,” says Ritger. “It’s using tools that were designed for making background music for adverts.”
Whether it’s visually or sonically, deep-fried content is a way of rebelling against the current social media landscape and surveillance capitalism; a way of disrupting the algorithmically-optimised chain of glossy advertorials that clog up our feeds. The same algorithm that pushes people towards increasingly radical and far-right content, and others toward homogenising beauty standards like Instagram face. Perhaps deep-frying content is the most punk thing we can do (for now) without leaving these platforms entirely; each post and re-share another step towards pixel death oblivion.