If you scrolled through your favourite model / actor / musician’s Instagram account a handful of years back, you might have been able to peep their plush hotel room, or recent shiny photo shoots, or some perfectly shot latte art next to an open book. Do the same thing now, and you're more likely to see, I don't know, a random car number plate, a flash-on pic of some fast food and something strange like a dead pigeon squashed in the road. So… what happened?
Enter: Instagram's peak ugly era.
Instagram feeds have been looking purposefully ugly for a while now – among both celebs, influencers and online civilians alike. Long gone are the days of breakfasts fed through the VSCO app or, worse, some kind of natural phenomenon like a sunset flattened through an Instagram filter.
Instead, we're more drawn to weird, unfiltered shit. Think The Crown star Emma Corrin and this totally random grainy plant, Atypical actor Bridgette Lundy-Paine and this blurry screenshot of some tacos, Cara Delevingne and this lo-fi pic of a car map or all your uni mates suddenly posting their knee scabs and half-eaten McDonald’s on the TL.
Jane Macfarlane, art director at creative agency The Digital Fairy, thinks this “anti-aesthetic” vibe can be viewed as a natural progression of the casual photo dump, which seemed to flourished during the pandemic’s early days, back when people were documenting the everyday nature of their lives.
“Photo dumps walked so anti-aesthetic feeds could run,” she says. “They immortalised the messy or mundane moments in our lives we didn’t treasure pre-pandemic. They also served as a visual humble brag: ‘Even the unfiltered outtakes of my life look great.’ Post-pandemic, photo dumps became anti-aesthetic, studded with memes and screenshots.”
But why? Why this gradual switch from polished to casual to straight-up weird? Macfarlane thinks it's less about a “trend”, per se, and more to do with the evolution of how we use the internet in general. Young people, in particular, seem to value authenticity over coming across too self-conscious or polished online.
“People are becoming accustomed to platforms like TikTok which celebrate a more raw, individualistic content style,” she explains. “The Insta aesthetic that once had us in a chokehold is no longer relevant and the in-your-face mess of anti-aesthetic content feels like creators rejecting traditional *feed-goals*.”
Mark Bage, CEO of creative agency Not Studio, agrees that this new ugliness speaks to a desire to be more individual and authentic. “This intentional anti-aesthetic is about layered references, in-jokes and an anarchic spirit, which is harder – if not impossible – to fake,” he says, “but can ensure your business or personal brand is protected from copycats or assimilation.”
Still, it's hard to deny that the anti-aesthetic style isn't – at least in part – also a carefully considered aesthetic in itself. A lot of anti-aesthetic posts might appear weird, off-the-cuff or unsavoury – but never truly ugly ugly. People aren’t posting photos of their double chins or fungal toenail infections. We’re more likely to see a conventionally attractive person without visible makeup, for example, or someone’s actually quite stylish outfit via a zoomed-in mirror selfie. As Macfarlane explains, the anti-aesthetic is also about saying “even at my most weird and unfiltered, my life still looks cool and interesting”.
It’s probably also worth pointing out here that the anti-aesthetic isn’t just an Instagram thing. As Macfarlane tells me, ugliness is everywhere, from “the popularity of visibly amateur knitwear” to the “Crocs renaissance”, as well as people trying to recreate “eyebags on TikTok”.
“It feels nonconformist and pure to adopt pieces that have previously been ostracised for being too ugly,” she adds. “With tech we’re constantly looking for more lo-fi methods to capture content: People are reverting to using their phone’s front cameras, extreme zooms and even buying cheap digital cameras to reduce quality in their content.”
22-year-old Dylan Holden-Sim – a software engineer whose feed is a mixture of random memes, genuinely odd photos and lo-fi selfies – thinks that even if it is a purposeful aesthetic, it still acts as an antidote to the polished posts of the past. “The ‘curated feed’ became too closely associated with the skinny tea-sponsored post or ‘peaked in high school’ types and the pendulum is just swinging back the other way again.”
But, he says, “anti-posting is still very much within the transactional framework of Instagram use – I still look at how many people liked my shitpost. For the anti-poster, instagram remains a social CV, just with ‘I AM DEFINITELY NOT A NORMIE’ written across the top.”
J Whitehead, a 26-year-old video games tester, rarely ever posts selfies. Instead, she posts things like old trash on the street, a dead bird in an ashtray or some discarded chips. “Perfection and beautifully curated feeds feel false,” she says, “and there’s a sort of authenticity of accepting and spotlighting the ugliness of the world.”
She tells me she often goes looking for weird shit to post online – way more fun than meticulously picking a perfect colour palette. “I think part of the allure for me is that it’s low effort,” she says. “There’s more time to be present in the world. That’s kind of where my feed came from; a desire to be present.”
While most people I spoke with had slightly differing ideas about where the “ugly feed” came from, everyone seemed to agree that Instagram’s days are numbered. The anti-aesthetic could, in fact, be the platform’s final frontier. “Instagram will (has!) become a wasteland of ads for the middle-aged and bots, the way Facebook went maybe seven or eight years ago,” says Bage.
“For now,” he adds, “it’s refreshing to see creatives embracing ugliness, as a form of counterculture and a breeding ground for new ideas in an increasingly homogeneous space.”
So yeah, if you’re still posting nice pics of restaurant food, stop that. Post a trampled crisp packet in the street instead.