How to Deep Fry a Meme (aka glitch a file)

Okay, so glitching a file is a little more complicated and involved than deep frying a meme, which can be done simply by going to https://deepfriedmemes.com/, and apply various filters to make an image look distorted. But glitching a file is a lot like creating a homegrown deep fried meme, the old fashioned way.

There is a lot of merit to knowing how to glitch a file, as Trever Owens points out in his article “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps.” Owens quotes Scott Fitzgerald, who states that it’s important to know how to glitch a file because it helps you to understand the underlying structures which make up the file itself. In other words, knowing how to glitch a file is a lot like knowing how to fix a running toilet. Toilets are something we all use everyday, and also something we often take for granted (or at least I did until I moved in to my current apartment which has a chronically problematic toilet). Knowing how a toilet actually works is important in diagnosing the cause the the running, and ultimately fixing it. Files are somewhat the same. We often take the various extensions, .pdf, .mp3, .docx, etc. for granted. As Owens points out this can lead to “Screen Essentialism”:

“The heart of the critique is that digital objects aren’t just what they appear to be when they are rendered by a particular piece of software in a particular configuration. They are, at their core, bits of encoded information on media. While that encoded information may have one particular intended kind of software to read or present the information we can learn about the encoded information in the object by ignoring how we are supposed to read it. We can change a file extension and read against the intended way of viewing the object.”

Trevor Owens, “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps.”

So, in this post I will take you through the steps of glitching an image file, because as public historians its important to have deeper understanding of what makes up a file, rather than just taking it for what it is on the surface. To demonstrate this process I am going to stick with my meme theme by glitching *cough* deep frying *cough* a photo from the “they did surgery on a grape” meme because its one of my favorites, and also super obscure so maybe in 50 years someone will stumble across this post and write a paper on the cultural importance of “they did surgery on a grape” meme in 2019.

Anyways, back to glitching the file. To begin here is my original image:

This is my initial image, which is currently in .jpeg format.

Now to glitch the image file, change the extension to .txt. I’m using preview on a mac, but the steps should be roughly the same no matter what kind of set up you are using. Find the .jpg file in finder, right click, and select “get info”

Once in this information pane, change the file extension from .jpg to .txt:

The file will then convert into a text file:

Delete some of the code in here, and follow the same steps to turn the file back into a .jpg. This is where I ran into some issues. I had trouble finding a happy balance between recognizably glitching the image and destroying it so much my computer was unable to open it. Eventually I got the file to open with the photos app, but it was just white:

I got this alert a bunch when trying to convert the image back to a .jpg and reopen it on my computer
I was finally able to open the image in the photos application, but it was just white…

Alas, now that I was familiar process, I wanted to keep trying. Perhaps because I used a meme I got off the internet the process didn’t go as smoothly as it normally does. So I tried again with a more normal .jpg image of my cat, Omen. Here is the original image:

Here’s the image after following the steps above, deleting a small chunk of the .txt file:

And finally, here’s the photo again, now substantially degraded:

Honestly, I kind of like it more than the original

Overall, this has been a fun and interesting process. I can see how glitching an image file can very much be an art form–and now that I understand how it works (kind of), I feel like I have a deeper understanding of born digital objects. They are far more than then what you see on the surface.

I wonder what this means for the future of things like digital libraries. It’s so easy to corrupt a file, how can we know if the image in the library is the original? What does it even mean to be an original file? If someone such as myself can learn how distort an image in one afternoon, who’s to say someone couldn’t hack the server of a digital library and corrupt historical images which no longer exist physically–how do we get those images back? I did some quick searches and there are ways to undo damage, but I feel as though digital files are just as vulnerable as their physical counterparts, whereas before this process I did not. Which really proves Owens and Fitzgeralds point that its important to know how these files work on the backside to better preserve and study them on the front side.

I started this process excited to “deep fry” an image, but now I see there is a lot more at play here than making a funny meme. Perhaps the whole trend of deep frying an image for comedic value says something about our growing technologically driven society–or maybe I’m being a little too philosophical. Regardless, I’m glad I got to learn more about this process, now I know how to fix a running toilet AND glitch a file.

9 Replies to “How to Deep Fry a Meme (aka glitch a file)”

  1. Thanks for this post, Amanda, and for sharing a pic of your cat. When I first read on the syllabus that glitching files was a practicum, I was really confused. But the process really brings, as Kirschenbaum would say, the materiality of the digital object into focus. I confess that I always assumed that digitization was the best way to store historical artifacts because digital object can’t be damaged or destroyed as easily as physical objects. The readings this week, and my own practicum on the Mystery House, have shown me that this is not necessarily true. Knowing and understanding what lies underneath the outward appearance of a digital object is crucial for understanding archival preservation and the correct storage and restoration of digital objects.

    1. I too used to think that storing things digitally was a good way to preserve an object, as it was harder to damage. I remember being flabbergasted when I learned that digital files degrade over time, just like physical objects last summer in my historical curatorial practice class. Even then, I assumed that digital damage was a lot harder to cause, and happened over a longer period of time. After going through this process, I see now how easy it is to destroy a file. I’m glad I have that knowledge but I’m a little stressed as my slight hoarder-esc side comes out and I worry about the future of cultural heritage collections of any kind….

    2. Erica, your initial assumption that digital objects can’t be damaged or destroyed as easily is really striking to me. It’s kind of the flip side of the ephemerality and “perceived volatility of electronically recorded data” (70) that Kirschenbaum discusses. I think I’ve made the same assumption about things like digitized museum collections, or something more personal like my own family photos, but then anxiously and obsessively save papers as I write them for fear of “losing” them. It’s interesting to think about how different assumptions about stability and vulnerability might attach to different types of digital media. It makes me wonder: what factors might those assumptions depend on?

  2. This reminds me of the processes I go through often when uploading a file or image for my journalism work. For example, if I need a graphic with a transparent background, it must be saved as .png. If I need a regular photo to upload to our server, it should be a .jpg. But, if I need the photo to go into print, it should be a vector file, like a .pdf. While I know what type of file works best for each platform, a lot of computer users don’t. It’s quite possible, and I assume it happens often, that a user distorts a file, maybe even without realizing it, thus affecting its preservation in the long run.

    1. You bring up a good point. I was tempted to try the same process with a .png file, as I use them at work when I want something on our website to have no background, as you said. I wonder if the effect on a .png file is the same as a .jpg? This again demonstrates that while I may know what different file extensions are used for, I don’t really understand the inner workings of each.

  3. Woah. As someone who is technologically incompetent, this post blew my mind. First, I must admit that I did not know what “frying a meme” meant…so after some googling, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. HOWEVER, glitching a file is incredibly interesting. I completely agree with Owens and Fitzgerald’s point that it is important to know how files work on the backside to better preserve and study them on the front side.
    Also, after seeing the examples of your cat, I am contemplating how many photos (and documents) on the internet have been “glitched”. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to learn how to distort and illegitimatize a photo- therefore, I wonder if we would be shocked to learn the percentage of well-known historical photos that have been altered through modern-day file glitching?

  4. A number of the articles we’ve read so far have worked to hammer home the idea that you have to carefully think about the file formats you’re using when saving digital materials – I’m thinking specifically about Kara Van Malssen’s “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History,” and this week’s “Digital Formats: Facts for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality,” by Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhaur, but there have been others. These have really impressed upon me how digital files can be just as delicate as paper ones, although in different ways. Your questions about the safety, not just the preservation, of digital files really struck me, especially when you questioned how easy it might be for someone to hack into a digital library and corrupt images. Physical archives today have so many safety regulations in place for their documents, and it made me wonder how we’re protecting things that are digital.

  5. Great post. I too was not that familiar with the deep fry meme trend. However, I can see now how it’s useful in understanding the foundation of digital files. To be transparent, I still cannot relate to the amusement of this activity, but that’s mainly because of the slight anxiety that befalls on me when I see coding.

    Aside from using this application for entertainment, I completely understand using it for functional and analytical purposes. As you pointed out from Owens, it’s important to understand the foundation and structure of files. Just like the preservation of paper files are essential for preserving histories, it’s important to see the delicate ephemeral state of digital files for the same purpose.

  6. Great post! I completely agree with your point that we can’t just take everything at face value, and need a better understanding of what makes up a file. I think this especially true regarding another point you made, about how digital files can prove to be as vulnerable as their physical counterparts. Having an understanding of how this process works can be valuable if a problem does arise.

    I also think you ask some great questions. One that I found especially interesting is “what does it even mean to be an original files?”. If files can be altered in this way, it might be difficult to define what the “original” file was, so what will we do at that point? This subject is really eye-opening for me, as I have never really thought about it before. I think what really strikes me is the vulnerability these files possess that I was never aware of until now.

Leave a Reply to alaughead Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *