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Goblin Mode – On The Theatrics of Digital Self-Representation

A soft aquamarine afterglow gracefully embraces a famous influencer’s square-studded Instagram grid. Some of her photographs showcase an array of “aura-cleansing” crystals: amethysts, ambers, topazes, rose quartzes, and obsidians, lined on a silken cloth. Her feed is detached from the materialistic concerns of the world and is luminous with Aphrodite-like Anime figurines, a playlist primarily made up of synth-pop tunes, and sparkly, cyan-themed stationery, and all her posts are marked by #Auroracore, a hashtag that is a testament to her commitment to this particular audiovisual aesthetic strategy. An elaborate imagery of otherworldly forces, mythical creatures such as mermaids, the iridescent world of crystals, tarot-rituals, magic, enigmatic gems, and plumy gowns; none of the posts in her neatly organized Instagram grid betray its sparkly, mystical lore.

For the uninitiated, the decision to subscribe to a particular social media aesthetic stylization (y2k, cottagecore, goth, fairycore, and many more) comes with a thorough shopping list. This aesthetic typology dictates the interior décor that one would choose, their sartorial inclinations, playlist recommendations, the filters utilized for priming social media posts, the background symphonies, the fixtures of lighting, and even the books showcased on their immaculately put-together bookshelves. All these to curate rows upon rows of neutral-toned posts, drawn together by their homogenous palettes, while being excessively prudent not to tamper with the delicately manicured ensemble of the Instagram feed.

Globin Mode

Over time, the preference for properly spaced filler pictures, an essential for maintaining a thematic semblance, has started to decline. As people began to deviate from stringent aesthetic guidelines, the gloriously messy, low-effort method of posting pictures, known as an Instagram photodump, has started to thrive. The painstakingly arranged virtual exhibitions became less fashionable after the onset of the pandemic. The trend of casual-posting started to run parallel to the existing digital aesthetics — people were compelled to stay indoors and seek beauty in the seemingly mundane moments, forsaking any requirement of a specific aesthetic outline and plunging into Goblin Mode (the Oxford Word of the Year 2022 which beat Metaverse): a blatant irreverence for the brand of idealization perpetuated through self-help TikToks and an antithesis to the singularity of asymmetric, premeditated patterns of content-curating on social media, especially Instagram: curated orderliness is passé, and the everyday routines and objects of everyday life are romanticized for the newsfeeds through photodumps.

The term aesthetics, referring to sensory perception, was pushed from its academic moors steeped in the debates of Immanuel Kant and Plato to the neon-tinted explore pages of Tumblr and Pinterest. In the early 2010s, an alternative visual vocabulary of self-expression began wherein users built moodboards and constructed blog pages that drew their framework from the traits and style associated with a fictional character, an indie-rock band, a pop star, a fantasy novel, or television and film series. The cloudy-skied, vampire-themed Twilight franchise or the intangible cadence of vintage, cosmic, season-specific, or dreamscape themes emerged on the moodboard landscape.

The grunge fashion, tinged with teenage rebellion and the incessant social positioning of oneself as an outcast, entailed an internalised idolisation of indie-rock and alternative artists like Lana Del Rey, Halsey, Melanie Martinez, Lorde, The Neighbourhood, Arctic Monkeys and The 1975 (consciously creating an assortment of melodies that haughtily scoffs at the vanity of popular mass music), included adorning moody winged eyeliners, gothic dark-hued lipsticks and chokers, donning tennis skirts paired with ripped tights, reading Sylvia Plath, posting profoundly emo-seeming lyrics and quotes on one’s blog, thereby aestheticizing melancholy and a sense of detachment from the rest of the society, fitting the trope of being “edgy” and enigmatic; the grunge, pop-punk visual scheme was particularly en vogue up until the heyday of minimalistic accessorization, 2000s pop-culture nostalgia and revivalism, and the rise of the scrunchie-wearing, environmentally-conscientious VSCO girl aesthetic in late 2019.

A wave of nostalgia unleashed by the pandemic prompted a wistful return to the troves of imageries, music, and art that once brought people solace. Tumblr-era Twee fashion (consisting of hair-bows, oversized cardigans, and hairstyles with bangs, think Jessica Day from the American sitcom New Girl) and indiesleaze-core (mid-to-late 2000s hipster) and an array of other aesthetics catalyzed a visual-upheaval. These aesthetic micro-cultures were thrust into the mainstream arenas of the internet, re-popularised through the creation and dissemination of Instagram Reels and TikToks, and now, it is virtually impossible to evade visually-immersive posts that lavishly display aesthetic methodologies such as Dark Academia (gothic architecture, sprawling libraries, classical music, long-coats, dim-lit autumnal foregrounds, tweed pants, satchels, literature, and writing) on these platforms.

The Artistry of Instagram Photodumps: Romanticising the Everyday Life

Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition, stated that postmodern art is an art form that “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” and frees itself from the collective sentimentality for achieving “the unattainable” by conjuring novel mechanisms of presenting what has inherently been marked “unpresentable.” Andy Warhol was known for his anti-aesthetic Pop-Art creations, which were a postmodernist defiance of traditional art and aesthetic theory in their way of envisaging the mundane objects in our day-to-day lives, such as his screenprints of soup cans and comic strips; a similar virtual iconoclasm can be observed like Instagram photodumps.

The breezy casualness of spontaneous short-form TikToks has spilled into the photo-sharing app, Instagram wherein more and more users are betraying any symmetric coherence on their grids to post a miscellany of pictures that do not deserve their solo spotlight through photodumps, a digital subculture popularised by the Gen Z.

The deceptively simple act of posting pictures on Instagram is a convoluted area of branding, aestheticizing, promoting, and representing oneself: it is a form of cyberart. The supersession of unyielding Instagram grid aesthetics by photodumps in the recent past is a rewiring of self-images and an anti-aesthetic, artistic-autonomy rebellion of sorts. A photodump is an Instagram carousel post of no more than ten pictures or videos: a mosaic of styles that captures a particular “vibe” (an impalpable aura or sensation provoked through audiovisual mediums on social media), and it does not solely contain poised and polished photographs; it is a chaotic scrapbook with nostalgic bits and pieces glued together by a loose thematic emblem.

Photodumps could be a mishmash of out-of-focus pictures, blurry photographs of the sky, a whisper meme, an out-of-context pop-culture video, hilarious text screenshots, a screengrab from a movie, or a sitcom, a half-eaten pizza, graffiti-stained walls, a freshly-brewed cappuccino, grainy mirror selfies or zoomed-in shots of a graphic t-shirt, all strung together by a vague caption like “#lastweekend”: the sheer randomness of it all characterizes a photodump.

The sincerity and playful temperament in photodumps could also very well be promotional, sponsored, and hence, performative, in the sense that they are manufactured as content, especially by influencers, which may be seeking to enhance their brand image and to appease the machine-fed, quicksilver algorithm of social media; the art VS content dichotomy is omnipresent on digital platforms wherein one must burnish their posts, for them to be delectable, discernable on the newsfeed and worthy of the double-tap.

In the contemporary era of social networking, artists also have to be virtual creators: for instance, BookTokers, who are often authors writing in various genres and possess their literary niches with devoted followers on TikTok, post concise videos about the plot of their books, weaving a maximalist fantasy about the fictional world that their storylines may be situated in, giving out book recommendations for their book-club podcast, crafting Instagram Reels with quotes from their self-published novel or using moodboards on Instagram to assist the readers in visualizing their book characters.

While a cohesive streak of visual compartmentalization is imperative for maintaining a conventionally aesthetic Instagram grid, the inception of trends like Goblin Mode, the memefication of the That Girl trope, the rise of Side Character Energy, the normalization of photodumps and the success of apps such as BeReal hint at a desire to break away from the hyper-curated flawlessness. The Goblin Mode may obliterate the shackles of an over-organized feed. It is imperative to remember detailed virtual assemblages of moodboards and look-books exist for even an aesthetic that is as obscure as the Pink Pilates Princess. Thus, the two parallel-running virtual micro-cultures of digital self-imagery continue to co-exist, consistently reshaping the rules of internet virality, stardom, and content curation.

Read more on ‘Evolution Of Daily Digital Aesthetics’ in our upcoming issues

Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial

Author: Ria Chakraborty
[Political Science; Lady Shri Ram College for Women; Literary Reviewer]

Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team

Goblin Mode – On The Theatrics of Digital Self-Representation’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on


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