Twitter Will Finally Stop Making Your Images Look Terrible

At last, the end of sketchy compression

Credit: Eric Ravenscraft

SSocial media is ruining the internet, but not in the way you think. (Okay, not solely in the way you think.) Every time an image is uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, it gets compressed, degrading its overall quality. If an image is downloaded and re-uploaded — which happens constantly to memes — the effect grows even more drastic. Eventually, if an image is shared too many times, it can become unreadable. But now, Twitter’s taking a small step toward fixing the problem.

This week, Twitter engineer Nolan O’Brien announced that the site will now “preserve JPEGs as they are encoded for upload on Twitter for Web.” This change basically means when a user uploads a photo, it will be displayed in its full, uncompressed glory. This is a big deal because, for most of the internet, compressing photos means ruining them a little bit. And when every site does the same thing, they get ruined a lot.

This change basically means when a user uploads a photo, it will be displayed in its full, uncompressed glory

Sites like Facebook have to handle tens or even hundreds of millions of photos being uploaded every day. Each one of those photos takes up processing power and bandwidth whenever they show up in someone’s feed. By shaving a tiny bit of data off each photo by compressing them to a smaller size, sites can conserve huge amounts of computing power and bandwidth at scale.

Except compression comes with tradeoffs. The more a photo is compressed, the more detail it loses and it can start looking terrible. For example, in the photo above, the left side has been run through Facebook’s upload compression once. The one on the right is the original, untouched by Facebook’s algorithms. After the compression, hairs and whiskers look blockier, and the picture overall loses detail.

For a single photo, this isn’t a huge deal. But when it comes to memes that get downloaded, re-uploaded, crossposted, screenshotted, uploaded again, and transformed over and over again, that compression can take its toll. Every time someone new uploads the picture, it gets just a little bit worse.

It can particularly have a negative effect on text. JPEG compression usually takes a “close enough” approach to simplify colors in an image, but text is usually a stark contrast of black text on a white background. The result is that small “artifacts” appear around text. The next time the image gets uploaded, more compression exaggerates these artifacts. This process repeats until the text becomes unreadable, like the version on the right below..

At every step along the way, the change is minor, and no one intends to make the images worse — except for a community that intentionally “deep fries” memes, reproducing and exaggerating this effect on purpose — but every drop contributes to the flood. This is what makes Twitter’s move such a big deal. Now, when a user downloads an image from Twitter, they’re getting the full version. And when it gets re-uploaded (to Twitter, anyway), it will still be the same high-quality version that it was when it was uploaded.

Unfortunately, there are some caveats. According to O’Brien, this will only apply to photos uploaded from Twitter for Web for now, and avatars and thumbnails will still be compressed like normal. However, it will expand to other types of images in 2020 and, hopefully, other sites will take notice.

Twitter is just one link in the meme chain, but every little bit helps. In addition to making memes look better, this also low-key positions Twitter as one of the best places for photographers and artists to share their work, where it can be seen in its best version possible. If sites like Facebook and Instagram start providing full-quality uploads to compete, then it could spell the end of (accidentally) deep-fried memes in the long run.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.