It’s late at night, and I’m sitting on the couch watching a Minneapolis man spread a thick coat of paint stripper on a badly damaged mid-century coffee table. When it dries he pulls out something like a metal spatula to scrape it off in long, methodical strokes, as though he were mowing a lawn. I never see his face, only his hands. He doesn’t talk a lot, and when does, he sticks to the facts, explaining what he’s doing and why. For the next 10 minutes the YouTube video glides through the day-long restoration project in his workshop. He uses a strong acid to remove a massive ink stain, plugs holes on the pockmarked surface with filler, and paints the final product in strokes of rich amber varnish. It’s beautiful.
I’m not a woodworker, and I’m not watching this video to learn the craft. In the comments section some users appreciate his technique and expertise, however just as many, like me, are watching simply because it’s soothing. One comment says:
I am grateful to you. I was having an anxiety attack and watching and listening to you and your calm and easy manner, helped me to pull back from a very bad experience. You do more than refinish furniture. Your channel is so much more… as other people have commented, watching and listening is satisfying. Thank you.
As I scroll further a lot of comments use the same three words to describe what they admire about his work: patience, perseverance, tenacity. These are all qualities I try to cultivate in myself—to be able to grip something firmly, to be determined, to persevere, to continue to exist. But I watch these videos in order to loosen my grip—when I am worn out, too tired to follow a narrative or make conversation, yet not ready for sleep. I spend time outside myself. I focus on someone else’s existence.
I watch these videos in order to loosen my grip—when I am worn out yet not ready for sleep. I spend time outside myself. I focus on someone else’s existence.
My primary school teacher made beautiful craft. She crocheted or knitted all of her cardigans herself and never hesitated to arm six-year-olds with needles and wool to weave something of their own. I have vivid memories of watching her demonstrate a new stitch. Her hands were smooth with short, clean nails and strong fingers. There was something hypnotic about watching her perform swift patterns of movement, pulling thread over or under then through until the tension was just right. When I dropped a stitch I carried my knitting to her desk and she took over. It was calming to watch her correct my mistakes.
The videos I watch are about process, and I’m less concerned about the activity being performed. I watch make-up applications, cake decorating, fine art restoration, a woman expertly peeling a pomegranate. Like watching my teacher fix my knitting, I take pleasure watching videos of people doing things well.
I ask friends and discover many do the same. One watches doll makeovers. Another watches a live stream of astronauts at work on the International Space Station. My boyfriend watches videos about primitive survival skills, like how to make your own clay and use it to build an oven. A video demonstrating how to construct a tile roof hut from scratch has more than 77 million views. There’s no narration, just the sounds of the forest and manual labour. In the video description the anonymous survivalist-cum-YouTuber explains, ‘the whole project took 102 days but would have taken 66 days were it not for unseasonal rain.’ A laborious project that spanned three months is condensed into a 14 minute video.
Although these videos document disparate activities, they have things in common. They’re about mastery, concentration and problem-solving. They have momentum. When I feel overwhelmed—by how much I have to do, by not knowing what to do, by witnessing cascading global crises unfold in my newsfeed—I’m calmed by steady hands approaching a task with confidence, and seeing it through to completion. A short video guides me through a process that takes a lot longer ‘in real life’. Anything mundane or frustrating is omitted. By distorting the passing of time, a lengthy or complex task becomes a simple pleasure to watch. The smoothly edited final product offers a specific affect—something pre-cognitive, felt in both mind and body. I know these videos will give me a sense of satisfaction and I consume them like a supplement.
These videos are about mastery, concentration and problem-solving. I’m calmed by steady hands approaching a task with confidence, and seeing it through to completion.
Some of this pleasure may stem from ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR is the good tingly feeling that travels from the top of your scalp. It can be stimulated by sound, sight and touch—paper scrunching, getting a haircut, a roleplay in which the viewer is the last Pringle in the packet. But the videos I prefer can’t be neatly categorised as ASMR. I don’t feel tingly. What I do feel is hard to explain, because in some ways I feel very little, a flat kind of contentment. I use YouTube to intentionally dissociate.
In Cruel Optimism, cultural studies academic Lauren Berlant offers new ways of conceiving the present. As the millennial promise of prosperity like the Baby Boomers enjoyed continues to fade, Berlant argues we remain attached to ‘unachievable fantasies of the good life.’ We work hard to achieve upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and ‘durable intimacy,’ despite the fact it’s increasingly difficult for capitalist societies to provide the conditions required for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.’ And Berlant argues we perceive this permanent ‘crisis of the present’ affectively before we process it any other way.
Berlant writes about ‘impasse’, something she describes as a reprieve from the present. Impasse is a ‘stretched-out present’, ‘a confident kind of cruise control’, a cul-de-sac in which ‘one keeps moving, but one moves paradoxically, in the same space.’ Impasse is ‘decompositional—in the unbound temporality of the stretch of time, it marks a delay that demands activity.’ By these definitions YouTube expertly produces impasse. It is a transportive liminal space, a time suck. The algorithm learns my viewing habits and queues up content on my behalf; that content exploits my desire to tune out of my own life by offering me limitless access to the real lives of others.
YouTube reports it has more than 2 billion users—almost one third of the internet—and over one billion hours of content is watched per day. Other social media platforms host video content—Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook, to name a few. But YouTube is less of a social network. In YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green explain that very few users regularly upload videos. The comments section is an important site of community participation, however, unlike platforms where it’s conventional to flesh out a profile, YouTube viewers are mostly anonymous. This may be why comments sections become intimate confession booths, why many find the confidence to share deep and meaningful responses to this mundane but strangely compelling content.
Comments sections become intimate confession booths, with many sharing deep and meaningful responses to this mundane but strangely compelling content.
On a popular account with over 250,000 subscribers, YouTuber ‘post 10’ voluntarily unclogs stormwater drains around his city and records the process. One hour-long video has almost six million views. A top comment says, ‘This man found an audience with a quite strange [sic] and very specific content.’ Another says, ‘This man is not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need. Not sure how the algorithm led me here but I am a fan. Subscribed.’ I identify with this bewildered enjoyment.
YouTube intuitively feeds a craving we share, to see how people are living, to decide who is living well. And in doing so, the platform and content creators feed themselves with our attention. The longer a video transfixes my gaze the more profitable it becomes. A YouTube Monetisation Strategist explains, ‘Before you can earn money on your channel you need an audience. Now, to build an audience you need to make consistent videos that viewers really like watching.’ More explicitly, to begin earning money from your channel you need 4,000 public watch hours in a year and 1,000 subscribers. Some YouTube fans might feel ill at ease thinking about the way their strange pleasures become commodified. But a fan of the stormwater drain video linked earlier sees it as mutually beneficial, ‘Quality content lol. Hour long and only 4 adds. I’ll watch them just so you can get paid homie.’
I, too, see the reciprocal relationship between content creator and consumer as mutually beneficial and I’ll keep returning to the scene of the fantasy—this liminal digital space that stretches the present in such a satisfying way. But when I finish a video, when I close the tab, when I shut my computer—my time machine—there is a sense of a fog lifting. The digital sedative wears off. I come back with a sense of calm, yet ultimately unchanged. This behaviour isn’t about self improvement, it’s a way to press pause.