life in pixels

The Egg Is Bigger Than Before, or, the Cosmic Mysteries of YouTube’s Third-Most-Popular Channel

Please take a moment to watch the following video posted by Twitter user @chipspopandabar:

If you can’t, or won’t, watch this wonderful video, I’ll sum it up for you: The egg is bigger than before. The video instructs the viewer to leave an egg in vinegar for a day, and, lo: The egg is bigger than before! The viewer is further directed to leave the vinegary egg in maple syrup and blue dye for a day, and, yes, the egg is now blue, but also: The egg is bigger than before!

Say it out loud and appreciate its double consonance. The egg is bigger than before. It has a kind of primal appeal: Its meter is that of Marlowe or Dickinson, of ballads and hymns; you could sing it to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” or “House of the Rising Sun,” or the theme song to the Pokémon TV show. Imagine thousands of marines marching into battle, singing in unison: “From the halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli/The egg is bigger than before/In the air, on land, and sea.”

The video went vaguely viral on Twitter on Thursday because, well, what the fuck? Who made this, and for what audience? What kind of “craft” is soaking an egg in vinegar and blue food dye? For that matter, why is an entity called “5-Minute Crafts” pushing a two-day project to make a big blue egg? To what malevolent end is the egg being made bigger?

I can answer some of these questions. But I am afraid that in the process I will only leave you with more.

@chipspopandabar seems to have found the Big Egg Video on Facebook, where 5-Minute Crafts — per the watermark, the creator of the Big Egg Video — maintains a page with 58 million subscribers. In addition to its Facebook page, 5-Minute Crafts also has a Twitter account and an Instagram, but the crown jewel of its empire is its YouTube page, which, at 58 million subscribers, is the channel with the third most subscribers on the entire platform, behind only the famed Swedish gamer, Pewdiepie, and the Bollywood video service, T-Series. 5-Minute Crafts is owned by TheSoul Publishing, a Cypriot company founded by two Russians. It claims to employ 550 employees, producing 1,500 videos a month.

5-Minute Crafts specializes in social-media videos demonstrating craft projects, recipes, easy repairs, and new and surprising uses for common household objects, but, like many of its peers in the ever-expanding “DIY” or “lifehack” category of content, its videos tend to stimulate a deep unease rather than a sense of newfound mastery or education.

A search for “egg” in the videos uploaded to 5-Minute Crafts’ Facebook page turns up 53 results, including a video called “Delicious Egg Hacks,” the thumbnail to which I am sharing below to help give you an impression of the overall “vibe” of 5-Minute Crafts:

The rhythms of these videos are stilted; the titles quasi-legible; the aesthetic student-film infomercial; and the “hacks” themselves often esoteric to the point of useless. “I Can Feel Substantial Dark Energy Emanating From This YouTube Video About Coke Lifehacks,” my colleague Brian Feldman wrote last year about a video created by the channel “LHack TV” called “8 Awesome Coca Cola Tricks” — a ten-minute video in which a pair of disembodied hands fills a Tic-Tac container with Coke, and then fills toothpaste tube with Coke, and then fills an eggshell with Coke. The egg is bigger than before.

Another famous channel in the burgeoning genre of Dark DIY is Troom Troom, a YouTube channel profiled by Vox’s Rebecca Jennings last year:

Because this is precisely the sort of thing that Troom Troom traffics in: do-it-yourself how-tos that no person could or should ever replicate. The most popular videos currently on the channel are tips on how to sneak food and makeup into class in laughably arduous ways: One suggests removing the glue from a glue stick and inserting a block of hard cheese into the container, while another recommends cutting an apple in half, using an Exact-O knife to remove the center, and then stuffing an eyeshadow palette inside. Of the apple!

Before the Big Egg Video, 5-Minute Crafts went viral with a “hack” in which it instructs viewers to cut a long lock of hair in order to create a makeup brush:

How does that video make you feel? It makes me feel … baffled? Unsettled? Unsure? Why cut your hair like that? Who needs a homemade makeup brush? What am I watching?

What you are watching is YouTube. The video platform is an enormous, and enormously strange place, but we are familiar in the broad sense with how it works. The audience uses it as a portal for entertainment and information; and YouTube uses its ad partnerships program to incentivize the production of videos to satisfy its understanding of audience needs. Producers thus line up to meet the audience’s desires — as indicated, of course, by search-engine inputs and related-video click-throughs.

DIY is a lucrative category of video; “lifehack” a popular search keyword; and so people around the world hustle to create videos that satisfy the needs expressed by viewers, as interpreted by YouTube’s system of recommendation and sorting. Of course, you can’t explain “desire” to a sorting system — you can only click things until it makes guesses reasonably close to what you want. You want DIY? Here are 60,000 videos that may or may not be what you’re looking for. The video creators compete with one another: This thumbnail is brighter and shows more skin, so more people click. Is that what they want? That headline is more urgent and aggressive, so more people click. Is that what they want?

The thing is, “want” and “satisfaction” in the context of the YouTube brain can only be articulated by attention, which means there is no clear line on YouTube between “entertaining” and “useful,” which means that strangeness can be a kind of strategy to itself. Maybe strangeness is a conscious choice, a tactic for attracting viewers. But it wouldn’t need to be. If people click on your strange videos, you will be taught to make your videos stranger; your competitors will make their videos stranger. Eventually the search term decouples from the results: When people search “lifehack” they only click on strange videos of big eggs, and so only videos of big eggs appear under the results. What am I watching when I watch 5-Minute Crafts? I’m watching the YouTube mind at work.

In 5-Minute Crafts’ slight defense, by the way, the Big Egg Video is not presented as a craft but as a “Crazy Home Science Trick,” which doesn’t seem like a totally unfair description.

“The egg is bigger than before/I was blind but now I see.”

The Egg Is Bigger Than Before