Unsolicited Advice: The Strange Allure of Life Hack Videos

Isabella Trimboli explores the transfixing alternate universe of life hacks, where everything is solvable and nothing is practical.

Video loop of a woman looking at the camera, brushing her teeth with an improvised black toothpaste

Whenever I want to waste time, I turn to my Instagram explore page, which is filled with enough procrastination fodder to last a lifetime. If I so wish, I can spend hours watching Korean teenagers inhale an ungodly amount of food, or watch women whisper creepily into a microphone. There is a never-ending stream of people cutting up bits of soap, or dunking their fingers into slime to soothe me. I’ve grown accustomed to the oddities that await me whenever I decide to log on, but I’ve noticed a different kind of video that has been populating my explore page of late: life hack videos.

I’ve never really had the urge to watch, but recently, I let Instagram automatically scroll me through a cornucopia of human problems and solutions I had not even once considered. Drop a glass on the floor? Clean up the smattered remains with a slice of bread. Jeans too big? Boil them. Toilet blocked? Defecate into a garbage bag filled with soil.

The hacks ranged from the inane, to the stupid, to downright illogical: I also learnt to use an iron to cook steak, put a hoodie on backwards to create a popcorn bowl, and to eat fried chicken with hair clips. Unused tampons double as stamps. A lock of your own hair can be used as a makeup brush. Despite knowing better, I kept on watching – wondering what unhinged, overly complicated solution to a non-problem Instagram would serve up to me next.

 

Animation of a spoon adding sand, sugar and soda to a dish, then lighting it – sprouting a black foamy noodle

Flaming black noodle: the canny solution to … an entirely unstated problem — Source: Blossom

Often, they do not even solve the problem they introduced in the first place.

These clips may be absurd, but they are largely formulaic. A problem is presented (often accentuated by actors making cartoonish frowns, shrugs, inaudible shrieks). A strange, puzzling solution is engineered. We are led through the hack step-by-step, sped up to create the illusion of ease. The colour schemes are day-glo and the production values low. They almost always feature women in various states of domestic disarray, and are soundtracked mostly by royalty-free instrumentals. Sometimes though, there’s an unnatural, surreal voice-over that defies basic syntax.

On YouTube, the videos’ titles offer hyperbolic proclamations like ‘25 OUTFIT HACKS THAT MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE’ (spoiler: they won't). Some titles do not match the videos at all. A video explaining various prison hacks (fashion a toilet brush into a knife!) will suddenly, for no reason, morph into a video of ‘Russian hacks’ – a category which is never defined or explained. 

Often, they do not even solve the problem they introduced in the first place. In one video I watched, a girl was aghast because she’d smashed her phone screen. Her boyfriend saves the day by presenting her with an oversized, plush toy replica.

Animation of bleach being poured into a glass, and a strawberry being dropped into it

Don't try this at home … no, really — Source: 5-Minute Crafts

Hack videos might strike you as just another example of the niche weirdness that thrives online, but they are monstrously popular. 5-Minute Crafts, one of the biggest publisher of life hack videos online, has 40 million YouTube subscribers, and the channel’s videos have accumulated more than ten billion streams. According to Social Blade, those numbers would earn them anywhere between $237,000 and $3.8 million per month. Others include the profoundly strange Troom Troom, and Blossom, which is skewed towards women. These companies are best described as content farms: businesses with the aim of churning out content, regardless of quality, to make money.

Does anyone even try these hacks? The YouTube and Instagram comments, which range from bemusement to concern, seem to suggest not. However, in the comments section of one video of food hacks – which recommended decolouring strawberries with bleach, and making ice-cream with activated charcoal – users warned that after attempting the hacks, their kids or friends had wound up in hospital.

Users warned that after attempting the hacks, their kids or friends had wound up in hospital.

The term ‘life hacks’ was coined by writer Danny O'Brien at a tech conference in 2004. He gave a talk on how prolific software engineers managed to stay on task and get work done in an increasingly digitised workforce where interruptions were at an all-time high. After interviewing them individually, he noticed there was overlap in their methods – writing things in text files, emailing themselves reminders – and presented his findings.

Animation of hand sanitiser being squeezed along the part of a person's hair, then combed through it

Greasy hair? Comb hand sanitiser through it. Obviously — Source: 5-Minute Crafts

Since then, the term has proliferated online. It birthed a website (lifehacker.com), a subreddit with 200,000 subscribers, and a litter of blogs. The tag #lifehacks on Instagram turns up more than a million posts. But the term was meant to be about decluttering space and keeping distraction to a minimum at work. On these accounts, anything – dance moves, a handmade costume for your pet, bandaging a wound – is referred to as a hack.

In a culture obsessed with self-optimisation, it’s not surprising there’s an overwhelming interest in time-saving tricks and ways to cut corners. But these videos – complicated, inefficient, and ironically, time-consuming – are not it. We are living in an era of ultimate convenience. Why  would I ever try to boil a chicken in an empty kettle when I could order any cuisine I want from my phone in two clicks, and avoid salmonella poisoning? Who would ever resort to old wives’ tales and complicated concoctions for their beauty needs, when there is Sephora?

Still – I can kind of understand the appeal. Life hack videos are strangely transfixing in the way in which they conceptualise a sanitised, alternative universe, where nothing makes a mess, difficult tasks are done with ease, and everything is solvable. It is soothing to watch someone breezily cut an apple in half with their bare hands, or effortlessly slice into a bottle with a scalpel, or clean a dusty painting with the quick brush of a raw potato. Like many distinctly online pleasures, the gulf between reality is vast, and they offer nothing in practicality. Instead, they supply a tranquilising illusion.

Portrait of Isabella Trimboli

Isabella is the co-founding editor of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written and created by women and non-binary people. She also is a freelance writer for outlets such as the Guardian, The Lifted Brow and Noisey.

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