One of the best life hacks I’ve ever seen involves a Pepsi bottle, an elbow pipe, and a perfectly shaped stick of raw meat.
The video, which went viral in September, involves a man slowly narrating the footage of the pipe being blow-torched and attached to the bottle, after which they are drilled, delicately sawed, etc. A red Coke can is introduced—a wild card. The clip is only about two minutes long and yet I had absolutely no idea where this hack was going until the glorious end when raw meat is finally pushed through the pipe to make sausage on a stick.
Overly complicated “life hacks” like this one, are a glitch in the online universe of life hacking. Life hack content, which optimizes and streamline tasks, has proliferated on the internet in the past decade. There are websites dedicated to life hacking, Buzzfeed lists that scream the benefits of hacks, and scores of Youtube channels. In this pocket of the internet, readers can learn how to use trash bags as makeshift garment bags, or use a spoon to do perfectly winged eyeliner, or even spin eggs to make absolutely sure they’re hard-boiled.
Over the past few years, a different kind of life hack has bubbled up repeatedly in my feeds, one that feels even more useless than most of the videos in its genre. Accounts like 5-Minute Crafts, which has 55 million subscribers on Youtube, post borderline grotesque hacks that include abruptly cutting off hair to make an eyeshadow brush, making popcorn with a flat iron, and stapling several pairs of jeans together to make a tentacled monstrosity of a chair.
And then there is Troom Troom, a wildly popular Russian Youtube channel that posts bizarre hacks and pranks including hiding tampons in glue sticks (in case you’re embarrassed to take a tampon to the bathroom?), attaching tiny umbrellas to shoes to keep them dry, and many videos about sneaking food or makeup into school. In one video, a girl using a friend’s phone keeps getting locked out and needs her friend’s fingerprint to get back in, so the friend makes a “portable fingerprint” by sticking glue to her finger. The videos are clearly geared towards younger audiences (hence the school focus) and are narrated by a cloyingly sweet female voice. In a Vox article about both sites, Rebecca Jennings notes that these videos have become so successful in an already crowded DIY Youtube space largely by gaming SEO keywords and creating “a sense of urgency.”
I don’t feel let down by these hack videos or necessarily swindled by that false sense of “urgency.” The thrill of some of these videos is the fact that all bets are off; where one site might suggest 32 Cute Ways to Grown An Indoor Garden, 5-Minute Crafts will sooner suggest 33 CRAZY TOILET HACKS. Among those hacks is advice for how to use a broken toilet when you urgently have to pee. The video advises taking some soil out of a nearby plant and placing it in a plastic bag, putting the plastic bag in the toilet, going to the bathroom in the bag, and throwing out the bag.
There is also something oddly soothing about being promised a revelatory way to hack my life that turns out to be so transparently, unashamedly useless. That’s probably because most of the internet is doing the same thing in earnest; even the word hack implies something more complicated than a simple tip or trick. There is always a trendy new way for young, penny-saving people like myself to hack my life, from the “upcycling” of trash into living room decor to meal-prepping. Should I Kondo my clothes today or start to bullet-journal? And there are always hundreds of articles to read if I ask Google “how to save time?”
That Troom Troom or 5-Minute Craft videos could game the internet so easily also speaks to how much the internet has become a cesspool how-to rhetoric teaching everyone how to be more efficient. Perhaps life hacks and SEO gaming wouldn’t have gotten to this bizarre place if it weren’t running on decades of people googling things like “how do I kiss a girl?” or how to complete basic tasks better and faster, forever in search of that “one weird trick” of internet chum. Most life hacks are manufactured to satisfy desires or problems that don’t exist, but their continued, viral existence speaks to larger anxiety that there must be a better way to do things; there must be a more productive way to live life.
The goal of any life hack is to squeeze out any remaining drop of leisure time (or for more hustling or more side gigs) but life hacks also imply that average people are just too busy to do basic tasks the standard way. Beyond the Buzzfeedification of life hacking, there is also Silicon Valley’s approach, in which tech entrepreneurs often try to hack (or “disrupt”) their way out of a basic necessity. Why cook a meal when you can eat Soylent? Why go to a bodega when you can go to a neighborhood vending machine? Why age when you can live forever? It all feeds into the same rush for making life more efficient, but it also upholds the illusion that everyone—especially Silicon Valley tech bros—are far too busy to do things the normal way.
The impulse to create more leisure time and less work has itself become a form of labor to commodify in app, book, or product. These hack videos are the most absurdist endpoint of that quest. That the boundaries of a workday have become increasingly blurred as people talk about “streamlining” their leisure time with the same rhetoric reserved for board meetings, striving for efficiency begins to blanket the most basic of daily tasks. All of life, not just work, becomes mechanized and ripe for improvement. People can now buy a trendy toothbrush with a timer in it, lest time is wasted by spending a minute longer brushing your teeth.
In Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, she writes about the leeching importance of individual productivity and the value society places on it, from overworked workers in the gig economy to the way social media incites addiction. “The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive,” she writes, seeking “hidden sprigs of ambiguity and inefficiency.”
In one chapter Odell writes of Diogenes the Cynic, a Greek philosopher who played with an aesthetics of reversal (like walking into a theater when everyone was coming out), and more importantly refusal. She writes that when the Corinthians found out the Macedonians were approaching the city, Diogenes began to roll his tub (where he lived) up and down the hill with great energy, though he had no real reason to. “When asked why he did so, his answer was, ‘Just to make myself look as busy as the rest of you,’” Odell writes.
Just as Diogenes pointed out how ridiculous performative productivity can be, useless hack videos inadvertently do the same. In blatantly adopting and magnifying the viral tone of life hacking to lure in viewers, it proves that the aesthetics of efficiency often end at just that: aesthetics. The bad hack content farms of the internet may create a mirage of increased productivity for those who click on their videos, but I ultimately welcome the useless mirage.