Amanda Hess' NYTimes Spotlight
The disembodied hand has a sinister cinematic reputation. In horror films, it can be seen scampering across the screen, enacting nefarious deeds — murder, usually. But on social media, the hand has been cast in a new role, as a symbol of artisanal craftsmanship and entrepreneurial zeal.
The online video hand is just as driven as the horror movie version — both appear to have minds of their own. But this time it’s a helping hand, channeling its energies toward cooking party foods and executing creative household hacks. And it’s extending its reach across the internet. A quarter of video views on the Facebook pages of media companies go to these sorts of instructional videos, according to the digital video analytics company Tubular Labs. No faces. No bodies. Just hands.
BuzzFeed’s food video juggernaut, Tasty, popularized a particular form of cooking video — camera pointed straight down onto the kitchen counter, point-of-view style, with cooks appearing exclusively from the wrist down — that has since taken over top Facebook and YouTube crafting and cooking channels like Blossom, 5-Minute Crafts and BuzzFeed’s own D.I.Y. channel, Nifty. (The New York Times Cooking section produces such content, too; they’re called “hands and pans” videos.) Now even the Food Network, which built its television brand by promoting fully realized human cooks, has started posting hand-focused cooking videos on its Facebook page.
The hand has also emerged as a star of a popular genre of YouTube children’s content: toy unboxing videos, where new playthings are removed from their packages and taken for a spin. One of YouTube’s most popular personalities is an anonymous unboxer known as Disney Collector, who appears exclusively as a set of playfully manicured hands. And on Instagram, the hand has come into its own as a beauty icon, thanks to Instagram-famous nail artists like Madeline Poole and Jin Soon Choi.
Second to the face, the hand is the most demonstrably human body part. Its opposable thumb allows it to wield tools, flash symbols and now, type out texts. It’s probably not a coincidence that the hand’s image has risen online just as mobile devices have taken over our social, work and creative lives. We’re living amid what the French philosopher Michel Serres has called the “Thumbelina Generation”: Instead of talking with our mouths, we’re creating vast and complicated visual and textual messages with finger taps and swipes. We shoot smartphone videos with the device in hand, thumb resting on the “record” button, then turn around and watch the video in our hands. The hand is the driver of modern communication, and now it’s the star of it, too.
“We’ve seen a re-enchantment of the hand,” James Leo Cahill, a cinema studies professor at the University of Toronto, told me. “It’s finally getting its due as an onscreen organ.”
For decades, instructional TV shows were built around celebrity chefs or crafters, filmed on sets with wide camera shots. These shows could make viewers feel as if they were hanging out with Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart, but they didn’t mimic the sensation of actually cooking or crafting themselves. Tasty “presents cooking from the point of view of the cook,” said Andrew Gauthier, BuzzFeed’s head of global strategic projects.
BuzzFeed started playing around with hands-focused cooking videos in 2012, but the format really took off in 2014, with the rise of video sharing on Facebook. In August, Tasty racked up more than 800 million Facebook video views and 58 million more on YouTube. On social media, instructional videos don’t need celebrity hosts, Mr. Gauthier said, because “viewers essentially play the host as they share the videos.”
Hands-only videos represent the antithesis of the personality-driven D.I.Y. show. One of the annoyances of learning a recipe, fixing a problem around the house or executing a crafting project through online video is encountering the branded D.I.Y. vlogger who rambles on and on about unrelated matters instead of just showing you how to do the thing. The hands-only video is soothing in its lack of personality. “We do anything that we can to make sure our hands aren’t stealing the spotlight,” said Scott Loitsch, a senior producer for Tasty, whose hands can be seen cooking some of the internet’s most popular recipes, including guacamole onion rings (94 million views on Facebook) and lasagna-stuffed peppers (51 million views).
That means keeping hands manicured and clean, but also avoiding distracting details like longer nails and intricate polish. “It triggers different people in different ways,” Mr. Loitsch said. Because the hands are stand-ins for the viewer, any flair can feel alienating. One recent Tasty commenter was set off by a bracelet: “UGH! Stop wearing jewelry while cooking,” she wrote. “So gross.”
There is a specific grammar to the hands-only video. “It’s important that the hands come from the bottom of the frame instead of the top,” Mr. Gauthier added. A hand reaching down from above “feels disembodied, like someone is making it for you,” he said, but if it arises from below, “the hands become proxies for your hands.”
If the disembodied hands of horror appear as threats, these hands impart a feeling of hyper-competence, executing complicated recipes and household chores on the viewers’ behalf, and at fast-forward speed. Meanwhile, unboxing videos give our proxy hands access to a simulation of endless dispensable income, as the unboxer touches and feels the hottest new action figures and toy sets. And on Instagram, paint-mixing and slime-handlingvideos show hands engaged in creating oddly satisfying images and sounds.
The internet’s new class of hand models are staged to feel like our own appendages, except more skillful, accomplished and rich. The effect can be enthralling. One Facebook commenter on Mr. Loitsch’s churro ice cream bowl video (183 million views) wrote: “Call me a nut, but is it wrong that I can’t take my eyes off the guy’s hands? I want to know what the rest of this man looks like, and if he’s single.”
Elsewhere on the internet, video makers are working in the opposite direction, imbuing the otherwise anonymous hand with personality and character through tiny, ornate decorations. The blankness of the hand – the same dynamic that makes a Tasty producer’s bracelet a distraction — can be used to build a particular hand’s brand. The Disney Collector unboxer is known for her stylish and topical nails, which change from Hello Kitty-appliqued pink to a frosty “Frozen” theme to fit the toys on display — a bit of flair that’s helped elevate her from the pack.
As the hand becomes a stand-in for the creative self on social media, nail art allows self-expression to seep into every shot. Just as Instagram selfies have placed a spotlight on the assets of models and celebrities, and subjected all women to a kind of internet-wide beauty competition, nail art eliminates the distractions of the face and body, focusing instead on pure artistry and immaculate detail.
If the face has come to represent narcissism online, directing human energies into beautified selfies and funneling issues through the personal testimonies of YouTube personalities, the hand projects a quiet seriousness of purpose. In an online landscape of endless chatter, it’s all business.
Follow Amanda Hess on Twitter @amandahess.
A version of this article appears in print on October 12, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: There’s an Allure To Hands Online.