This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
YouTube’s “trending” page, a roiling content stream that lives one click away from the home page, compiles the site’s purportedly hottest videos at any given time. It is a singular fusion of the basic and the bizarre. You will always find fundamentally mainstream content on the page: music videos, YouTube original series, clips from television shows. But at any point, the page also features a healthy selection of the weird videos that give YouTube its unique character. For example: As I write this piece, the trending page features a video that presumably answers a question that we have all asked ourselves at one point or another—“Can You Turn Hair to Stone with Hydraulic Press?”
The video begins with some hard-rock guitar over some B-roll machine shop footage. After this intro sequence, we see a big clump of reddish hair on a table next to a massive hydraulic press. “Welcome to the Hydraulic Press Channel,” a man says off-camera in heavily accented English. “Today we are going to crush some hair.” The hair is duly crushed, and—spoiler alert—turns to silt, not stone. Later, they crush a roll of toilet paper, a handful of salt, and a small figurine. “If you have good ideas about stuff to crush Please write them to comments!” an on-screen graphic says as the video wraps up.
In academic science, experiments are conducted to confirm or disprove a hypothesis, ideally yielding some useful observation or learning. The hypothesis for the compressed-hair video is basically: “Crushing stuff is cool.” (And to be clear, it is.) The hair/toilet paper/salt “experiment” is just the latest video from the Hydraulic Press Channel—tagline: “The greatest pressing channel on the Youtube.” The channel, which has over 1.8 million subscribers and regularly garners hundreds of thousands of views per video, is exactly what it sounds like. Some people in Finland own a hydraulic press, and every week they crush stuff in it: sand, a bowling ball, molten copper. It is a great example of the sort of stunt-science content that is currently very popular on YouTube—and has been since the site’s early days.
Every single “science fair” scene that has ever been filmed for television or the movies features clips of humorously unscientific experiments: “How Far Can I Spray Milk Out My Nose?” for instance, or “How Many Noogies Can Darryl Withstand?” providing a fun backdrop to the real stuff. In the YouTube scientific universe, though, these dopey experiments win all of the prizes, which come in the form of hundreds of thousands of viewers and fat ad-revenue checks. These videos are educational after a fashion, I suppose. At best, they might inspire curious minded viewers to research the principles behind the stunts, or possibly to crush their own possessions at home. More often, I assume, people don’t really make either leap. That’s fine, too!
Goofy science-adjacent content has been a staple of YouTube since the site was launched over a decade ago. YouTube first enabled video uploads on April 23, 2005. The earliest YouTube science experiment—so to speak—that I could find was uploaded on June 14, 2005, under the title “Electric Pickle.”
In it, a 120-volt current is passed through a pickle, thus illuminating the pickle from within. The glowing pickle also appears to start buzzing and emit clouds of smoke. The video’s description calls the whole production “a dazzling show of light, sound, and smell.” Over the past 13 years the video has amassed over 320,000 views. As of press time, I was not able to confirm whether the pickle in question was, in fact, dill.
The Electric Pickle video is the urtext for the many delightfully stupid science-ish videos that have followed over the years. I have long been a fan of this 2006 video, “Science Experiment,” in which a man forces what looks like a peeled hard-boiled egg into a glass bottle by lighting a match and dropping it inside the empty bottle, which causes the egg to be sucked through the bottleneck like a marshmallow. “Scientists, Why Did That Happen?” is the plaintive question in the video’s closing graphic. I guess we’ll never know!
For a while around the turn of the decade, blender-related experiments were very popular on YouTube, featuring non-traditional items being shoved into high-speed blenders. Tom from Blendtec might have been my favorite blending celebrity: a middle-aged man in a lab coat who gleefully thrust things like laser pointers, Silly Putty, and cigarette lighters into his blender’s whirring gears to search for an answer to the eternal question of “Will it Blend?” To be clear, his videos were just commercials for Blendtec blenders; the modern equivalents of those old Ginsu knife infomercials featuring knives cutting through pennies. Still, it is useful to know that if you ever need to rapidly dispose of an older-model iPhone it will, in fact, blend.
Today, YouTube has come a long way from Blendtec and the electric pickle. In 2018, the site’s science-ish videos are much better produced and much more dangerous. One of my favorite latter-day entrants into the genre is a video titled “how many basketballs does it take to stop a bullet?”—in which a dude lines up a bunch of basketballs, fires a 9 mm pistol into the front ball, and methodically checks each ball until he finds the one in which the bullet has come to rest. In a true travesty of justice, this man has not yet been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
YouTube also likes to watch people heat things up and then put those things in contact with other things. A video titled “EXPERIMENT Glowing 1000 degree KNIFE VS COCA COLA” currently has almost 74 million views and taught me a lot about Coca-Cola’s presumable usefulness as a top-notch cooling agent. (The liquid caused the hot knife to start steaming and surely lowered its temperature to at least 750 degrees.) I enjoyed the pre-video disclaimer, which, if you paused the video so you could read it, insisted that the clip was intended “for scientific and entertaining purposes only” and that viewers should not “try to do that at home.” Don’t worry, dude: In this household, Coke bottles are for drinking, not for cutting in half with a knife heated by three simultaneous blowtorches. The Hydraulic Press Channel’s proprietor, a Finn named Lauri Vuohensilta, has said that he was inspired to start making videos by another “heating things up” channel called “carsandwater,” best known for heating a ball of pure nickel until it is red-hot and then placing it onto foam and other things. Unlike the knife clip, this exciting video contains no disclaimers, perhaps because the creator has cornered the market on balls of pure nickel.
There is lots and lots of legitimate science content on YouTube, from full-fledged lectures to serious experiments, and some of these videos are themselves very popular. A recent animated video about the science behind cloning is also currently featured on YouTube’s trending page. But, on YouTube as in life, it’s the flashiest stuff that draws the most attention.
Consider the case of this September 2006 video posted by a guy named Marshall Brain—founder of the website HowStuffWorks—that set out to answer the titular question, “How strong is a strand of hair?”
“The cool thing is that we can perform a scientific experiment, and we can find out exactly how strong one piece of hair is,” said Brain, who resembles a middle-school science teacher in demeanor as well as aesthetic, before he taped a piece of hair to a pencil, and then taped individual pennies to the bottom of the hair strand until it broke. “We finally broke it with 23 pennies and a lot of tape,” Brain said at the end. As of this writing, almost 12 years after it was posted, the goofy and earnest video has racked up 90,306 views. The hydraulic press hair video has been up for less than a week and has already been viewed over 500,000 times.
Here’s my hypothesis: No one wants to watch some needle-nosed goober fiddle with pennies and pencils when they could instead watch some Finnish guys crush a clump of hair with a big machine. This preference is, in part, a function of the internet’s fondness for overtly stupid spectacles. (Internet culture is perhaps best understood as the Marx brothers scandalizing a wealthy dowager over and over again.) Remember when that British organization held an online contest to name its newest ship, and the name that won was “Boaty McBoatface”? The same principles are at work here. It’s delightfully transgressive to watch a serious and expensive piece of machinery be tasked with exceedingly dumb “experiments”; it’s even more satisfying to imagine some stodgy old professor or shop foreman being appalled by this blatant frivolity. The point of YouTube’s stunt science content isn’t to teach its viewers how the world works. The point is to throw social norms into a hydraulic press and watch them explode.