It could be argued that life-hack content has been around, as a genre, since roughly 2500 B.C. That’s the approximate date of the “Instructions of Shuruppak,” one of the oldest pieces of “wisdom literature,” that takes the form of advice being passed from a father (the king Shuruppak) to his son (Ziusudra). This early Sumerian text contains practical and philosophical nuggets such as (and I’m paraphrasing here): Don’t pass judgment when you’ve been drinking beer; don’t buy an ass that brays too much; and don’t place your house next to a public square — there’s always a crowd there.
If these pearls of wisdom sound too obvious to qualify as a “hack” (imagine buying an ass that brays too much?!), remember that this was some of the earliest written literature in human history. It was, therefore, the first time these gems had been stated for the record, and it stands to reason that the advice was received as revelatory. It was from this basic foundation that humans’ advice-giving grew and evolved into the modern-day life-hack content we know and love.
Life hacks are clever tips that are intended to help you get through the daily, petty problems you encounter with less sweat. Using salt to remove a wine stain; twisting a face mask’s straps just so to create a better fit; opening a stubborn banana from the bottom; turning a zip-lock baggie inside out to create a larger baggie — these are all life hacks, and they all exist somewhere on the spectrum of super-helpful and not.
In fact, life hacks have always walked a thin line between genius and ridiculous. A classic example of a life hack gone wrong can be found on Reddit, under a 10-year-old post titled Shower to go. The seemingly earnest OP presented a dilemma as old as time itself: How do you transition from a rowdy game of basketball to a hang with your friends, without feeling gross about sitting around in your sweat? His solution was to freeze soapy water in a small plastic tub, and rub the resulting sudsy ice all over himself post-game.
Commenters poked holes in this hack immediately. Some began imagining what it would be like to see your friend begin rubbing himself with a block of ice post-game ("Alright guys, I gotta hit the taint. Don't look please?"), while others questioned whether it would even work (“The shower water is supposed to wash the lather off of you... but here, wouldn't it simply stick to the ice?”). Then came the jokes, many of which are too layered in the nuances of Reddit history to begin to explain here.
As ‘Shower to go’ illustrates, life-hack mockery has been a thriving genre for almost as long as life hacks have been one. (Historians probably discovered a Sumerian tablet dating back to 2499 B.C. that said, “dOn’T pAsS jUdGmEnT wHeN yOu’Re DrInKiNg BeEr.”)
TikTok creator @khaby.lame has elevated life- hack mockery to an art form, showing the Rube Goldberg-esque qualities inherent to the most earnest of life hacks. He stitches specious life- hack videos in order to debunk them, always with the same hilariously deadpan expression on his face. One of my favorites shows someone using scissors, an electric drill, a plastic syringe, and superglue to create a toothbrush with toothpaste built into the handle, only for @khaby.lame to… squeeze a line of toothpaste onto a brush. Same result, none of the work. In another, he asks (with his eyes): Why use three zip-ties to create a handle for a handle-less glass, when you could simply… pick up the glass with your hand?
From the classic life-hack mockery comes the final and, in some ways, most confusing evolution of life-hack content: the meta life hack. These follow the same formula as a regular life-hack video, wherein a person looks perplexed or frustrated by some inconvenience, then acts out a rapid-fire solution. But the inconveniences seem manufactured, and the solutions seem preposterous. In one such video, entitled “How to peel a banana,” a person demonstrates how to use a cleaver to peel a banana. Why not just… peel the banana?
Some of these meta videos are, presumably, jokes, meant to poke fun at the life hacks that are earnestly trying to offer help, and yet are more trouble than they’re worth — the ‘Shower to gos’ of the Internet. But others seem designed to make you question reality. This is a slightly more sinister, less easily explained subset of meta life-hack content, along the same lines as the counter-pasta video that went viral a few months ago.
One YouTube video, that I now see whenever I close my eyes at night, entitled “38 CRAZY WAYS TO FIX ANYTHING AROUND YOU THAT WORK,” shows an anonymous host demonstrating how to fix a broken toilet seat using dry ramen noodles, glue, sandpaper, and paint. There’s no clear sign that this is intended to be a joke, although your mind begs for comedic relief for the duration of the tutorial. Because: Why ramen? How does a toilet seat even get broken in this way to begin with? How many toilet seats have I perched upon that have been held together by nothing more than dry noodles and a prayer?
This video, which has over 1.5 million views, lives on a channel called 5-Minute Crafts, the 13th most subscribed YouTube channel on the platform; the channel also has TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts. A lot has already been written about 5-Minute Crafts, none of which (in my opinion) explains why it is the way that it is. It’s owned by a company called TheSoul Publishing, which is based in Cyprus and whose founders are Russian; a spokesperson for the company noted that it "has more than 2,200 employees across the globe, and 80 percent of the workforce is remote." Although the 5-Minute Crafts channel posts nothing overtly political, the videos are strange enough that some people have questioned whether it’s not a front for some kind of malicious disinformation.
Refinery29 reached out to the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a bipartisan national security advocacy group, who looked into TheSoul Publishing and 5-Minute Crafts. “While the influence of this network is potentially massive, it doesn’t appear to be malign,” says Rachael Dean Wilson, the head of external affairs at the ASD. “There clearly was a foray into revisionist history, which is a pretty typical Russian tactic,” she adds, referring to an article I’d sent her that had linked to a now-unavailable 2019 video posted by TheSoul that, the writer claimed, had contained inaccurate, politicized historical information. The company addressed concerns over these videos in a December 2019 blog posted to their website, in which they noted that they’d taken the videos down, said that they’d “made an editorial decision to no longer post any historical focused content,” stated that they’d “never worked with any government or semi-government organization of any country or produced content curated for a third-party except for advertising partners,” and called fake political advertising and propaganda “unacceptable.”
While Wilson says there are channels that may use strange but innocent-seeming content to ensnare viewers, then feed them misinformation, at the moment, TheSoul does not appear to be one of them. “It seems like since then, they’ve pulled back to pretty much — I mean, it’s clickbait, right?” Wilson says of the current content. “It seems like they’ve really cracked the code on profiting from the off-brand, kind of ick factor of their videos.” In other words, the 5-Minute Crafts channel seems to have realized that they get a lot of clicks on their absurd hack videos, even if — or maybe especially when — the hacks are outrageous or serve no discernible purpose. So, they leaned in.
In response to Refinery29's request for comment, a representative said via email that TheSoul Publishing produced "entertainment content" and that the 5-Minute Crafts channel "aims to create positive, lighthearted content."
It’s reassuring to know that these videos aren’t malicious, but that doesn’t answer the question of why meta life hacks are so engrossing. They offer us nothing actually helpful or hack-like, and their purpose is almost certainly entirely mercenary, yet we can’t help but watch intently as a disembodied hand demonstrates how to make a big blue egg.
Maybe these videos simply satisfy some deep-seated need to learn more information, without actually requiring that we engage our brains, a kind of visual Sleep With Me podcast. We zone out and wait for the aha moment to come — the payoff, the sense that, at long last, we’ve learned the right combination of tricks that will finally allow us to tap into those extra minutes, that extra ease — that life will suddenly feel manageable in the way that we’re so sure it can be.
It certainly doesn’t seem like the answer should be hidden in a packet of ramen and a tube of superglue, but until a few years ago, I was struggling to open bananas from their tops, so what do I know?