Few things regularly make me question everything I know about reality than watching a video by 5-Minute Crafts, a DIY YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook channel that traffics almost entirely in esoteric and completely useless life hacks.
5-Minute Crafts is the fifth-largest channel on YouTube, with 69.2 million subscribers. Its Instagram has 43.4 million followers and its Facebook has 65 million likes. Despite this massive following, the channel has no recognizable personalities, makes no attempt to interact with its viewers, and feels generally detached from the human experience.
The channel’s videos can indeed generally be described as “crafts,” insofar as creating a suitcase from a plastic gasoline bottle, turning jeans pockets into slippers, popsicle sticks into flip-flops, or dipping a strawberry into bleach to turn it white is a “craft.”
If there’s a common thread running through 5-Minute Crafts videos, it’s that the videos generally portray highly elaborate, regularly useless, and often unhinged solutions to problems such as “is your strawberry too red?” The channel makes “lifehack” content taken to its logical endpoint, content created to amass views with little other discernible purpose.
As has been written many times, the channel, and a host of others that live under a brand called TheSoul Publishing, is run by Russians living in Cyprus. Its success has confounded and angered many people: A video called “5-Minute Crafts Is the Worst Channel on YouTube” has 9.3 million views; “I watched 5-Minute Crafts videos for an entire weekend & almost lost my mind,” the blogger Gena Radcliffe wrote. In the best explainer to date, New York Magazine’s Max Read called the channel a “cosmic mystery.” A Forbes contributor called the channel a “Russian ‘Fake News’ Outfit.” LawFareBlog did a long writeup of the company and its publishing empire that noted most of its videos are apolitical but that it “also posts history videos with a strong political tinge,” including ones that claim Ukraine is part of Russia. Vox noted in an article about 5-Minute Crafts and its Ukrainian competitor TroomTroom that it’s “impossible to tell whether the whole thing is satire or if it’s part of a malicious Russian cyberattack targeting the YouTube-obsessed children of the world.”
Many articles about 5-Minute Crafts have attempted to portray the channel as a trojan horse for disinformation, possibly from Russian trolls or the Russian government or something else. 5-Minute Crafts is indeed “disinformation” in that it purports to provide information to make useful things but does not actually do this. By that I mean that almost all of the “crafts” are objectively stupid and will not make your life easier.
But no compelling evidence has been published that the channel or company is involved in any attempts to sway public opinion on important issues or cause harm outside from possibly making someone want to eat a bleached strawberry. Here we are on election day and 5-Minute Crafts nor any of TheSoul Publishing's other social media channels seems to have done anything political in the run-up to it. The channel makes viral content for virality’s sake, a content mill that has withstood countless social media algorithm changes designed to destroy similar content mills, and yet it has endured and thrived.
The question of “What Is 5-Minute Crafts?” has been endlessly explored. The more interesting questions, to me, are Why is 5-Minute Crafts popular? And How Does the 5-Minute Crafts media conglomerate work?
TheSoul Publishing is "mysterious" in that it comes from a place that has often been associated with "Fake News" and that its owners do not do interviews, nor do they explain in their videos what the deal is. But until someone is able to prove otherwise, it seems like the deal is that the company is chasing virality and the advertising revenue that comes with video views.
For a while, I was obsessed with 5-Minute Crafts but could find no one who would talk to me about the channel. TheSoul Publishing declined an interview request. Dozens of people I DMed on LinkedIn who claimed to work for the company did not respond. I was then able to get in touch with Jeremy Rosen, who ran 5-Minute Crafts’ YouTube page for nearly three years at New York City's Frederator, an animation production company that also has a digital publishing arm. Frederator managed TheSoul Publishing's YouTube channels and had unique insight into its strategy. “We are proud of Frederator’s role in helping to build [TheSoul's] tremendous growth over the past couple of years and we are looking forward to continuing our relationship and incubating new and exciting channels," Fred Seibert, CEO of Frederator, said in a press release last year announcing that it would no longer manage the channels. "[TheSoul's] success is yet another example of Frederator’s proven ability to help generate explosive audience growth on YouTube."
As you might expect, there are indeed real people who work for TheSoul, make the videos, and profit from them.
"The videos have human beings in them, but they’re not hosts or actors," Rosen told me. "There’s not even the glimmer of intent to interact with you for the most part. You end up with this feeling like, is this produced by aliens? By a robot?”
"For a lot of us having grown up as people who enjoy video, there’s this whole raft of things in that experience that are about connecting with another person through video, that’s why vlogs are so big on YouTube," Rosen said. "Most of the biggest thousand channels have a personality attached to them. But you look at 5-Minute Crafts and there's a personality in the way they're produced but there's not a person there. [The company] doesn't want to talk to press. They're not really focused on engagement."
There is, thus, no one to get mad at, no one to say “what the fuck” to. No one to tweet at or leave mean comments to. 5-Minute Crafts publishes exclusively on participatory platforms and yet, it is a one-way stream of weird videos and information.
But 5-Minute Crafts doesn't really try to hide what it's doing, unless there is, as some have theorized, some bizarre and complicated ulterior motive. The origins of 5-Minute Crafts are slightly confusing but are traceable. 5-Minute Crafts was created by a company called AdMe, a Russian publisher that covered the advertising industry in Russia and around the world. The earliest Internet Archive Wayback Machine snapshots of www.adme.ru show that, back in 2004, the company published relatively banal articles about the advertising industry. It featured interviews with people in the industry, thoughts about Nike and Adidas’s latest campaigns, and forums where users discussed, for example, why Activia yogurt was so fixated on advertising that it would make your stomach feel better.
AdMe eventually launched 5-Minute Crafts and a brand called Brightside, a website and YouTube channel that focuses on positive news content, listicles, riddles, and a bunch of other banal-ish content. I was unable to figure out when AdMe changed its name to TheSoul Publishing; for a while last year, it seemingly used AdMe and TheSoul interchangeably on its websites, on press releases, and on privacy policies. But, broadly speaking, TheSoul publishing has a dozen-or-so YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook brands, the largest of them being 5-Minute Crafts and Brightside. Brightside is also used interchangeably with TheSoul Publishing on some of its websites.
Other TheSoul publishing brands are DOODLAND, a highly bizarre channel seemingly aimed at kids in which half-assed animations are drawn over poorly-shot footage of people doing things (like, pouring coffee, spinning chairs, putting broccoli in water, etc), GOODLAND, which is essentially a clone of DOODLAND, SLICK SLIME SAM (life hacks for kids), Avocado Couple (animated avocado show for kids), etc. Attempting to dissect these is for another article, but by-and-large they seem to be colorful, loud shows voiced in gibberish and aimed at toddlers.
TheSoul Publishing is regularly hiring, and explains on its website the types of people it's looking for: video props specialists, "crafters," "ideas finders," "creative writers," and "article illustrators." Last year it was hiring an "actor/actress" with "masterful needlework skills" who can "bring more video ideas to get even more likes :)." TheSoul would work on getting the person a visa to Cyprus, a flight to Cyprus, and two weeks of accommodations.
TheSoul is currently hiring a “hard crafter/constructor” who is “a cool crafter,” a “specialist who has skills and work experience in carpentry and turning, and experience of soldering electronics,” who can “take part in videos as an actor (you don’t need to take part in acting videos; emotions will not be required; you will not need to talk onscreen),” and who will “play an active role in developing the video activities of 5-Minute Crafts.” People who are hired will “work in a cool new office with talented co-workers and a creative atmosphere,” and will get private medical insurance and free lunches. They will “find and develop ideas for videos that millions of people will watch.” Applicants must “be prepared to complete a test task. The same task is given to all candidates and is aimed exclusively at verifying your decoration skills.”
TheSoul's website is full of photos of young-ish looking people who appear to be having fun at the office, which indeed does look cool and new. These photos have a stock-ish feel to them which I suppose could be read as suspect, but a reverse image search does not turn up anything. The most likely explanation is that TheSoul does have a cool, new office with human beings working in it.
"The truth is we here at Bright Side have got a cunning plan. We want to take over the world and make it better in the process. We've already started down this path. There are already different versions of Bright Side in other languages, including Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Chinese. More and more people from completely different parts of the world are beginning to see the Bright Side every day,” it says on its website. "The truth is, we can't imagine life without feeling thrilled every day. If you brought together all our readers, you'd have the population of a decent sized country. And we'd like to think it would be the most talented and optimistic country in the world."
Rosen says that 5-Minute Crafts, in particular, has hit a weird DIY niche that the company understands, and has capitalized on.
“They are what I like to call aspirationally participatory. You can fantasize about making this weird thing, but you don’t have to actually do it,” Rosen said. “They’re very cognizant of their return on investment. They basically try to produce as much as they can at as low of a cost as they can. They experiment and fail constantly, and they do it at scale. They run a lot of ideas out, and when they find something that hits, they follow that formula.”
In 5-Minute Crafts’ case, this means leaning into weirdness. When “egg is bigger than before” went viral, the company was able to make a bunch more videos like it, which is why long-time 5-Minute Crafts fans (the folks on the r/DIWHY subreddit, for example), may have noticed that the crafts have been getting more useless over time.
“I don’t think weirdness used to be part of the strategy. The way that they work is that they’ll build on any success. They’re inveterate tinkerers and experimenters. A lot of their thumbnails would be nonsensical. They’re not clickbait in the sense of there’s a bait and switch, it’s not to deceive you—maybe it’s 10 percent of the thumbnails they try out are real ‘what the fuck moments.’ They probably caught on ‘Oh people are sharing these things.’ DiWHY reddit hit their radar before then. It’s part of the strategy—‘OK, we’re getting traffic from it, we’ll go with it.’ I would say they’re not precious about their ideas. They’re not going to not pursue something that works because it doesn’t fit the core of what their brand does, because they’ll just spin it off into a new brand.”
In this sense, TheSoul and 5-Minute Crafts intentions seem to be pure. There does not seem to be an ulterior motive. No five-dimensional chess. No trojan horse. The clicks and the views are the point. There is nothing else.