clock menu more-arrow no yes
A still from a Troom Troom video about “DIY squishy school supplies.”
Troom Troom/YouTube

YouTube is full of cringey, clickbait DIY channels. They’re even weirder than you think.

How bizarre channels like Troom Troom and 5-Minute Crafts took over YouTube.

The best way to understand Troom Troom, the YouTube channel devoted to bizarre DIY tutorials, “hacks,” and “funny pranks,” is to spend multiple hours watching it until your brain turns into sprinkle-covered neon slime that can somehow also be used as lip gloss.

Because this is precisely the sort of thing that Troom Troom traffics in: do-it-yourself how-tos that no person could or should ever replicate. The most popular videos currently on the channel are tips on how to sneak food and makeup into class in laughably arduous ways: One suggests removing the glue from a glue stick and inserting a block of hard cheese into the container, while another recommends cutting an apple in half, using an Exact-O knife to remove the center, and then stuffing an eyeshadow palette inside. Of the apple!

Troom Troom is just one of many content factories of mysterious international origin that have gamed YouTube’s algorithm with bright, clickbait-y thumbnails and SEO keywords like “DIY,” “hack,” and “prank wars.” And to stand out from the thousands of other channels peddling the exact same service, they’ve turned to stranger and stranger content.

That’s how you end up with a video that recently went viral on Twitter, featuring a woman cutting off a (very long) strand of her hair, trimming it down to less than half an inch, and attaching it to the end of a pencil to create an eyeshadow brush. This, produced by the equally wild YouTube channel 5-Minute Crafts, is apparently an easier way to apply eyeshadow than using one’s fingers.

And yet it’s working. 5-Minute Crafts currently has the fifth most subscribers of any YouTube channel, nearly 40 million. According to Social Blade, its total of more than 10 billion video views translates to anywhere between $2 million and $34 million in annual earnings (the discrepancy here is from the varying possibilities of cost per impression). It’s estimated that Troom Troom, which currently boasts nearly 10 million subscribers and almost 3 billion total views of its surreal, pastel-plastered videos, pulls in between about $500,000 and $8 million each year.

Not only are Troom Troom and 5-Minute Crafts wildly successful in their own right, but they’re also part of the growing network of reaction videos to cringe-inducing content on the site, creating a cycle that generates millions of views for the YouTubers who engage with it.

But creators I spoke to also expressed concerns about these types of channels, ranging from their clickbait-y strategies to plagiarism to manipulating children’s internet behavior. The DIY YouTube space may not be all rainbows and unicorns, even if its thumbnails are full of them.

The fascinating mystery of Troom Troom

Troom Troom’s essential weirdness doesn’t just come from its how-tos being absurdly useless. They’re weird because they are narrated by a voiceover actress with a perfect American accent speaking a kind of English that sounds like it’s been run through about three layers of Google Translate. They’re weird because they feature a rotating cast of very thin white women who are referred to by nicknames like “the Blue-Eyed Girl,” “Redhead,” “Mrs. Smith,” or “Dolly,” and weirder still because those identities sometimes switch among them. They’re weird because 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 (but more on that later).

Besides being odd in its content and tone, Troom Troom is also incredibly elusive. No one can agree on who makes the videos, who owns the company, where it’s based, and who is making money off it. But that elusiveness invites speculation, and internet detectives have managed to puzzle out a few key pieces: first, that the website is registered under the name Eugene Miroshnykov, and second, that many of the videos are likely filmed in Odessa, Ukraine, judging by the Ukrainian Cyrillic script on many of the products used and the locations tagged on Troom Troom’s Instagram.

The identities of the actresses, too, have been largely exposed via their Instagram accounts. Most of them say they live in Odessa and are models and artists. The channel launched in 2015, and it’s clear from watching its earliest videos that Troom Troom began with standard DIY and didn’t reach its full weirdness — and biggest views — until about a year ago.

But there are still the requisite conspiracy theories: that Troom Troom is actually run by a millennial woman in San Francisco, or that the Troom Troom girls are being held against their will, forced to make weird DIY videos for ransom. Two media outlets that published stories on Troom Troom also failed to find out much else.

Which is why I was surprised when the email I sent to the address listed on Troom Troom’s YouTube page actually garnered a response. The sender’s name was indeed listed as Eugene Miroshnykov, confirming what I’d seen on Reddit, but after one back-and-forth, the name had been changed. To protect his anonymity — he expressed concerns about sleuths finding his phone number or other personal information — I agreed to refer to him by the nickname Zeon.

Zeon told me that Troom Troom was actually started by a collective of professional artists “that wanted to do something fun.” Zeon is not among these founders — he says he was hired when the channel already had a million subscribers and described his job as a “salesperson.” Writers and directors are based in Europe and the US and brainstorm video ideas via Skype, and then execute them within their own team. He described the company structure as similar to a “holacracy,” in which there is no top-down management and the content is instead “the result of the collective mind.”

“We got inspiration from [the world of] DIY text and picture tutorials,” he wrote. “Most of our team [is made up of] professional artists, so they found usually all the tutorials in text form, but not in the videos. We tried to solve that issue. Firstly, it was more educational and serious videos that [were] fun. Currently, we try to mix entertainment with DIY value. We found that any video should entertain if you want to make an impact on the viewers and not just to get them bored.”

This explains the heavy lifting that narration and plot serve in the average Troom Troom video — a “funny pranks” video is never just a list of pranks; it’s a story about how, say, “Dolly” sticks a plastic lizard into “Samantha’s” toothpaste and then replaces the inside of a lemon with a tennis ball. Later, Samantha gets back at Dolly by cutting out a hole in an iPhone case and placing it over a book so that it looks like Dolly’s phone literally burned through. The back-and-forth pranking only gets more complicated from there (I am not kidding).

Zeon says Troom Troom is independently owned, does not have any outside funding, and is profitable. “[It] has plans to grow, but the direction is currently confidential,” he adds. Zeon declined to connect me with the founders, nor did he provide any other details about his background or those of his co-workers, but I was easily able to find detailed Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that matched the name on his later emails, which leads me to believe that Zeon is, indeed, a real person.

The origins of 5-Minute Crafts are, for what it’s worth, far less mysterious. 5-Minute Crafts is owned by TheSoul Publishing, which says it produces an absolutely wild 1,500 videos a month, has 550 employees, and operates 40 Facebook pages in 10 languages. It owns mega-popular YouTube channels like Bright Side (animated videos that are a mix of riddles, facts, and “hacks”) and the 8 million-strong Facebook page You’re Gorgeous (your standard Facebook content farm content). Neither 5-Minute Crafts nor TheSoul Publishing responded to requests for an interview.

Notably, TheSoul Publishing is also based in Eastern Europe. According to a 2017 Forbes piece, the company was founded by the Russia-based Pavel Radaev and Marat Mukhametov, both of whom have backgrounds in social media content. To answer the implicit question, unlike many viral Facebook posts that came out of Russia over the past few years, TheSoul Publishing’s content does not appear to be overtly political.

5-Minute Crafts has four times as many subscribers as Troom Troom, but it’s supported by a 550-employee business. This raises the still-unanswered question: How many people work for Troom Troom? The channel is able to publish a 10- to 15-minute video every day, which requires a relatively large team, not to mention lots of money. For the most part, how they’re able to pull it off remains unclear.

Where crafting meets clickbait

To understand the rise of peculiar DIY videos, you have to understand the rest of YouTube. Videos on the platform succeed largely based on how well they cater to popular SEO keywords, and if they create a sense of urgency in the title (which often means using all caps and a ton of exclamation points), and use a visually striking thumbnail image — that’s why you’ll see a lot of disembodied lips biting into a strange object.

“I started noticing these really distinct, super-saturated, photoshopped thumbnails showing up in my recommended videos feed last year,” says Cristine Rotenberg, the 30-year-old YouTuber behind the nail art channel Simply Nailogical, which has 6 million subscribers. “It’s really strange. It’s like a lot of channels realized around the same time that photoshopped pictures of putting things near mouths get a lot of clicks.”

Bizarre projects with bait-y thumbnails is a strategy that plenty of channels have embraced, but that other established crafting players have rejected. Nifty, the home vertical owned by BuzzFeed, has invested in projects that its audience requests and is interested in actually attempting (unlike, say, an incredibly complicated DIY to make a mini box of Altoids as a prank, as one Troom Troom video offers). On these “normal” crafting channels, for lack of a better term, you’ll find how-tos for things like fall porch decor, headboard making, and pumpkin carving with thumbnails that reveal the actual product.

Erin Phraner, the supervising producer of Nifty, acknowledged the pressure that YouTube crafting channels face to game the algorithm and rely on bait-y titles. Nifty has also had its projects stolen by other craft channels. “It’s the reality of playing in that space,” Phraner says.

“Those types of thumbnails and titles and crazy hack projects definitely skew toward clickbait-y,” she adds. “But I think for us, our feeling is that you might see that pop up in the feed and click to watch it once because it seems kind of outlandish, but our whole business is we’re trying to build trust and create things that people actually want to bring into their home.”

For its part, YouTube says it’s already done the work of combating clickbait on the site. According to Youtube, since 2012, the algorithm has rewarded longer watch times over video clicks. So for instance, if users watch a video for a few seconds, realize it isn’t what they were expecting, and click out, that video wouldn’t show up in users’ feeds as often as one where viewers stuck around.

Plus, the term “clickbait” might not even apply when the actual tutorials on Troom Troom and 5-Minute Crafts are as wild as they are. Zeon explained that Troom Troom’s strategy is the opposite of Nifty’s — the videos are about entertainment, not service. And it’s their bizarro entertainment value that makes them perfectly suited to the current climate of cringe on YouTube, and commentary about that cringe.

Crafting, commentary, and cringe comedy

“There’s so much unintentional humor in Troom Troom videos,” says Rotenberg of Simply Nailogical. “I could make Troom Troom parodies every week and laugh for the rest of my life.”

So far, she’s only made a few. In one, she attempts Troom Troom’s20 banana hacks,” which include making a “banana holster” out of felt and painting a smile on a banana peel; in another, she tries some back-to-school pranks, such as putting hay in somebody’s backpack.

Rotenberg’s videos are but a small sliver of the cottage industry that is the Troom Troom reaction video. Other popular creators like Danny Gonzalez, Cody Ko, and Jarvis Johnson have each garnered millions of views by satirizing Troom Troom and 5-Minute Crafts, using the standard YouTube reaction video format in which the host talks to the camera and reacts to clips from other videos.

It’s a cycle that’s lucrative for both the reactionaries and their targets. Johnson, who’s 26 and also has a full-time job working for Patreon in San Francisco, says that a reaction video he made about 5-Minute Crafts was a “huge catalyst” for growing his YouTube channel, which now has nearly half a million subscribers. Since then, he’s published a mini investigation on Troom Troom, as well as a video about the “dark side of Bright Side,” the sister channel to 5-Minute Crafts.

He says that while on the surface these sorts of channels are pretty innocuous, he does share concerns about clickbait, plagiarism, and their large audience of children. But ultimately, his reaction videos started as a joke — or rather, an exercise in telling jokes. “I thought commentary videos were a brilliant vessel for comedic writing that also fit in with what YouTube’s algorithm promotes,” he explains. “I happened upon a 5-Minute Crafts video called ‘20 Tips If You Spend Your Life in Front of Computer.’ At the time, I felt like I’d struck internet gold because I didn’t see anyone else talking about their absurd hacks.”

Because that’s the thing: Troom Troom videos are incredibly ripe for parody. The joy in watching them is largely based on their obvious absurdity — the uncanny narration, the knockoff–Disney Channel set design, the outlandishness of the projects.

Troom Troom videos are arguably part of Cringe YouTube, the ever-expanding network of uncomfortable and earnest videos that encompasses TikTok compilations, Instagram comedians, and former Vine dudes with creepy hair, among others. It’s difficult to point to a YouTube video that isn’t a little cringey in its own way, but within Cringe YouTube, it isn’t just the original videos that get views — it’s the never-ending cycle of reactions and commentary. PewDiePie, the most-subscribed YouTube channel of all time, for example, has built a career on making fun of other YouTubers’ attempts at earnestness.

On why the genre is so popular right now, Johnson guesses it’s because of “mystery, community, and the whole ‘so bad it’s good’ thing. If someone sees something super absurd and can share that with someone else, there’s a catharsis there.”

He also compares Troom Troom to a movie wildly considered to be one of the most unintentionally laughable films of all time. “As someone who is a die-hard fan of the Tommy Wiseau movie The Room, I see A LOT of similarities between The Room and Troom Troom,” he adds. “I feel like I should start a conspiracy theory about how Troom Troom is short for ‘The Room The Room.’”

And much like The Room, the question around Troom Troom, 5-Minute Crafts, and anyone who has ever made a bonkers video for the internet will always be the same: Are they in on the joke?

In the case of Troom Troom, it seems like the creators embrace the absurdity, even if it isn’t intentionally ironic. Zeon is aware of the intense, morbid fascination with the brand, and said that often, the “story creates the crafts,” meaning that at least some Troom Troom videos were not actually produced with the intent of teaching people how to make a thing — they’re just for fun.

But is weird DIY YouTube an exercise in satire? Probably not. And while there may not be an appetite for glue-stick cheese, there’s certainly an appetite for looking at it.

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

The Goods

Apple predicts you’ll use your iPhone as a flashlight when the world ends

The Goods

Paint-dipped decor is another aesthetic effect of the Great Recession

The Goods

Why do all these robots have cartoon eyes?

View all stories in The Goods