Social media offer something for everyone — bad taxidermy, pimple popping, cooking fails and ingrown hair removal, to name a few.
Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) has more than 3.8 million YouTube subscribers who watch her squeeze, pop and pick pimples. On the Instagram account @tweezist, 186,000 followers watch ingrown hair being removed. And the Instagram account @cookingforbae has made American cheese-coated cooking fails a must-see for its 158,000 followers.
Disgusting? Maybe. Absorbing? Apparently.
Gross-out social media accounts have been showing up on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube for a few years, with the popular Dr. Pimple Popper’s first post dating to 2014. The accounts now lure millions to watch videos of oozing pimples and baseball-sized boils or to scroll through images of vomit-inducing dinners gone wrong, then share them for all their lucky friends and followers to see.
While we may feel repulsed by these images, we can’t seem to look away.
“I don’t specifically seek out giant festering zits, but if it shows up on my newsfeed, I’m going to watch it,” said Rachel Blodgett of St. Anthony.
Blodgett, an avid viewer of the television show “American Horror Story,” started searching trypophobic images and videos after a character in the show revealed her fear of irregular or clustered holes and bumps. What she found online were surprisingly revolting photos of lotus pods, sponges, bees crawling in hives and makeup made to look like maggot-infested skin.
“They’re disgusting, but I can’t look away,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Roxanne Prichard does. The neuroscience professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul said that we have a visceral reaction to things we consider disgusting. Our bodies tense up; we may clamp our mouth closed or wrinkle our nose.
“It’s something that’s an avoidance response,” she said. “It’s basically a warning sign that this is not something that you want to eat, not something that’s safe to interact with.”
And yet, as much as we want to look away, we also, weirdly, want to watch.
We often react more quickly to disgust than to other emotions, which helps make the gross-out factor intriguing — if not engrossing — for some viewers, according to a study by Indiana University and the University of Central Florida.
What’s more, gross images are hard to forget. Humans seem hard-wired not only to remember them, but share them, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
That may be why gross-out content is being viewed at a faster rate than cute content (sorry, kitties). And as long as people keep posting gross videos and photos on their newsfeeds, their friends and followers will keep clicking on them.
A horror show
Viewing gross-out videos is akin to watching a horror movie, Prichard said. There’s the hint of danger or disgust, which allows us to engage in — and distance ourselves from — the content.
“With one other layer of separation, it’s safe,” she said. “It can be disgusting, but because it’s on social media, it’s not a real threat to you.”
We also can get hooked by the buildup of tension, which is followed by a release. With pimple-popping videos, for example, the purpose is to watch and wait for the avalanche of pus.
For St. Paul resident Hailey Passer, it’s all in the pop. “There’s something satisfying and gratifying about the release of whatever’s under the skin,” she said.
Watching someone pop a pimple, lance a boil or remove an ingrown hair can trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a calming or tingling sensation triggered by certain sights, sounds and smells. ASMR might best be known for gentle whispering or hair brushing videos on YouTube. B ut the same response can be experienced when the body is cleansed of something considered dirty or dangerous.
“When I watch the videos, I’m getting the satisfaction of that happening in real life,” Passer said.
No fuss, no pus
While the images of a giant pimple may appear crass, producing gross-out accounts involves the same planning and branding as with cute puppies.
In fact, the most followed gross-out posts require a certain aesthetic, which makes the content cohesive, such as close-ups of flesh and grainy image quality.
Most of the people who have become popular purveyors of gross-out content have worked hard at it, though.
“It might have started as something they were just having fun with,” said social media marketing consultant Nicole Harrison. “When you’re starting to grow at that level, it’s probably because there is a little bit of thought behind what you’re doing.”
A certain regularity also is required to the postings.
Dr. Pimple Popper uploads a new video almost daily to her YouTube channel, while @cookingforbae uploads at least weekly.
“If you’re consistently reaching an audience, you have a big audience and you are producing content, it’s actually quite a bit of work to do that,” Harrison said.
There’s also some money to be made from the accounts, through advertisements and brand promotions included with the posts. Dr. Pimple Popper and @cookingforbae include e-mails for submissions or business contacts. This month, Dr. Pimple Popper made the move from social media to TV, with a new series on TLC.
Turns out that oozing, unsettling and squirm-inducing content sells.
“It’s a thrill ride, but it’s a thrill ride for a different part of the brain,” Prichard said. “It’s like, ‘Look what I can do to your nervous system.’ ”