All I seem to want to do these days is stare mindlessly at health care workers and the elderly getting stuck in the arm with a needle.
Over the last week I’ve watched countless videos of men and women shoveling dry ice into packages. I’ve gawked at footage of masked individuals hauling boxes with fork lifts. I have become well acquainted with stock video of vial sorting and refrigeration systems. I’ve even watched mundane footage of FedEx planes touching down in the middle of the night at LAX simply because of the precious cargo they contain. Oh, and there’s also some good jokes. Despite a lifelong squeamishness toward syringes, I am addicted to coronavirus vaccine rollout content.
Across social media, I’ve seen testimonials of people who are also transfixed. On Twitter, a few people responded to me that they’ve found themselves getting surprisingly emotional at the sight of a governor signing for a vaccine delivery or nurses getting the shot.
I was a bit mystified by my infatuation until I realized that the vaccine videos are similar to another internet phenomenon: the unboxing video.
For roughly the last decade, unboxing videos have dominated platforms like YouTube, minting moderate fortunes for dedicated vloggers who simply record themselves — frequently from first-person perspective, showing only their hands — meticulously peeling back packaging and narrating what’s inside different boxes. The genre is versatile. Gadget unboxing is popular. Fashion influencers do it all the time with clothes or cosmetics. But unboxing videos are especially popular among small children who can’t seem to get enough of watching others soothingly open toys. (A video titled “Play Doh Sparkle Princess Ariel Elsa Anna Disney Frozen MagiClip Glitter Glider Dolls” uploaded in 2014 has nearly 600 million views on YouTube.)
Children are so drawn to the videos — which also function as algorithmic catnip on YouTube — that the unboxing genre has sparked plenty of confusion and consternation among parents. In 2014, the author Mireille Silcoff wrote in The Times Magazine that her child’s “obsession with these videos suggested to me some kind of deep neurological massaging, as if my child’s developing brain had a keyhole opening that lay in wait only for a faceless woman with a South American accent and brightly manicured nails removing letter-shaped Play-Doh molds from their packaging.”
Neurological massaging begins to describe the sensation that the vaccine “unboxing” videos provide nearly ten months into a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 Americans. The appeal isn’t hard to understand. Seeing the vaccine out in the world is the purest expression of hope — a signal that help is on the way and that our long global nightmare might be entering its final act.
But there’s something else there, too. There’s a transfixing quality to the videos of health care workers or politicians opening the cold storage packages of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. I’ve watched some of them multiple times, despite the fact that they are, in essence, boring.
“Unboxing videos, ultimately, are aspirational — they represent what people wish they had,” Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media told Quartz’s Annabelle Timsit in 2018. There’s a vicarious joy with maybe just a hint of envy involved in observing. To watch a video of a gloved worker unpack vials of a lifesaving inoculation is to imagine having that wealth at your disposal, able to dish out to all your loved ones or anyone you’re worried about.
News organizations understand all this instinctively. Cable news segments about the vaccine almost all show footage of the vaccine being moved around the country with granular logistical details about the rollout, all of which seem to underscore that, yes, this is happening. Local news channels have their own spin on unboxing videos. “Vaccine delivery unboxing at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center,” is the title of one video by the Portland Press Herald. There are other clips from Iowa, Minnesota and my home state of Montana.
There’s likely another motivation behind the footage — one intended for those skeptical of or hesitant to take the vaccine. Those who’ve investigated the allure of unboxing videos argue that they appeal to consumers who might be wary of a new product. When an influencer unboxes a gadget or toy or new cosmetic, they are (often, quite literally) tearing through the company’s marketing gloss to reveal the real product. “It’s all very well saying that a laptop is amazing but I’m actually showing that laptop, and as a result I can be trusted a bit more,” the YouTuber behind the gadget reviewing account, Geek Street said in a 2018 interview about the unboxing phenomenon. Google, which owns YouTube, reported in 2014 that “62 percent of people who view unboxing videos do so when researching a particular product” to buy.
If unboxing videos are a Consumer Reports-esque way of building trust, then it makes sense that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo staged his own unboxing video of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine earlier this month. For six minutes he channeled his inner YouTuber pulling apart and explaining the GPS tracking device and thermal monitors that help keep tabs on each package. He took out individual vials to show how each box can hold roughly 5,000 doses. The entire spectacle was intended “just to show you how real it is,” he said.
But for those of us eager to get stabbed and safely join the immunity herd, there’s no marketing happening, here. As Silcoff wrote in 2014, “these videos seem to come from a more snake-brained place.” Describing her own journey down the unboxing rabbit hole, she suggested that “the root of these videos’ gargantuan success could lie solely in the fact that it feels good to take the plastic off something unused.”
But just because it tickles the lizard brain doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeper, too. Watching the vaccine show up at hospitals or end its journey via rapid deposit into a fleshy patch of upper arm, I feel hope for the first time in a while. Unboxing, at its most elemental, has a hopeful quality to it. It’s exciting, new and full of possibility. Watching the beginning of the end of the pandemic, I am, for the first time, allowing myself to imagine those possibilities — and how good it will feel when we can finally take the plastic off our lives.
Charlie Warzel, a Montana-based Opinion writer at large for The New York Times, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism.