In Time Indefinite, Ross McElwee’s wrenchingly intimate 1993 documentary about the struggle to reconcile oneself to one’s nature as but a single cycle in the tidal pull of a universe that summons us forth from the void only to cast us back therein, there is a 72–second close-up of an enormous tumor, which the filmmaker’s physician brother extracted from the breast of a woman who had ignored it for two years or longer. In voiceover, McElwee marvels at our capacity to ignore, up to the last possible moment, these reminders of the death that surrounds us even in the midst of life.
To refuse to attend to a blemish that just won’t go away is human; to purge such mortification from our bodies, divine. Such is one explanation, anyway, for the popularity of YouTube pimple popping videos—as well as for how the zits got that big in the first place.
When you do a YouTube search for “pimple popping,” many of the top results feature what are more properly characterized as cysts or abscesses; leaking and draining mar many of even the most popular videos, and incisions and lancing are frequently preliminary to the blasting. To date, over 34 million viewers (roughly equivalent to the population of Earth at the start of the Bronze Age) have watched “Best Pimple Pop Ever,” a three-minute excerpt of a possibly professional procedure on a lump with the circumference of a beer coaster atop the upper spine of someone named “Jeremy” (the videographer’s brother). White-gloved hands wield an X-Acto blade to open the skin above the reservoir of pus and have barely finished digging around in there when a white snake jumps out, a beat quicker than you were expecting, and I jumped, too, like I did when Alien jumped out of John Hurt’s chest. The video continues, after some Southern-accented hollering, with the slower second wave coming like frosting from a piping bag and finally the clear fluid. As it heals, the wound will scab over from the center outwards—I do hope they got everything out, but at least it’s in a place that’s hard to reach or see in a mirror, so that Jeremy won’t pick at it.
Some YouTube pimple-popping videos are quite long; many feature a larger crew than a Frederick Wiseman movie, as several friends circle the wagons around a skin issue that’s reached a crisis point, and someone, for the equally ubiquitous and mysterious reasons that define human life in this century, pulls out a cameraphone. One records, one or two others alternate with the subject to prod at the pimple or lumpy subdermal blackhead; all to deliver a running, squealing commentary. Most often, in these cases, it’s a group of camera-ready girls. Whether you find the idea of painted fingernails prodding a pimple to be charming or unhygienic is a neat way of slotting you into one of the two main groups of commenters on these videos. Some watch out of a fascination with private feminine moments and bodily secretions (sometimes punctuated by actual yelps of pain); others, who also second-guess the squeezing technique and argue with each other about the role of hot water and tweezers in everyday pimple-popping, assume the cloak of online anonymity to indulge in an anal-expulsive fascination with their own bodies, the zits on the screen proxies for their own.
Both groups overlap with a third: those attempting to justify pure scatological rubbernecking with a sarcastic tone and lots of jokes about condiments.
Perhaps it is due to the sheer size of their pustules that many of the video subjects do exhibit good popping technique, spreading their fingers wide at the very base of the blemish and applying pressure equally downwards and inwards. The best pimple popping videos—which is not to say the grossest, but rather the ones which inspire commenters to drop their various poses and simply blurt something out with Caps Lock on—are, like “Best Pimple Pop Ever,” simply more baroque arrangements of classic pimple-pop dynamics, with the blemish articulating at the surface of the skin before the sebum achieves exit velocity and bursts through from the bottom, sometimes coming close to splattering on the camera lens like a squib in a war film, and leaving a backfill of blood timed to the exhalation of the breath you didn’t realize you were holding in.
That this is essentially a money shot is not lost on YouTube users. Indeed, most things that give pleasure—verse-chorus song structure; physical violence—are analogues for the build-up and release of tension as experienced at orgasm. It’s the logic of, well, pop.
In Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, the DeLillo-like author character Bill Gray observes that terrorists do what artists were once thought capable of doing: “alter[ing] the inner life of the culture,” interrupting and re-routing private thought along new channels. This is lately also the purview of internet hardcore pornography, whose fads have contributed to the mainstreaming of personal grooming habits and sexual acts once restricted to specialists and underground fetish communities. What viral culture does is make visible a constituency; this is persuasive. One becomes conversant, on at least a surface level, with everything from K-Pop to Netflix Original Programming to income inequality to the politically correct terminology to use when discussing trans issues. Once it becomes quantifiable as knowledge which others seem in on, to find something from porn or pimple-popping simply disgusting and not worth one’s time seems jejune, like objecting to a horror movie at a middle-school sleepover. To revel or recoil is matter not of reaction but of choice; clearly, from my description of “Best Pimple Pop Ever,” I’ve aligned myself with the commenters affecting a tone of unaffected snarky knowingness. If other people don’t seem to have a problem with it, what reason have I to turn away?
Culture, viral or otherwise, does not bully us: no one is playing gross YouTube videos (or Hou Hsiao-hsien or Marvel movies) for us after taping needles under our eyes to impale us if we blink, like in Argento’s Opera, any more than the state will now force the Catholic Church to sanctify same-sex unions. Yet when standing at an angle to the mass enthusiasms of others—quantifiable and seemingly undifferentiated, in the medium of Likes and Shares—we are nevertheless conscious of resisting. This is perhaps why, in a recent viral video that was shared enough to make it even into my own feed, members of a Catholic advocacy group delivered “It gets better” messages to fellow believers, encouraging them not to abandon their unpopular convictions in the face of… well, nothing tangible, anyway. But what is intangible—the presumption that one should share in certain tastes and opinions—is conveyed socially, rather than impersonally. It’s a process rather like high school, and, since it happens on Facebook, it features many of the same people. At least we all have better skin now.