A little over 12 minutes into the video “Disaster Clean With Me 2021,” Becky Moss holds her vacuum’s dirt cup up to the camera for inspection. It’s filled with a powdery mound of gray dust and a swirl of pet hair. The volume of material — two or three cups worth, from the looks of it — seems excessive for one room. And yet, the accumulation is so satisfying to see.
“My husband is like, ‘That is so gross. How can you film this?’” said Ms. Moss, a 26-year-old YouTuber in Oxford, Mich., who started her channel in May 2020. “I always tell him, ‘This is what people want to see.’”
Videos like hers abound on YouTube, where legions of home-improvement influencers post time-lapse recordings of their chores. Their “clean with me” uploads inspire people to tackle their own messes, however big or small. In 2020, the number of “clean with me” videos on YouTube rose by 50 percent, according to the company, and the number of “organize with me” videos nearly doubled.
During lockdown, the deep-cleaning phenomenon spread to TikTok — and morphed into something more grotesque. Users post videos revealing vile filth in the forgotten corners and crevices of their homes. The footage has found a captive audience during the pandemic, a period marked for many by more time spent at home, a strong urge to nest and obsessive sanitization.
All in all, TikTok videos that include the #cleaning hashtag have accounted for some 7.6 billion views; the company said it saw engagement spike in December after a user posted a video coining the portmanteau “CleanTok.” These videos tend to be hyper-focused: Rather than tidying entire rooms, creators unscrew their moldy dishwasher filters and fish yards of scummy hair from their shower drains, sparing none of the slimy details.
Through TikTok’s “duet” feature, people can replicate these dirty jobs side by side with original “how-to” videos. The videos also further boost the cultlike followings behind brands like Scrub Daddy, Fabuloso and Dawn (as well as the classic combo of baking soda and vinegar). TikTok has also worked with companies like Bounty and Lysol on hashtag campaigns.
In all of these cleaning videos, some trends have emerged. One, known as “laundry stripping,” involves pouring Borax and laundry detergent into one’s bathtub, creating a deep soak for old sheets, sweat-stained shirts and even college dorm couch cushions. After hours of soaking, the bath water appears reliably brown.
Mitchell Creed, a 35-year-old neurology resident at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, created the subreddit in 2013 to capture the inexplicable euphoria in little perfections. “When we have cleaning videos, it kind of just goes back to that simplicity of life and things that are just neat and ordered,” he said.
And in a year of compounded crises, the ability to make meaning out of mess has brought people some comfort. “The best way to manage anxiety is to find something that you can control,” said Alicia Clark, a psychologist and the author of “Hack Your Anxiety.” “Our immediate environments and cleaning them is just right in front of us.”
While TikTok’s 60-second format can create a fantasy by editing out most of the elbow grease — “It’s like Disney, the ‘happily ever after’ of the house project,” Dr. Clark said — it could be highly motivational for those struggling with where to start. “I can’t help but think that it’s constructive,” Dr. Clark said. Some videos, on the other hand, show only the mess, leaving viewers wondering whether they should even entertain the idea of a deep clean.
The videos also have their heartwarming moments. One trend on TikTok involves family members or friends tidying a loved one’s space, often as a surprise.
Allison Nelson, 29, a cleaning professional from Denver, loves reading comments from her viewers on TikTok. “One of my favorites I get all the time is peeps writing, sending videos and duetting my videos and pictures of my tips and tricks that they have applied to their own home and are loving,” Ms. Nelson said. She said the app has also helped her business, Allisonscleanin Service, which now has a waiting list.
On YouTube, Ms. Moss has seen similar good fortune. “It’s not just a hobby anymore,” she said. “It’s turned into me contributing financially to my family.”
Captivating as the videos may be, there’s nothing more satisfying than doing the cleanup yourself. After all, when’s the last time you looked at your baseboards?