Thirty four million views on YouTube; 30 million views; 23 million views. Not figures for music videos, or cats playing the piano, or even celebrities reading mean tweets, but clips of exploding cysts, unplugged blackheads and, reader – I’m sorry to have to tell you – botfly extractions.
Welcome to the world of “popping”. To Generation Xers, popping might be more familiar as the funk dance that came out of California in the 70s – as in body-popping – but in the age of internet, it speaks to two hours spent down a YouTube clickhole of pus and screams.
Popping is seeping across the internet, burying under our collective skin, oozing tens of thousands of likes and clicks.
Not only are there dedicated YouTube channels (YouTube’s Greatest Cysts; Cyst.Blackhead.Acne.Bursting) and an active and enthusiastic subreddit (/r/popping), but there are websites and forums, the sole aim of which are to provide popping aficionados with their hit of zits.
There are even popping celebrities – including Dr. Pimple Popper (“Blackhead Queen”) and Dr. Vikram Yadav (“The King of Comedones”). Online awards are handed out, best-of roundups created.
I want to say euw, gross. I want to wretch in disgust. But, I’m afraid that, well … my name is Hannah, and I’m a popaholic. And the above numbers are testament to the fact that I am not alone.
Who, among us, can honestly say they have never squeezed a spot? Who has never been frustrated by one of those under-the-skin chin lumps, impervious to zinc oxide? Who doesn’t look at the pore strip after it has been peeled from the nose?
There could be worse things to be into, right? Crystal meth perhaps, or water-boarding.
‘Does everyone have on their safety glasses?’
The appeal of these videos doesn’t just stop at the lancing of cysts (closed sacs made up of pus, fat, keratin or fluid – I’m so sorry), or even different types of cysts, in which I have become well-versed: ganglion, sebaceous, epidermoid.
A spectrum exists. Some people graduate from, say, whiteheads to abscesses. Before crossing genres to watching the removal of botflies, or impacted earwax, or the tweezing of ingrown hairs.
There’s a lot of debate in the popping “community” about what people are into; judgment even. Tonsil stones? Dude, that’s fucking disgusting. But more often there’s a kind of whatever you’re into acceptance. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Rare for the internet.
I have no idea what started my own fascination with watching cyst-popping, but I remember what tipped the scales: Operation Kill George.
(“Oh wow, thank you for the reminder! That is a classic that I have not watched in a while” says Chris Azzari, founder of PopThatZit.com, when I contact him for this piece.)
I’ll try to explain: Operation Kill George is the sole upload of the YouTube channel ProjectKillGeorge, as if its owner posted it in 2012, saw the response and thought: my work here is done.
George follows the tropes of a specifically popular kind of cyst video. The cyst has a name, which is common. The film, which is almost 10 minutes long, starts with an intro to rival Apocalypse Now, and is backed with dramatic music.
In this case, the song is by Alexandre Desplat, a composer better known for cinematic soundscapes. There’s something about a popping video set to the music of a man who recently scored The Imitation Game which I approve of.
Located on the back – the best location, Azzari tells me – the seemingly never-ending guff stream that springs forth, like Katie Hopkins in full-flow on Twitter, might have something to do with the lump having been there for 20 years.
“Does everyone have on their safety glasses?” asks the doctor, before pinching at the lump like a crab on acid.
George has been viewed more than 17 million times, has upwards of 20,000 likes, and has almost 19,000 comments.
‘It’s certainly gross’
I’m interested in why we’re interested in this stuff. Particularly the general squeezing of pimples and cysts, more than those who have graduated to getting off to a three-inch bug being pulled from someone’s ear.
The enduring popularity of TV programmes such as the UK’s Embarrassing Bodies, and the fact that certain popping videos frequently break out to go viral, racking up thousands of page views for mainstream media, proves that it is more than a niche concern.
Popping fans even include celebrities. British writer Caitlin Moran is one. The tweet she shared of a 25-year-old blackhead – imagine a Redwood root being prised from the ground – broke the internet way before Kim Kardashian.
Numerous MetaFilter threads, queries on Yahoo Answers, YouTube comments, WebMD searches and Imgur posts also point to this being a question people are interested in knowing the answer to.
My first port of call is to ask the active enthusiasts of the popular popping subreddit. These are the true fans, who know the struggle of an out-of-focus camera, gauze blocking the view, a video with distracting squealers, an incompetent popper.
A lot of redditors think that it’s somehow cathartic. “Soothing” and “cleansing” are words which come up a lot. “It relieves my stress. Seeing it explode out gives me relief”, writes one redditor, former_anachronism.
It’s just so satisfying, especially black heads for me – they’re my favourite. I like solid when it comes to popping, those giant cysts constituted almost entirely by liquid don’t tickle my fancy – Zelda6finity.
58008_35007 agrees with my proposition that it might be an atavistic thing, harking back to a gorilla love of grooming. “Could be our monkey brains. I remember picking fleas off my cat as a kid and finding that satisfying, but not quite the same.”
Others tell me they think it is an extension of their general love of cleanliness and order. But there are other theories, too.
“It’s something illicit and certainly gross. Just that slight sickening feeling in your stomach is pleasurable to some. Some people just get the same sort of thrill as, say, riding on a roller-coaster”, muses zatan130.
The doctor will see you now
Dr Sandra Lee – AKA Dr. Pimple Popper – is one of the stars of the popping scene. A dermatologist who took over her father’s California practice with her husband, she also features on TV show, The Doctors. Lee echoes the viewpoint of a lot of the redditors I asked.
“I agree that there is something hypnotic about pimple popping”, she writes via email. “Sometimes when I upload my own videos I find myself watching certain parts over and over.
“I have seen people mention ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), or that it is something primitive.”
The redditors revere Lee. (Sample comment: “I wish I could marry you Sandra. I’d put a ring under my skin and pretend it’s a cyst.”)
Lee tells me that she first entered the popping world when she uploaded a blackhead extraction to her personal Instagram account and noticed a significant jump in followers and engagement, with individuals tagging friends in comments.
She decided to set up a dedicated YouTube channel in late 2014, which now has upwards of 70,000 subscribers and 32 million views. She tells me she is driving her husband up the wall with the glow of her phone late at night while she edits her videos shot with iPhone.
Lee and I go deeper into the popping talk, however, when I ask whether repeatedly watching these videos is a healthy form of release or indicates something more compulsive.
Dermatillomania, or SPD (skin picking disorder), is a condition included in the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But Lee tells me watching her videos might be a means of helping individuals with this condition.
“I do know that it helps some of my viewers cope with their dermatillomania. I have a few patients with this condition, and when I see one again, I plan to suggest that they watch my videos and let me know if it helps them cope.”
A lot of fans feel Lee’s popularity is down to her caring manner with patients. An extraordinary story, this: during treatment, one regular patient, known as “Pops”, spoke of the recent death of his wife.
Both Pops and his wife had been longtime patients of Lee. After watching videos featuring Pops, redditors asked Lee to set up a gofundme page for him, as he was struggling with financing the care home he had just moved into: Lee hopes to present him with a cheque for almost $6,000 (£4,000) next week.
‘A guy filming bathroom tiles? Bad’
It’s not as simple, however, as being either grossed out or fascinated by popping. Lee mentions the difference between “soft pops” and “hard pops”: those who appreciate the silly-string snaking of a blocked pore versus people who can stomach a lipoma excision.
There’s also a split between those who enjoy watching videos in a clinical setting (as with George), but who baulk at the DIY videos which have also spread across the web.
In some cases, there’s a level of horrified behind-the-camera banter to these which can have me in stitches, hence a cropping up of reaction videos. I’d also argue, maybe, that a family gathering around to finally rid an uncle of his hard-to-reach back zit is more heartwarming than a viral video of a dog greeting its owner.
It’s equally pleasing to see pop-watchers get their hands on the real thing. “Jesus Christ, that is like heaven”, says one popper in a broad Dublin accent, hardly believing her luck, as her friends debate whether to name the blackhead she’s digging out Bob or Wayne.
YouTube commenters in particular are quick to point out the pros and cons of a given video. A splat on a camera lens? Good. A guy filming bathroom tiles while we know the good stuff is squirting out-of-shot? Bad. (“Could have done this so much better”).
Someone filming in portrait mode or making a too-small hole? Don’t get them started.
The least sanitary of homemade poppings receive short shrift. “Wear some fucking gloves!”, is a common complaint, as an amateur goes at her boyfriend’s shoulder with a carving knife.
Often, comment threads underneath videos featuring infected tattoos or recurring cysts descend into class-based warfare, with people pillaging Southern-accented “rednecks” for not washing, allowing their lumps to get so large, and asking why they don’t “just go to the fucking doctor”.
As Lee points out, however, healthcare is expensive in America, and given that these procedures are often not deemed medically necessary and therefore would not be covered by insurance, people might not be able to afford to have them professionally removed.
Mostly though, commenters express concern with themselves: how they started with a chaste squeezing of a forehead blemish, to four hours later watching an operation on a seven-year-old tumour or extractions of mango worms on puppies.
“HOW DID I END UP HERE?” screams the internet.
The King of Comedones
However, in addition to the savage lack of public healthcare in America, is there – like an oxidised blackhead – a darker side to these videos?
Most of the DIY videos filmed at home are anonymised. Occasionally, names are mentioned in the background, as a group of frat-boys nursing red paper cups discuss proceedings.
Nearly all of the videos filmed in clinical settings avoid identification of patients. But some videos are more discomforting than others; and not just the age-restricted ones.
By far the biggest popping celebrity on the scene is Vikram Singh Yadav, a New Delhi based doctor. His YouTube channel, established in 2009, has 165,000 subscribers and a staggering 217 million views. His speciality is the removal of blackheads and comedones.
His most recent hit is a video showing blackheads under UV light (“this world is full of all things, some that glitter”), but his most viral video was the removal of maggots from a man’s ear. And for the record, even I cannot bring myself to watch that.
Yadav’s fandom stretches far and wide, to the point that he now uploads new videos every Wednesday and Sunday to satisfy pus-thirsty viewers.
He is popular because of his quirky turns of phrase and his habit of introducing all videos with “hi, friends” – stick that on a T-shirt and a lot of people would buy it –but personally I find Yadav’s rough-handled approach to his patients off-putting.
He also slags them off. A lot. And I’m like: dude, they are literally right there. They can hear you?
To stick to his deadlines, I imagine him spotting someone across the street with an inflamed ingrown hair, and dashing in between cars before bundling them into a sack.
Yadav didn’t respond to my requests for comment. For her part, Lee tells me she always asks permission to film.
“I will offer to extract them for free in exchange for permission to videotape the procedure to post on my social media.
“Interestingly, very few people decline. So I feel it’s a win-win-win situation. I didn’t realise how very appreciative many of my patients were to have me extract their blackheads and milia.”
‘There’s a zit manifesto’
One thing is for sure, the explosion in online popping popularity doesn’t show any sign of abating.
Chris Azzari, 36, is a veteran. Now, there are a whole roster of popping dedicated websites – epiczitpop.com, pimplepoppingvideos.net – but Azzari set up PopThatZit back in 2006, when, working in IT, he saw a gap in the market.
In the years since, he has appeared on the talk shows of Tyra Banks and Rosie O’Donnell. His website is meticulously ordered into categories – “butt cysts”, “belly button lint” and, (rather worryingly), “MRSA”. There is even a zit manifesto.
“The community is great and has changed a lot over the years”, he tells me. “People come and go, people complain, people praise, and you have to take it with a grain of salt. In the early days I used to try and please everyone, but we all know that is impossible.”
At the site’s inception, PopThatZit offered $20 (£13) for original submissions. “If there was a site like this when I was in high school I could have made my college tuition.”
Azzari says that PopThatZit continues to grow. “Many visitors are regulars that come every day and people spend a lot of time on the site. We get about 350,000 visitors a month and sometimes have big spikes when the site is mentioned places”.
A look at Google Trends shows a continuing rise in people searching for cyst hits. Most poppers seem to live in New York, and interestingly, Dallas (it’s unclear as to why this was never covered in the show).
Recent media coverage has also buoyed the community. A video (completely dull, by the way), of a man popping his ganglion cyst with a hammer and nail has done the rounds.
The Mirror ran a poll in which 65% of respondents cited popping videos as “totally satisfying” rather than “totally gross”, and in another poll, 78% said they found them “fascinating”.
Over the past couple of years outlets such as Buzzfeed and Oddee have run collated pieces. Even the Daily Mail’s top-rated comment on an article about cysts was approving.
‘I absolutely cannot’
One of the redditors I contacted asked me by direct message why I was interested in popping. I told him, as above, that I wasn’t precisely sure.
I was never into the game Operation as a kid, nor did I ever suffer from acne. I am very squeamish in a lot of ways – blood tests make me cry, and I had to stop eating Doritos after I realised they look like they have blackheads. (Someone else must have noticed this, surely?)
Low points, however, have included chasing after my brother-in-law’s ganglion cyst with a copy of Dante’s Inferno, him running from the room and knocking over an anglepoise lamp on his way out.
(Ganglions are known as “Bible bumps”, as whacking them with heavy objects is an effective, if unadvised, way of getting rid).
More recently: a colleague swinging by my desk for lunch, seeing an open tab of a YouTube cyst video (for this piece!) and her swiftly departing with the words: “I absolutely cannot”.
Of course, when not writing 3,000 word essays on the subject, I try to hide my interest. I guess, like a hardcore porn habit, it’s the sort of predilection that lends itself to the quick snapping shut of a laptop lid.
“Viewer discretion advised” a lot of videos state in their introduction. Yeah, no shit.
But even Lee, Dr. Pimple Popper herself, has a confession to make:
“Redditors try to tell me all the time: ‘You are one of us!’. Perhaps I’ve been in denial, since until lately, I’ve not really thought that I was “one of them” – maybe just that I was just a “provider” for them.
“But I’ve slowly started to admit to myself that I, too, am a popaholic.”
- The Guardian obviously does not condone – or comedone – trying to extract cysts or any type of lump or bump at home. Go and see a doctor – and then upload to YouTube.