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The Hand Has Its Social Media Moment

BuzzFeed started playing around with hands-focused cooking videos in 2012, but the format really took off in 2014, with the rise of video sharing on Facebook. In August, Tasty racked up more than 800 million Facebook video views and 58 million more on YouTube. On social media, instructional videos don’t need celebrity hosts, Mr. Gauthier said, because “viewers essentially play the host as they share the videos.”

Hands-only videos represent the antithesis of the personality-driven D.I.Y. show. One of the annoyances of learning a recipe, fixing a problem around the house or executing a crafting project through online video is encountering the branded D.I.Y. vlogger who rambles on and on about unrelated matters instead of just showing you how to do the thing. The hands-only video is soothing in its lack of personality. “We do anything that we can to make sure our hands aren’t stealing the spotlight,” said Scott Loitsch, a senior producer for Tasty, whose hands can be seen cooking some of the internet’s most popular recipes, including guacamole onion rings (94 million views on Facebook) and lasagna-stuffed peppers (51 million views).

That means keeping hands manicured and clean, but also avoiding distracting details like longer nails and intricate polish. “It triggers different people in different ways,” Mr. Loitsch said. Because the hands are stand-ins for the viewer, any flair can feel alienating. One recent Tasty commenter was set off by a bracelet: “UGH! Stop wearing jewelry while cooking,” she wrote. “So gross.”

There is a specific grammar to the hands-only video. “It’s important that the hands come from the bottom of the frame instead of the top,” Mr. Gauthier added. A hand reaching down from above “feels disembodied, like someone is making it for you,” he said, but if it arises from below, “the hands become proxies for your hands.”

If the disembodied hands of horror appear as threats, these hands impart a feeling of hyper-competence, executing complicated recipes and household chores on the viewers’ behalf, and at fast-forward speed. Meanwhile, unboxing videos give our proxy hands access to a simulation of endless dispensable income, as the unboxer touches and feels the hottest new action figures and toy sets. And on Instagram, paint-mixing and slime-handling videos show hands engaged in creating oddly satisfying images and sounds.

The internet’s new class of hand models are staged to feel like our own appendages, except more skillful, accomplished and rich. The effect can be enthralling. One Facebook commenter on Mr. Loitsch’s churro ice cream bowl video (183 million views) wrote: “Call me a nut, but is it wrong that I can’t take my eyes off the guy’s hands? I want to know what the rest of this man looks like, and if he’s single.”

Elsewhere on the internet, video makers are working in the opposite direction, imbuing the otherwise anonymous hand with personality and character through tiny, ornate decorations. The blankness of the hand – the same dynamic that makes a Tasty producer’s bracelet a distraction — can be used to build a particular hand’s brand. The Disney Collector unboxer is known for her stylish and topical nails, which change from Hello Kitty-appliqued pink to a frosty “Frozen” theme to fit the toys on display — a bit of flair that’s helped elevate her from the pack.

As the hand becomes a stand-in for the creative self on social media, nail art allows self-expression to seep into every shot. Just as Instagram selfies have placed a spotlight on the assets of models and celebrities, and subjected all women to a kind of internet-wide beauty competition, nail art eliminates the distractions of the face and body, focusing instead on pure artistry and immaculate detail.

If the face has come to represent narcissism online, directing human energies into beautified selfies and funneling issues through the personal testimonies of YouTube personalities, the hand projects a quiet seriousness of purpose. In an online landscape of endless chatter, it’s all business.

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