This winter, in the throes of my seasonal depression, I fell down an Instagram rabbit hole, and before I knew it, half of my Instagram feed was videos of people playing with slime. Slime, if you haven’t encountered it on any of your social feeds — or at a child’s birthday party — is a strange, mushy semi-solid that can be made easily with Elmer’s glue, borax, and water, plus a mess of strange sequins, colored dye, and commentary. Slime is so popular as a craft project among teens and preteens that stores are struggling to keep Elmer’s glue on the shelves.
But Slime achieves its highest calling — and reaches its largest audience — as the subject of mesmerizing videos on Instagram. In real life, slime is a sticky, gooey, watery, semi-solid mush, but through the lens of a camera phone, it’s enchanting — colorful, sparkly, and loud. In the foreground of a typical slime video, a hand removes the colorful goo from its container and smushes it, creating holes and gaps — eliciting a gentle smacking sound before folding it over itself and starting again, in a theoretically infinite loop of recreation — pushing and pulling the substance apart.
Slime videos are part science, part meditation, and part art form. They’re also a business. Slime creators have hundreds of thousands of followers, and sell their slime on Etsy for money. @Slime.Bun, one of my favorites, has more than 200,000 followers; @slimequeeens has almost 700,000. It’s an industry dominated by teens who started making their own slime just because they loved it — and starting selling it to enable their habit. Alyssa J., a 15-year-old slime creator whose mother preferred that she keep her last name secret for privacy reasons, just started her slime account in August 2016. She says she saw tutorials on Pinterest, and that it “just looked fun,” so she decided to start an account herself. Alyssa’s account, @craftyslimecreator, now has 431,000 followers.
Alyssa makes her slime and slime videos in her free time, after school and her homework is done. Sometimes, she spends more than 20 hours a week making slime in her room. And she has to, in order to maintain her brand. She uploads three videos a day — and, of course, all of them need a new slime and an edited video. “The only reason I sell slime is so I can make more slime,” Alyssa says. But some users sell their slime for pretty good money: 13-year-old Theresa Nguyen — who has about the same number of followers as Alyssa on Instagram, where she posts as @Rad.Slime — told Money magazine recently that she’s making about $3,000 a month. Alyssa isn’t making that much. Her slimes sell almost at cost: $7.57 for butter slime, $6.60 for teal confetti with big beads, $12.41 for jiggly, blue slime.
But the question why is a bit more difficult than the question how much. None of the teen creators I spoke with could enunciate exactly what it was about slime that appealed to them. Alyssa J. makes slime because she loves it. “It’s a way to express yourself in a different way. It’s just fun to listen to and see all the creations,” she says.
That pairing of sensory enjoyment — to see and to listen — came up with every teen I talked to. “I just love it for some odd reason,” says Carlie, a 12-year-old slime fan who recently started making her own slime. She did specify that for her, the appeal was “the sound and feeling of it.” For Donna Boyd, a 17-year-old from Harrisburg, Virginia, slime is therapeutic. She’s never purchased slime, or made it herself. She just watches hundreds of videos from her five favorite accounts over and over again. “It honestly just makes me happy and de-stresses me,” Donna told me. “I suffer from anxiety, and slime videos help me a lot during panic attacks.” She says she gets lost in them after watching a few, going into a kind of meditative state. One teen I spoke to, Rachel M., told me she spends “at least 15 hours a week” just watching slime videos and playing with slime. She has only bought two slimes herself, but she loves them and says, “I need them.”
In this way, slime videos fall broadly into the uniquely internet genre of film that focuses on providing sensual experiments, instead of telling a story or providing a tutorial. There’s a community of people who make and watch videos of people mixing paints, for example, and another for woodcutting, and artists manipulating clay on the wheel. One of the most reliably popular genre of videos on the internet is “unboxing,” in which people take electronics or other products out of their boxes. Last year, the link-sharing site Digg had a viral hit with “The Most Satisfying Video in the World,” a video compiling images of smoothly working machinery and other oddly soothing clips.
The most famous genre of sensual video is probably Auto-Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, the term used to explain the phenomenon of full-body response to sounds — everything from whispering and scratching to pages turning and Bob Ross. ASMR has firmly planted itself in internet culture; a Reddit subgroup on the topic has 125,000 followers, and ASMR YouTube creators (like ASMRrequests) have half a million followers. “When I watch a slime video, it triggers a sharp shiver that starts in my neck, runs down my back, and ends with a gentle, pleasant buzzing in my head,” Isabel Slone wrote in a piece for Hazlitt about her obsession with the medium. But they’re not quite the same: As Slone writes, “Slime isn’t easily identifiable as an ASMR trigger because the appeal is primarily visual rather than auditory.”
And, indeed, other sensual videos don’t hold quite the same appeal as slime does for its enthusiasts. “I only really like slime videos,” Donna says. The same goes for Rachel, though she says she also likes watching unboxing videos because those are relaxing.
But if slime is the thing, why watch other people play with it instead of making and playing with it yourself? “This may sound weird, but I think the difference is the control,” Donna tells me. “In a video, I can’t decide what they do, which kind of adds to the satisfaction of it.” Watching someone else ply and poke and squish slime together is calming. It’s easy, as the repetition washes over you, to lose track of yourself and your worries; the video becomes a momentary escape from quickly moving, anxiety-inducing social-media feeds. All slime videos are somewhat the same: A colorful slime gets poked, prodded, maybe even cut, and then reformed and squashed back together again. But — like praying or meditating — they allow a brief suspension of the self, in an environment founded entirely on the self’s constant construction and reconstruction. “It doesn’t matter what it’s used for,” Alyssa told me near the end of our interview, dragging out “used” so that it sounded like the most absurd request in the world for a giggly, blue goo to have a purpose. “It’s just slime. Get it?”