Friday, August 12, 2022

Desk setup videos are huge on YouTube, and they’re just getting started

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Shreya Christinahttps://cafe-madrid.com
Shreya has been with cafe-madrid.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider cafe-madrid.com team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

It all started — for me at least — with a desk mat. In the early days of the pandemic, like millions of others, I was suddenly working from home every day and needed to turn a tiny corner of my living room into a usable home office. I wanted to buy a desk mat so my keyboard and mouse wouldn’t slide around or scratch up my desk. I bought the cheapest one I could find on Amazon, but it was too small. A bigger one started to pill and tear almost immediately.

So I turned to YouTube, and I started watching desk setup videos. And for the next couple of years, I’ve really never stopped. I watched as more creators entered the space, looking for inventive new ways to help viewers deck out their own spaces — large, small, cheap, luxurious, and everything in between. I watched as small creators suddenly became big creators, landing sponsorship deals with the companies behind the products in their videos. I watched as a certain aesthetic, with dark walls and natural wood and Apple products — always Apple products — everywhere, took over the space. I watched even well after I needed any help in my own home office.

Even as many people go back to the office, DeskTube (as I like to call it) continues to thrive. Remote work obviously isn’t going away, and the pandemic has also made people much more aware of the spaces they occupy and how they can be better. Plus, there’s just something delightful — and even sort of soothing — about watching someone show you the way they’ve perfectly optimized their space. It says, yes, the world is chaos, but in this tiny part of it that I control, everything can be in its right place. And that counts for something.

Show and tell

Showing off your sick workspace is a longtime mainstay of internet culture. Gamers around the world have gone to subreddits like r/battlestations (and r/shittybattlestations) to find inspiration for their own RGB setups and PC builds. Pinterest is teeming with beautifully curated desks looking out at gorgeous views. And if you’re a creator on the internet, it’s practically a job requirement to post the view from your chair so your audience can picture you on the job — and steal the magic for themselves. Heck, go back far enough, and even Albert Einstein’s messy desk was an object of fascination.

DeskTube is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a pandemic-created one. “I think the first [setup video] I did was in 2013,” says Justin Tse, a longtime tech YouTuber who has become one of the best-known desk setup creators. Tse, then just a teenager, had spent a bunch of time and energy building out a gaming and work desk — MacBook Pro, Asus monitors, Logitech keyboard and mouse, a nifty “history of Apple” poster — and thought it’d be cool to show people. That first setup tour came about 15 months and dozens of videos into the life of his channel but almost immediately became one of his biggest ever videos. So a bit over a year later, Tse made another one, with some big upgrades: an Apple Thunderbolt Display, a Samsung monitor, and a Mac Pro. That one hit, too. So he made more. And more.

Over time, Tse says, he changed his desk for new setup videos so many times it started to drive him crazy. But his viewers’ appetite for setup videos only grew as his channel did — Tse currently has about 778,000 subscribers. So he started offering to overhaul other people’s desks if they’d let him film it for the channel. His ambition grew past desks, too: Tse started buying apartments, renovating them to use as Airbnbs, and documenting the process on his channel. “My desk setup is pretty simple now,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes I’ll do someone else’s desk, and I actually like it more than my own.”

Matthew Encina, another creator who has been doing desk setups for years, started in much the same way. He started working from home more often in 2018 or so, and his home office was… not great. “It was just a mess,” he says. “We used it as a storage closet.” When his wife suggested he take the space over and actually turn it into an office, Encina — a creative director and producer by trade — took to the idea. “I started going through Pinterest, seeing a bunch of aspirational offices,” he says. He didn’t lean toward the RGBs and gamer rigs but more toward the interior designers, like Becki and Chris, that he’d found on YouTube. “So for about two and a half months, I was working on it nights and weekends, and I documented the whole thing. How I thought about the space, the things I considered, the things I ended up putting in, how I arranged things based on my use of it, the process, everything.”

Encina’s video, which he titled “DIY Home Office and Desk Tour,” went live while he was on vacation in January of 2019 and took off almost immediately. “I think in the first week, it had, like, 10,000 views… and by the end of that month, it was over 100,000.” For the third-ever video on his channel, that counted as a smashing success.

But the video really took off a little over a year later, when the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone was in need of a nicer home office and desk setup. Encina popped into his YouTube account and tweaked the title of that video, renaming it to “DIY Home Office and Desk Tour — Work From Home Setup.” YouTube, after all, is the world’s second-largest search engine, and “work from home” searches were spiking. Almost immediately, Encina says, the daily views on his video doubled. Now it has 9.2 million views and is the most popular thing on Encina’s channel. (In second place? “Work From Home Office — Workspace + Desk Setup Tour 2020.”)

DeskTube (I will make this name happen) wasn’t invented by the pandemic, but it definitely took off as a result. Nearly every creator I spoke to said they’ve seen huge growth the last couple of years, much of it driven by their setup and WFH videos. New creators joined the space, too, often starting by documenting their own home workspace upgrades. “I’ve had a few different phases of my home office,” says Brian Wandera, whose YouTube channel is called The Value Space. “And I think the biggest catalyst was the lockdown — I just thought to myself, I need to start YouTube.”

The perfect home office

My own YouTube watch history tells me that Encina’s video was the first one I saw in my DeskTube exploration. I’ve been watching this style of video for years, from Jonathan Morrison’s Dream Desk series to Marques Brownlee’s ever-evolving setup tours to Sara Dietschy’s New York City Apartment Tours, but Encina’s video was the first one that I treated like a shopping list. I bought the Ikea pegboard he showed off; I rearranged all my cables to suit his aesthetic. To polish up my desk, I even bought some danish oil — which is still sitting unopened in my basement somewhere.

Millions of other viewers have sought out these videos for similarly practical reasons. In the best versions, YouTubers curate and test gear and show off how it looks inside real-life spaces. Then they tell you what to buy and how to put it all together. Many put purchasing links in the video description, often with affiliate links, for everything that appears on-screen. The creators I spoke with say they’re constantly trolling Reddit and Pinterest looking for inspiration and are always trying to check out new gear to see if there’s something better out there for people.

But there’s something more to these videos than the practical advice. In a time of life dominated by doomscrolling, social media chaos, and technology that seems more invasive and problematic than ever, DeskTube seems to offer a more organized, cozier, more proactive digital life. I’ve even found myself watching DeskTube videos as background noise while I do other things because, like watching a home-renovation show or the new season of Queer Eye, there’s just something comforting about watching a transformation. It’s nice to feel like things can get better if I just paint this, move that over there, and buy one of these. And given how much time we spend sitting in front of a computer, why shouldn’t that get as much attention as the kitchen or the bedroom?

Spend enough time watching these videos, though, and they can all start to blur together. There is an undeniable sameness to many of them as if all of the internet decided on a single Perfect Home Office and ran with it. The Perfect Home Office has dark walls covered in art and pegboards and a dramatic lamp for light. It has a couple of plants and a natural wood sit-stand desk. It has Apple products — lots and lots of Apple products. It has a headphone stand, probably made by Grovemade, and a keyboard and mouse, probably made by Logitech. (There’s also a decent chance Logitech sponsored the video.) If the person you’re watching cares about audio, I bet they have those white AudioEngine A2 Plus speakers.

Part of the reason for the sameness is that some questions have right answers. “The Logitech MX Master is just the best mouse,” Tse says, “so it’s the one I’m going to recommend.” But the platform itself also complicates matters: you can build and film a space that works for you, but it’s only good content if it also works for the algorithm and the audience. Tse, for instance, also runs the popular iSetups Instagram account, and the daily posting of workspace photos provides him with a huge amount of data about what people like and don’t. “We know if people are interested in oak or walnut,” he says, “and if they like dark walls or white walls.” Right now? Dark walls get more engagement, so Tse’s rooms mostly get dark walls. White might come back, he says, but “it’s pretty much dark or white — we haven’t really branched out beyond that.”

As sponsors continue to leap into the space, things get even trickier. YouTube is a gadget marketer’s dream: a place people come for explicit recommendations, in a format where you can casually drop your product as if it’s not bought and paid for. Most creators are good about naming their sponsor, but it’s still seamless advertising. Plus, given that most creators use affiliate links and get a cut of everything I buy, it’s hard to know: am I getting the best thing or the thing you’re paid to promote or the thing that’ll make you the most when I buy it?

The one-upmanship on DeskTube never ends. It can’t, really; how do you make a video after the one that says “I figured out my home office” without once again reorganizing and upgrading your home office? The monitors get higher-res; the desk accessories get fancier; the smart lights get more complex. The urge to always be upgrading can be exhausting, both for viewers and creators.

A number of creators I spoke to are trying to figure out how to branch out. Many creators are going into interior design, treating home offices as more than just a desk and a monitor. “I don’t want to be just, like, a desk setup guy,” says Jon Imperial, an architect and longtime DeskTuber. “A lot of my thing is emphasizing the whole space in general and the usage of it because, yeah, it could look good on the camera, but I want it to look good even without the cameras rolling.”

Others are diving into DIY, helping people save money by teaching them to upcycle an old desk or turn a closet into a well-organized charging system or build a whole tiny office in your backyard. Imperial has even made videos teaching people how to design their space with modeling software — though the most recent one didn’t do very well, which he’s bummed about. Tse’s Setup Makeover series and his full apartment renovations have inspired a number of others who are either looking for their own apartments to fix up or hunting for friends and family in need of a glow-up. “I want to choose a person that may be starting a business, that’s a programmer or video editor or account,” says Andres Vidoza, whose Dream Desk Setup video from 2020 helped his channel grow from 5,000 to 182,000 subscribers in the last two years. “And then eventually, what we would like to do in the long run is renovate a full entire space.”

Vidoza also thinks the style of setup videos — which right now are full of long, slow-moving close-ups and bouncy music — will continue to evolve. He starts all of his videos with a “cinematic banger,” a 30-second montage of all the stuff he’s about to show set to epic music. It’s like Michael Bay directed your desk setup video, and there’s nothing remotely practical about it, but it’s delightful to watch. Creators are also starting to put themselves in their videos more, giving the audience a way to get to know both the desk and its occupant.

But the biggest thing the creators need, and the thing they’re all counting on, is new stuff to recommend. Two years into the work-from-home revolution, there’s more competition than ever on everything from desks to webcams to monitors to footrests, and that gives DeskTubers a new world of gadgets to test. It seems like everyone has recently made a video with LG’s funky new DualUp monitor, for instance, looking to see if this new big and tall screen can upgrade your WFH life. (These videos are mostly not directly sponsored content, but like many other companies, LG is clearly happy to send free gear to interested YouTubers looking for a video subject.) The desk accessory world is changing fast, too, with new brands and new kinds of products coming out; Encina even says he’s working on something with Grovemade, though he won’t say what it is.

But Encina’s theory is that the real next big thing on DeskTube is going to be a return to minimalism. “A lot of influencers are becoming the QVC, infomercial-type of spokesperson,” he says, “and it can get very cringey.” He admits to even occasionally crossing that line himself. And as the relentless need for more content makes setups get stranger and more complicated, “we’re getting to the point of overdoing it.” Encina’s moving offices soon — and, of course, he’ll document it for the channel — and plans to make his new space much simpler than his current one. “I think it’ll be a refreshing counterbalance to all of the building of these massive, intricate, heavy-duty, wall-to-wall spaces.” It’ll be good for Encina’s brain, he thinks, and good for the algorithm. “If you see something minimal and simple and thoughtful, I think that’s an area where it can stand out.”

Personally, I haven’t made a change to my office setup in months. My setup isn’t perfect — there’s a giant pile of papers I don’t know what to do with, I can’t seem to keep my cables properly organized, and I’ve killed every living plant I’ve brought into the room — but it works perfectly well. And yet just about every day, I find myself logging on and clicking on another Dream Desk or Setup Tour or 12 Desk Accessories to Improve Your WFH Setup video. Because you never know: maybe the secret to productivity, peace, and happiness is one accessory away. And if not, I’ll at least have a place to put my headphones.

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