Some videos show one container being filled over and over, while others show an entire kitchen being restocked from scratch. But most videos tend to follow a few cardinal rules. This is where things get a little weird.
The item being organized must have a perfectly sized corresponding container. If a box of soda cans is going to be moved to a refrigerator bin, that bin should be completely full once the box is empty. It’s best to have an even number of items. Ideally, the container will fit neatly into a larger space. (Think pantry, refrigerator or closet.) If the fit isn’t perfect, it could ignite the ire of commenters. And perhaps most importantly, everything must be sparkling clean. No fingerprints, watermarks or smudges allowed, and certainly no clutter. God help you if something spills. Finally, the sound effects should be loud and crisp, as if the viewer were in the room.
If this is sounding a little maniacal, or even faintly erotic, that’s because it kind of is. These TikTok clips, along with YouTube videos and Tumblr threads dedicated to “things fitting perfectly into other things,” are part of the Internet phenomenon of material devoted to ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. This is a relaxing, tingling sensation that some people experience while watching — or listening to — certain audio and video content.
Some of the most famous ASMR videos are of people whispering, but household tasks are a close second: stacking toilet paper, folding towels, scrubbing the refrigerator, etc. The effect can be sensual, and even sleep-inducing, but it’s often simply relaxing — providing a satisfying sense of order in an increasingly chaotic world.
In July, the trend had become so popular that TikTok addressed it on its website, describing the videos as a certain kind of motivational, meditative entertainment that offers “an aspirational contrast to our own personal methods of organization.” There are parallels to the vicarious way we watch beauty makeovers or home-renovation shows in which daunting, arduous tasks are quickly completed and tied up in a pretty bow. Posts under the #restock hashtag have amassed more than 8 billion views, while some of TikTok’s most famous re-stockers, such as Catherine Benson and Kaeli Mae, have upward of 9 million and 8 million followers, respectively.
Kellie Atkinson got sucked into home-organizing shows when she and her family were stuck inside for months during the pandemic. “I became obsessed with [Netflix’s] ‘The Home Edit,’ ” she said. She followed the hosts on Instagram, where they post before-and-after videos of freshly tidied spaces, then she began watching people organize on TikTok.
Last spring, Atkinson, 32, who lives in Hillsboro, Tex., with her husband and two children, bought a new refrigerator and decided to make her own organizing video. She went to the Container Store, bought a bunch of the Home Edit’s products, and cobbled together a video on her account, @kellie_atkinson. Soon, she was posting a couple of times a week. Four months later, she was making enough money from brand and retailer partnerships to support her family.
“My husband is really happy,” she said. “He had a job where he was on the road all day, and now he gets to spend time with his kids at home.”
Many creators don’t experience ASMR, but they are well-attuned to the specific stimulation preferences of organization-obsessed viewers. Tawnya Martin, 40, whose account, @tiktoktawnya, has more than 570,000 followers, specializes in restocks and refill videos. After a year or so of posting, she has learned a few tricks: Perform the restocks one-handed to avoid blocking the shot; only buy containers that make “popping” noises when you open them; and wait until your toddler is napping, so there’s no external noise. “Audio is huge in ASMR,” she said.
She’s noticed that her videos won’t go viral unless the container is being filled perfectly to the brim. “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true,” she said.
Atkinson, who now has 3.3 million followers, says her process is similarly idiosyncratic. “Not only do the containers need to be completely cleaned and polished, but whatever is going in them needs to be cleaned and polished,” she said. “Or you’ll hear about it.” The brighter and more colorful things look, the better — “like candy.” She shoots the videos on her phone in 50 or so short clips, filters them to make them look crisp and clear, then speeds up each one. “People like these videos to move,” she said.
There’s a certain amount of strategy involved, too. Atkinson knows that TikTok rewards engagement, so she tries to think of concepts that will start a conversation. One time, she posted a video of herself organizing avocados and tomatoes in her refrigerator bin labeled “fruit.” It sparked a heated debate in the comments about whether they were actually vegetables, and whether they even belonged in the refrigerator. The next week, she did the same thing with a bin labeled “vegetables.” “I was fully aware that it was fruit, but I wanted to see what would happen,” she said. That clip now has more than 50 million views. The debate in the comments section rages on.
Videos that feature unusual kitchen gadgets are also more likely to go viral, spurring users to ask where they can buy them in the comments. (Some TikTok creators have basic websites or Amazon stores where they link to products and offer discount codes.) Viewers also seem to enjoy unlikely pairings between item and container, such as sprinkles in a honey jar. “The comments light up with people saying, ‘Oh, put this in it! Put that in it!’ ” Atkinson said. “It becomes this talking point, and people get really excited.”
Most comments are about how relaxing and satisfying it is to watch a task be completed. “They feel a sense of accomplishment without having to actually do anything,” Martin said. “You’re kind of checking a box for them.”
Martin, a stay-at-home mom of two who lives just outside Seattle, is laid-back about her place in the TikTok creator-sphere. “Honestly, ASMR doesn’t do anything for me the way it does for other people,” she said. “I just do these videos because other people like them, and they’re quick.”
She makes money from paid ads and occasional song promotion (she’ll use it as a soundtrack on a refill video), as well as from sporadic payouts from TikTok’s Creator Fund, which she said is “nice but very unpredictable.” If her account becomes lucrative enough that she can afford to continue staying at home, she’ll consider taking it more seriously. “For now, I just think it’s hilarious,” she said. “People get mad at you for anything on the Internet, so you have to laugh.”
Martin recalled a recent video where she poured a jar of pickles into an airtight plastic container, then moved so quickly that a few pickles fell onto her counter. “People were offended,” she said. “They thought I did it on purpose for views, they accused me of being unsanitary, it was off the rails. … So you have to have fun with it. That’s the only way to approach this space where millions of strangers will either tell you they love you or freak out at you for spilling pickles.”
Megan Buerger is a freelance writer in New York.